Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Sentimentality of War

Having been caught in the Army trap myself, I would not want anyone to think I condemn soldiers, even those involved in an “illegal” or “ill-advised” war. However, the current liberal dictum, “Condemn the war, not the warrior” (taking a turn, I guess, on “We hate the sin, but not the sinner”) is not the whole picture, and should not be allowed to blur an important change in history, a major change in human thought called existentialism. Having just come from a live encounter with the military men and women who are resisting participation in the war in Iraq, and are paying a price for that brave choice, I have only praise for them, no condemnation.

But there must, in a warring world, be a broader view of history if any conflict is to be resolved -- above the tsunami wave in which all of us may sometimes find ourselves caught and tragically entangled, suffering “fate” – that is, a feeling that we are in circumstances beyond our control, conditions that must simply be endured until they run their course. In a broader vision of history, we have an existential responsibility to be as aware as possible in order to avoid, as much as possible, becoming the helpless and passive “victim of fate,” although, even with our best efforts, mistakes and wrong choices may trip us up.
Just so, the warrior is never just a warrior; he or she is not exempt from his or her individual existential responsibility for what he or she chooses or in whatever matters he or she passively allows others to choose for them. I have heard, but have not yet investigated to see if it is true, that those in the German military may choose not to participate in military actions that they feel are immoral or illegal.** Can it be true?

Whether given a legal choice or not, can we go backward historically and ignore that every human, even those in the military, has an existential choice? Buffy Ste.-Marie’s song, “Universal Soldier,” seems to have been suppressed (“his orders come from far away no more”) – a song that affirmed what we hoped would never be forgotten, the great principle of the Nuremberg Trials, that no-one can evade personal responsibility with “I was just following orders,” as if blind obedience is a virtue or a legal excuse.

Those resisting within the military show the power and integrity of their existential choice to resist, while caught so terribly in a tangle created by a population’s evasion of the responsibility of being as aware as possible about the way they vote, or of what they support with the power of public opinion, or of how aware they are of the toxic lies and obsfucations of the power-brokers.

At a time when the jingoist drum beat for the war in Iraq was at the full, I wrote the following, intending no cruel condemnation of anyone in particular, but simply tired of the blind roll of wave after wave of the way people avoid the existential obligation to be as knowledgeable and aware as possible, and so not hold themselves responsible for their own choices or failures to choose. I would like to have illustrated it with the widely published photo of an exhausted solider in Iraq that was called “The Marlboro Man,” but I suppose there is a copyright on that photo.


It is always too late to stop a war once it has started. And no one is ever wise early enough to remove the causes that lead to the next war’s beginning. And when it comes time to prevent a major catastrophe – like a genocide, all energy has already been wasted on some egoistic or jingoistic enterprise. This is the continuing story of the stupid human animal.

The politicians introduce the slogans for the new war, like the slogans for the sale of a new model of car, and everyone repeats the new jingles: Shock and Awe, Shock and Awe. All are afraid to appear less patriotic than their neighbor; everyone hangs out a flag; and each tries to sound more angry and more righteous than his neighbor. Any opposing voice will find no way to be heard – that is, if anyone were physically brave and sound enough in psyche to dare to speak after the war fever has been aroused in their fellow citizens.

It appears that it will always be this way. You cannot let an army just stand around. Why sharpen a knife and never use it?

Dreaded loneliness is banished for a time. Ah, the camaraderie in the military services and in the population that eggs them on – set to it by leaders who know how to manipulate the mob. Ah, the sentimental farewells and the auguished separations that are the very essence of romance. Then a taste of victory propels everyone forward. Yes, we were right – Charge on! Or the defeat that proves one can endure things stoically. Drowned in the din is the unpatriotic suggestion that, behind the scenes, there are many unromantic wounds, unsightly mutilations, that do not inspire like the heroic, flowing fall of soldiers in the polished marble on memorial monuments. Just the mincemeat and fresh hamburger of the field hospital. But at some point that too is conceived as a new sort of glory: the dead flesh mounts up, and the tough and bitter, slogging through it, are so existential, so modern: To fight without illusions and without a clear purpose is now considered especially brave (not stupid). Only the image matters, after all, in the picture book of history: the muddied face of the young soldier grown old overnight – the attractive air of world weariness – the release from personal ambition. Irritating content, such as doubt, is dead. All are hollow, willing instruments of the rich and powerful.

Silently and out of sight, the dead or the pitifully damaged, are slid back into their home country in the dark of night. Yet, slowly, the base of this surge of patriotism cracks; the blood seaps in and undermines the foundation. Still there is no mention of atrocities committed by disillusioned troops. To the end, everyone maintains a freize of innocence and a steadfast dedication to ignorance. Behold, the self-lobotomized! Something in them, in all of them—the soldiers who march to war, the politicians who send them, the news media that fans the fever, the sweethearts languid with longing—represents the child they were who built a wall of blocks only for the pleasure of knocking them down.

In the bloody, thorny nest of the broken heart, the people are peaceful for a while, the mad wild spirit of the beast defeated for a spell called peace – a time for sharpening the dulled knives and birthing and raising a new generation of killers, the people uneducating themselves again and again. Now is the time for the medals and the painting of corpses. A wry celebration follows. The grizzled veterans smile proudly and speak ruefully of the folly of war. (The defeated side, embittered, begins to plan its revenge.) Where are the soldiers, so trim in their uniforms? Some are bitter bullies now. Some, broken utterly, will join the homeless on the street. The wounded will wonder why no one cares to heal them. Some will seem hollow, distracted by the scenes of horror that fly around in their brains. Where are those who cheered them on their way to war? Where is that neat uniform, quintessence of the male made orderly and burnished bright? Ah, here it is, where it was left: a charred and tattered pile of bloody rags.

If you find this story stupid and tiresome, you are one of the unhappy “happy few” who have stumbled into wakefulness. How to pass the time now during this lifetime spent among blood-thirsty sleepwalkers?

[And, if not concerned about copyrights, this passage would end with the photos of the “Marlboro Man” after he had returned home from the war, and the recurring stories of how post stress symptoms were leading to the gradual disintegration of his life.]

**Bob Harmon says that the Uniform Code of Military Justice has provision for those who prove a reason why they should not serve, but I cannot find that provision. According to Ret. Col. Ann Myers – who served in the Army for 29 years, and served as a U.S. diplomat for 16 years, and finally resigned “in opposition to the war in Iraq" – those resisting military service in Iraq must assert that they are “refusing to obey an illegal order.” How likely is it that the military court they face will define the Iraq invasion as an illegal act?

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