“The eastern world, it is explodin’
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’”
I recently read a story in The New York Times by Sebastian Junger entitled “Why Would Any Soldier Miss War.” Junger spent time with a platoon of Army infantry at a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan several years ago. After the deployment he was surprised that only one of the soldiers chose to leave the military at the end of his contract. As he recounts the experience, many others re-upped and eventually went on to fight for another year in the same area. One soldier did not stay in the military, though, and struggled to fit into civilian life back home.
At one time a woman asked this former soldier if he missed anything at all about life at the outpost–a good question, Junger says, since the platoon had endured a year without running water or hot food and had been in more combat than almost any platoon in the United States military. By any measure it was hell, but the former soldier didn’t hesitate: “Ma’am,” he said, “I miss almost all of it.”
In the words of Junger: “Civilians are often confused, if not appalled, by that answer. The idea that a psychologically healthy person could miss war seems an affront to the idea that war is evil. Combat is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but a fully human reaction is far more complex than that. If we civilians don’t understand that complexity, we won’t do a very good job of bringing these people home and making a place for them in our society.”
As Junger continued, “My understanding of that truth came partly from my own time in Afghanistan and partly from my conversations with a Vietnam veteran named Karl Marlantes, who wrote about his experiences in a devastating novel called ‘Matterhorn.’ Some time after I met Karl, a woman asked me why soldiers ‘compartmentalize’ the experience of war, and I answered as I imagined Karl might have: because society does. We avoid any direct look at the reality of war. And both sides of the political spectrum indulge in this–liberals tend to be scandalized that war can be tremendously alluring to young men, and conservatives rarely acknowledge that war kills far more innocent people than guilty ones. Soldiers understand both of these things but don’t know how to talk about them when met with blank stares from friends and family back home.”
When discussing this article with a few friends, I mentioned that I believe some of the hardest fighters for peace are those who have seen war up close. I then quoted from the WWI poet Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et decorum est,” to portray the reality of war rather than the patriotic sentiment that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
At this point, a friend stated that he did not fully share my opinion, since there are many people actively fighting for peace in this country but the peace organizations get no press and little public interest. He went on to say that the average consumer of news is mostly interested in the latest military conflicts going on in the world and how our military is engaged in it.
He stated emphatically that although the “peace through military strength” course has always been somewhat the majority belief, it has steadily grown over the past few decades in direct proportion as the military-industrial complex in this country has gained more and more control of the news and public opinion. Retired military officers and military op-ed experts sanctioned by the Pentagon write numerous “authoritative” articles for the media and appear as talking heads on many of the news programs. Whereas at the time of WWI and WWII, there were many in this country who questioned the justification for a strong military, not many citizens now challenge the need.
He went on to say that the general public simply no longer thinks in terms of alternatives to military engagement. So many of us still buy into the belief, even if we are reluctant to admit it, that it is the obligation of the US military to resolve the conflicts throughout the world with a show of might or actual engagement. In the view of some, it is America’s time (and obligation) to shape the world. Even as frustrated as people have become with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they see no alternatives but to keep boots on the ground.
He concluded by wondering what might have been accomplished had we but spent a fraction of the cost of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan by helping to build schools and hospitals as well as provide much needed humanitarian aid. At the least, perhaps our country today would be held in higher esteem rather than despised.
So, according to him, when we turn on the evening news and see what “they” want us to see (it’s not just Fox news that is filtering the news), we so often are reduced to shrugging our shoulders helplessly. He concluded by saying he is no exception but that he keeps turning it on hoping to hear something positive.
I really think we have no argument. I also believe we have overstepped our bounds and become an overly militaristic nation. As a Vietnam veteran, nothing disgusts me more than to listen to those who have never been in harm’s way, let alone ever even donned a boy scout’s uniform, advocate any number of military approaches to “solve” problems.
At the same time, the world is a dangerous place and it is naive to think that words alone can keep those who are determined to do us wrong at bay.
But as he said, we’ve been way out of balance for a long time. Andrew Bacevich, the former Army officer turned professor of international relations and advocate for recognizing the limits of power, has said all this far more eloquently than I.
Bacevich has been in the crosshairs and knows up close and personal the painful costs of war in terms of human lives lost and forever changed as well as untold opportunities vanished for lack of vital funding as the national treasury is looted and fed to the dogs of war.
It’s of great curiosity to me that “my war” seemed to change the American psyche, at least temporarily, and direct it more toward peace. All that hopefulness seems so long ago now. As we all know, it is easier than we sometimes admit to whip up the fervor for war. Take yourself back to the early days of the Iraq war when the majority of people got worked into a lather during the build-up and the actual early fighting. Dissenters were there but their voices were either marginalized or not heard over the noise.
So, in quoting Wilfred Owen on the futility and horror of war, all I was saying was that old soldiers seldom die with their boots on. But young ones do and all the time. They are the ones who do not have the perspective, experience and perhaps education to suspect all the gibberish that is churned up in favor of sword play. In simple terms, they often have far more bravado than sense coursing through their blood to resist the call.
I somewhat comprehend but do not fully understand the mind set of so many of today’s young warriors. As in most wars, the soldier in Junger’s article, like so many soldiers, legitimately feels his first obligation is to his buddies and not to anyone much further up the chain of command. And rightly so, since they are the ones who will die or be maimed to protect you. These are mostly young men and women who truly believe they are the front line between the relatively safe lives the rest of us enjoy and the killing fields that would engulf us.
Not that that sentiment is necessarily completely true or false, but they are the ones who bear the bloody brunt of most of the foolish decisions that our leaders make.
But they and we are all complicit in their engagement. As the lines of the ancient anti-war song, The Universal Soldier, go:
He’a a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain,
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew.
And he knows he shouldn’t kill,
And he knows he always will,
Kill you for me my friend and me for you.
And he’s fighting for Canada,
He’s fighting for France,
He’s fighting for the USA,
And he’s fighting for the Russians,
And he’s fighting for Japan,
And he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way.
And he’s fighting for Democracy,
He’s fighting for the Reds,
He says it’s for the peace of all.
He’s the one who must decide,
Who’s to live and who’s to die,
And he never sees the writing on the wall.
But without him,
How would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone,
He’s the one who gives his body
As a weapon of the war,
And without him all this killing can’t go on.
He’s the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame,
His orders come from far away no more,
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brothers can’t you see,
This is not the way we put the end to war.
In the end, I guess I’m still conflicted. My heart breaks to see their faces on The News Hour a couple of times a week, smiling back although now dead and buried for reasons that I do not really know. And some are young enough to have been my grandsons or granddaughters.
Where have all the flowers gone…
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