We were sitting at the rented beach house one evening last week when my daughter, out of the blue, asks, “Dad, tell me about when you were in the military.”
“Ummm, no, how about I tell you about the hippie days, that was much more interesting.”
She kept pressing about the army. . . I kept himhawing around. My attempt to find a funny story or two fell short. I just wanted to change the subject.
At 72 I am so detached from the kid who loved the rush of jumping out of planes and blowing shit up that I find it all kinda embarrassing . . . and for a certainty I did nothing that I am particularly proud of.
Chris Hedges was a war correspondent for something like 15 years. He knows war like most never will and he defines it better than anybody I’ve ever read.
He wrote a book entitled War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning . . . the following is taken from this highly recommended read about the false glory and the bullshit of war.
Let me have a war, says I: It exceeds peace as far as day
Does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, full of vent.
Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy, mull’d deaf, sleepy,
Insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war is a
Destroyer of men.
(exerpt from Chapter Four)
The myth of war entices us with the allure of heroism. But the images of war handed to us, even when they are graphic, leave out the one essential element of war- fear. There is, until the actual moment of confrontation, no cost to imaginary glory. The visual and audio effects of films, the battlefield descriptions in books, make the experience appear real. In fact the experience is sterile. We are safe. We do not smell rotting flesh, hear the cries of agony, or see before us blood and entrails seeping out of bodies. We view, from a distance, the rush, the excitement, but feel none of the awful gut wrenching anxiety and humiliation that come with mortal danger. It takes the experience of fear and the chaos of battle, the deafening and disturbing noise, to wake us up, to make us realize that we are not who we imagined we were, that war as displayed by the entertainment industry might, in most cases, as well be ballet. But even with this I have seen soldiers in war try to recreate the fiction of war, especially when a television camera is around to record the attempted heroics. The result is usually pathetic.
The prospect of war is exciting. Many young men, schooled in the notion that war is the ultimate definition of manhood, that only in war will they be tested and proven, that they can discover their worth as human beings in battle, willingly join the great enterprise. The admiration of the crowd, the high-blown rhetoric, the chance to achieve the glory of the previous generation, the idea of nobility beckon us forward. And people, ironically, enjoy righteous indignation and an object upon which to unleash their anger. War usually starts with collective euphoria.
It is all the more startling that such fantasy is believed, given the impersonal slaughter of modern industrial warfare. I saw high explosives fired from huge distances in the Gulf war reduce battalions of Iraqis to scattered corpses. Iraqi soldiers were nothing more on the screens of sophisticated artillery pieces than little dots scurrying around like ants – that is, until they were blasted away. Bombers dumped tons of iron fragmentation bombs on them. Our tanks, which could outdistance their Soviet -built counterparts, blew iraqi armored units to a standstill. Helicopters hovered above units like angels of death in the sky. Here there was no pillage, no warlords, no collapse of unit discipline, but the cold and brutal efficiency of industrial warfare waged by well – trained and highly organized professional soldiers. It was a potent reminder why most European states and America live in such opulence and determine the fate of so many others. We equip and train the most efficient killers on the planet.
But even in the new age of warfare we cling to to the outdated notion of the single hero able to carry out daring feats of courage on the battlefield. Such heroism is about as relevant as mounting bayonet or cavalry charges. But peddling the myth of heroism is essential, maybe even more so now, to entice soldiers into war. Men in modern warefare are in service to technology. Many combat veterans never actually see the people they are firing at nor those firing at them, and this is true even in low – insurgencies.
To be sure, soldiers who kill innocents pay a tremendous personal emotional and spiritual price. But within the universe of total war, equipped with weapons that can kill hundreds or thousands of people in seconds, soldiers only have time to reflect later.
By then these soldiers often have been discarded, left as broken men in a civilian society that does not understand them and does not want to understand them.
The other day I went into a shoe store to buy a pair of running shoes. I found a pair of Reebok’s and bought them after I saw that they were made in Vietnam. All I could think was how I wanted to give some business to the people we were so stupid to start a war with in the first place. We sent 50 + thousand of our kids to their death over there . . . for what? Now we are friends and trading partners (something that Ho Chi Minh wanted in the first place) I STILL don’t get it . . .