Sunday, July 10, 2011

War Is...

This Week’s Pop Quiz

1. War is

a. Good
b. Bad
c. Kinda cool when the good guys win

2. An example of a “warrior” would be

a. A young Cheyenne brave on his way to raid a Pawnee encampment
b. Lieutenant William Calley of My Lai fame
c. An SS trooper marching into Poland in 1939

3. The experience of war

a. Brings out the best in men
b. Brings out the worst in men
c. Can give a combatant a uniquely exhilarating sense of being alive

I’m afraid I have no answers.

I recently finished The Forever War, Dexter Filkins’ firsthand account of his experiences in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. If I were to do an Amazon review, I’d give it four stars. On the positive side, it does vividly portray the experiences of combatants and civilians. On the negative side, I found his style of both writing and reading (I listened to the audiobook) a little too Hemingwayesque. Filkins seems to want to heighten the drama of his scenes by draining his voice of all expressiveness. The result is a reading that sounds almost phony in its “just the facts, Man” flattened monotone.

More serious than this were some comments in the conclusion. Filkins wrote that after returning from Iraq War combat zones, he found it impossible to talk to people who had not been there. I gathered that he was implying that his experiences gave him an understanding that others could never hope to achieve, and that this made his perspective somehow superior. I believe that part of him wanted to honor the men he had observed in combat, but, IMHO, to glorify the psychological transformation that combatants sometimes experience is misleading, even dangerously so.

I admit to being fascinated with war in my youth. I played endless games of Gettysburg and Tactics II with my friends in junior high school, and read avidly about the Civil War and World War II. These particular wars attracted my attention because they exemplified great moral clashes in which the good guys were at times on the ropes, but, through courage and perseverance, ultimately triumphed.

But having read scores of firsthand accounts of combat, and having heard accounts from men with combat experience, I’ve come to drastically revise my vision of war. It is still interesting, but it is also horrifying. I no longer see war as a clash of worthy opponents like a medieval jousting match; to me it’s more like the Black Plague – cruel, remorseless and beyond human control.

War as Colossus

(Believed to be by Goya)

Here’s the lens through which I now view war: Think of all the guys you knew in high school. Now, arm them with guns and turn them loose in a faraway country where they don’t speak the local language and where they know they can dominate any civilians they encounter. What will be the result?

If your high school is anything like mine was, this is a frightening prospect. Most guys can be expected to behave themselves under these circumstances, but then there is that minority who will take advantage of their new-found power. If only 5% are bad apples, this will mean that for every 100,000 men we deploy, about 5,000 of them can be expected to take advantage of opportunities to rape, steal and needlessly kill.

This is one of the many things I find wrong with the word “warrior.” “Warrior” carries far too many good and glorious connotations about the real nature of war, which is brutal, destructive and often grossly unjust.


The Third of May 1808

War also damages many of its participants psychologically (not to mention physically). In 2004 I traveled to Vietnam with a group that included several veterans who were hoping to benefit from the counseling services our group provided. I heard many unforgettable stories on that trip, but the one I remember best was told to me by Bill, a former Marine. Bill still felt dreadful, 35 years after the fact, for having tripped a booby-trap that exploded and killed his buddy. Bill was on his second tour with the group.

Naturally, I don’t want to denigrate the men who put their lives on the line for the rest of us. I can’t help but admire their courage. But I also think it’s frighteningly dangerous for us to imagine that armed eighteen- to twenty-year-olds make effective cross-cultural communicators or ambassadors of good will.

In Afghanistan, for example, every year that our armed forces spend there makes us less popular with the locals. President Obama made a mistake in sending additional troops there. Trying to separate the Taliban from the local Pashtuns would be like the British trying to separate the colonial militia of Lexington and Concord from their fellow Americans. And, when things are finally seen as going badly in Afghanistan, the military will inevitably try to blame Obama for bringing the troops home too soon. But he’s not. He’s bringing them home too late.

In sum, I believe we will be a better country if we

- drastically reduce our military spending

- end our deployments in wars of choice

- require that the power to declare war lies entirely with Congress
(as it used to)

- require any president seeking a declaration of war to emphasize, in a nationally televised speech, that war entails the killing of civilians, including children, as well as psychological trauma for many combatants

Then, maybe, we’ll be able to get our heads on straight about what war really is, and, in the bargain, overcome our economic woes.


Massacre of the Innocents

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