As the drums of war sound ever louder for some kind of attack against Syria, apparently because the President mentioned a “red line” when it comes to chemical weapons, I’m left staring in despair at my black rock and white tank.
And so the following ditty popped into my head:
The rock is black
The tank is white
Together we learn to hit and fight
It’s not a beautiful sight …
(Some of you may recall the real lyrics here: The ink is black/the page is white/together we learn to read and write.)
It’s amazing to think that we may yet again be attacking a country in the name of maintaining America’s “credibility.” Apparently, when the President draws a red line, he has to enforce any violation of it, else he and his fellow countrymen will be seen as weak and impotent. Even before the President launches the cruise missiles, he’s already under attack by more rabid souls like Senator John McCain for not being tough enough, meaning he won’t kill enough people and he won’t destroy enough Syrian military and governmental facilities. In the name of what exactly? Showing American resolve?
When you think about it, drawing a red line and telling the enemy you’ll hit him if he crosses it leaves the initiative totally in his hands. He can decide if and when the time is propitious to cross that line, forcing you to put up or shut up.
Well, no American in government can shut up, so off go the missiles to show we’re not to be messed with.
Together we learn to hit and fight … it’s not a beautiful sight.
The Obama administration’s outrage over the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government smacks of hypocrisy. We might recall that the U.S. refuses to become a signatory to a ban on cluster munitions, which are particularly dangerous to civilians and children in the days and weeks following their deployment. Or that the U.S. remains by far the leading weapons dealer in the world today, accounting for more than half of the world’s trade in arms. Or that the U.S. has been profligate in its use of firepower (including depleted uraniumshells) in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Given these facts, and especially the profits we make from dominating the world’s arms trade, there is something quite morally obtuse about our nation’s posturing about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria as a cause for war.
The outrage against chemical weapons stems from World War I, when western nations were at pains to kill or wound one another by chlorine gas, mustard gas, phosgene gas, and similar chemical agents. More than a million casualties of World War I were chemical casualties. Western nations who had found plenty of excuses to gas each other during the war came together after the war to ban them. And rightly so.
But then again, why not ban all chemical weapons? Just think of the massive quantities of napalm (chemical incendiary), Agent Orange (chemical defoliant), and high explosive (yes, more deadly chemicals) we rained down on the Vietnamese in the 1960s and early 1970s. Heck, bullets are propelled by a chemical reaction. Let’s ban all these too.
And if we do that, then maybe, just maybe, our nation will have the moral authority to act outraged in cases like that of Syria today.
The death on July 29 of retired Army general and professor Douglas Kinnard at the age of 91 reminded me of the vital quality of integrity and truth-telling, especially in life-and-death military settings. A fast-rising general who became critical of America’s path in Indochina in the late 1960s, Kinnard retired from the military and wrote The War Managers (1977), a probing and fascinating survey of what he and his fellow general officers thought about the Vietnam War and America’s efforts to win it.
The general officers who answered Kinnard’s survey in The War Managers give the lie to the so-called Rambo myth, the idea that the American military could and should have won the Vietnam War, but were prevented from doing so by meddling civilians, mendacious media, and malicious hippie war resisters.
The survey results bear this out. For example, Kinnard notes that “almost 70 percent of the Army generals who managed the war were uncertain of its objectives.” (25) One general wrote that “Objectives lost meaning and were modified to justify events.” Another wrote that “The U.S. was committed to a military solution, without a firm military objective–the policy was attrition–killing VC–this offered no solution–it was senseless.”
Along with unclear or swiftly changing objectives, the Army employed large units and massive firepower that tore up the land and produced millions of casualties. This “search and destroy” approach of General William Westmoreland was termed “not sound” by one-third of the generals surveyed, with a further quarter saying it was “sound when first implemented–not later.”
Kinnard himself had direct experience with the Army’s reliance on costly and counterproductive firepower, specifically harassment and interdiction (H and I) by artillery. In a note on page 47, he writes:
“In May 1969 I returned to Vietnam as Commanding General of II Field Force Artillery. On my second day in the country I asked to have the intelligence targets plotted on my map. Afterward, I asked to see the person who selected the targets, together with the data on which he based his selections. A 1st Lieutenant appeared with a coordinate square; inspecting a map, he selected, at random, points in the areas where nighttime firing was authorized, and then measured off the coordinates for firing. This had been the method of choosing intelligence targets in that zone for the preceding several months.”
In other words, U.S. forces were firing blindly into the jungle.
Most seriously of all, a ticket-punching culture in which officers rotated in and out of command every six months,* together with pressure from the top to inflate “body count” of the enemy, led to severe erosion of integrity in the U.S. Army. Nearly two-thirds of the generals admitted that enemy body count was “often inflated,” with the following comments made by individual generals:
“The immensity of the false reporting is a blot on the honor of the Army.”
“I shudder to think how many of our soldiers were killed on a body-counting mission–what a waste.”
“I had one Division Commander whose reports I never believed or trusted.”
“Many commanders resorted to false reports to prevent their own relief.” (All quotes on page 75)
Along with inflated and dishonest body counts that compromised integrity was the failure to admit that Vietnamization was fatally flawed. As Kinnard put it, “How could an army or a government so grossly corrupt [as those of South Vietnam], even in a country where corruption is expected, summon the enthusiastic support of its soldiers or its people? There was no way to do so, as successive American advisers [to South Vietnam] discovered.” (84)
Several generals noted that the heavy-handed, can-do-right-now, approach of the American military to Vietnamization was fundamentally at odds with Vietnamese culture. Two quotations illustrate this point:
“We erroneously tried to impose the American system on a people who didn’t want it, couldn’t handle it and may lose because they tried it.” (Written before the fall of Saigon in April 1975.)
“In this, as in all our foreign wars, we never really established rapport [with the Vietnamese]. This was largely due to our overinflated hypnosis with the myth that the American way–in economics, politics, sociology, manners, morals, military equipment, methodology, organization, tactics, etc.–is automatically and unchallengeably the best (really the only) way to do things. This failure may well be the area of greatest weakness for the future of American arms.” (92)
As President Obama and his advisers meet today to discuss Syria, they should keep that lesson in mind, as well as Kinnard’s reminder that clear objectives are vital to the success of any military operation. Even better, they should all be required to read (and re-read) Kinnard’s book, and to reflect on his wisdom.
Let’s leave the last word to Kinnard. Before committing American forces to combat in the future, Kinnard wrote that “The situation itself must be one in which American interests are clearly at stake in a way that can be made understandable to the public … An important corollary is the need for truthfulness in dealing with the public. From the president all the way to the field units, the practice of letting the facts speak for themselves is the best hope. In the Vietnam War there was too much tricky optimism from LBJ [President Johnson] on down. Furthermore, there was too much concealing of the implications of half-announced decisions.” (166-67)
Unclear objectives, compromised integrity, indiscriminate firepower, cultural blindness, “tricky” optimism, concealing the realities of the war from the American people: all of these reasons, and more, contributed to the disaster of Vietnam. The sad truth is that we still haven’t fully learned the lessons of Kinnard’s honest, no-holds-barred, after action report that is “The War Managers.”
*With respect to ticket-punching and command rotation, Kinnard recalled that “Those of us who had our own command positions in Vietnam were required to attend changes of command ceremonies for others almost weekly. In time, this became about as interesting as attending the baptism of an infant of distant friends.” (111)
Frederic Remington understood the color of night, and he also understood something of the uniqueness of the Native Americans he painted. This lesson was brought home to me by David Heidler, a good friend and a leading historian of American history. Visiting an exhibition of Remington’s nocturnes, Heidler had this to say about how these paintings moved him:
[Remington’s works] reminded [me] of something easily forgotten by the sanitized depictions of Indians inflicted on our own times. Remington was able to portray them as obviously aboriginal while preserving their stoicism and majesty. Hollywood Indians, whether in Kevin Costner’s wolf-waltzing epic or the Mohican picture featuring the terminally taciturn Daniel Day Lewis as foil for the grumpily taciturn Russell Means, are simply European ethnics festooned in feathers and possessed of nifty woodcraft.
Remington’s Indians, though, are people so alien that one instantly recognizes them as part of another world uneasily coming to terms with an encroaching one. His “Apache Scouts, Listening” perfectly captures the odd division between the near-feral instincts of the scouts and the tentativeness of their army employers. The several Apaches are in various postures, mainly ones of repose, but their necks are elongated, their broad faces frozen with concentration and all directed just beyond the viewer; the two army officers sit on horses in the background, their hands cupping their ears in an effort to hear that the Apaches obviously can detect with ease. It is night and winter, and a full moon illuminates the scene with jarring clarity, the light ambient from the heavy snow on the ground.
I could still be standing there watching it if allowed to.
Few Hollywood movies that I’ve seen capture the distinctiveness and uniqueness of Native Americans on their terms. Our movies are mitigated (or polluted) by the Western gaze, tending to portray Indians as either “savages” or mystical proto-environmentalists/Zen gurus. We see what we want to see, not what is.
Back in the bad old days of John Wayne westerns, Indians were typically portrayed as savages who deserved to be extirpated or shunted on to reservations where they could be “civilized.” Nowadays, the “magical” Indian is more common, a noble brave and guru to the White man who highlights the White man’s materialism, prejudice, and violence.
Although it’s not a perfect movie (it has its own political agenda), “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman and Chief Dan George captures at least some of the distinctiveness of Indians, at least for me. The decision to allow the Indians to speak fluently in English (when it’s meant to be Cheyenne) helps to bridge the gap of understanding (no Pidgin English as in old westerns, and no distracting subtitles as in the sanctimonious “Dances with Wolves”).
The depiction of Native Americans in LBM is neither universally positive nor negative. The brutality of Indians is shown in the opening scene of carnage in the aftermath of an attack on White settlers. The Cheyenne encampment is described in humorous terms (from my memory): “When first entering an Indian camp, one might be excused from thinking, I’ve seen the dump. Where’s the camp?” It’s an amusing reminder that standards of cleanliness for Plains Indians differed from White town folk. The Cheyenne also eat boiled dog, which the narrator (Hoffman) describes as downright delicate in taste (I doubt that scene would survive Humane Society inspection today).
But for me the most harrowing scene is Chief Dan George’s masterful speech as he holds a scalp. He explains how the Indians (the “human beings”) believe everything is alive but the White man believes everything is dead. It captures the animism of the Indians and their connection to nature while highlighting the instrumentalism and ruthlessness of (some) Whites.
The gulf in understanding between our peoples only exacerbated the wars over turf. And the Indians sensed, as Chief Dan George says in the movie, that they were on the losing side of the demographics (an endless supply of White men, but a limited number of Human Beings, notes Chief Dan George).
But watch “Little Big Man” for yourself and draw your own conclusions. Even better, take a close look at Remington’s nocturnes. Try to place yourself in the paintings as my friend David Heidler so powerfully did. Such a vivid exercise in imaginative exploration — using Remington’s work as a time machine that transports you to a different world among a people who are far more diverse and complicated and alien than Hollywood has ever managed to capture — is both transfixing and transformative. And fun!
Author’s note: I’d like to thank David Heidler for his permission to cite and share his personal (and moving) reaction to Remington.
“[W]ar is a distressing, ghastly, harrowing, horrific, fearsome and deplorable business. How can its actual awfulness be described to anyone?” Stuart Hills, By Tank Into Normandy, p. 244
“[E]very generation is doomed to fight its war, to endure the same old experiences, suffer the loss of the same old illusions, and learn the same old lessons on its own.” Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War, p. 81
The persistence of war is a remarkable thing. Two of the better books about war and its persistence are J. Glenn Gray’s “The Warriors” and Chris Hedges “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.” Hedges, for example, writes about “the plague of nationalism,” our willingness to subsume our own identities in the service of an abstract “state” as well as our eagerness to serve that state by killing “them,” some “other” group that the state has vilified.
In warning us about the perils of nationalism, Hedges quotes Primo Levi’s words: “I cannot tolerate the fact that a man should be judged not for what he is but because of the group to which he belongs.” Levi’s lack of tolerance stems from the hardest of personal experiences: surviving Auschwitz as an Italian Jew during the Holocaust.
Gray takes this analysis in a different direction when he notes that those who most eagerly and bloodthirstily denounce “them,” the enemy, are typically far behind the battle lines or even safely at home. The troops who fight on the front lines more commonly feel a sort of grudging respect for the enemy, even a sense of kinship that comes with sharing danger in common.
Part of the persistence of war, in other words, stems from the ignorant passions of those who most eagerly seek it and trumpet its heroic wonders even as they stand (and strive to remain) safely on the sidelines.
Both Hedges and Gray also speak to the dangerous allure of war, its spectacle, its excitement, its awesomeness. Even the most visceral and “realistic” war films, like the first thirty minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” represent war as a dramatic spectacle. War films tend to glamorize combat (think of “Apocalypse Now,” for example), which is why they do so little to put an end to war.
One of the best films to capture the dangerous allure of war to youth is “Taps.” I recall seeing it in 1981 at the impressionable age of eighteen. There’s a tiny gem of a scene near the end of the film when the gung ho honor guard commander, played by Tom Cruise before he was TOM CRUISE, mans a machine gun. He’s firing against American troops sent to put down a revolt at a military academy, but Cruise’s character doesn’t care who he’s firing at. He’s caught in the rapture of destruction.
He shouts, “It’s beautiful, man. Beautiful.” And then he himself is shot dead.
This small scene with Cruise going wild with the machine gun captures the adrenaline rush, that berserker capacity latent in us, which acts as an accelerant to the flames of war.
War continues to fascinate us, excite us. It taps primal roots of power and fear and ecstasy all balled together. It masters us, hence its persistence.
If and when we master ourselves, perhaps then we’ll finally put an end to war.
I have a friend who speaks with great authority on life. Not only is he a topnotch historian, but he’s lived a life rooted to reality, a life in which he’s demonstrated great generosity of spirit.
He wrote recently to me about what he considers to be the acid test of a person’s worth. As he put it:
“The older I get, the less I care about someone’s beliefs, faith, convictions, and conclusions. What MATTERS is how they treat me and mine!”
Yes. As I wrote back to him, “Show me how you act, and I’ll tell you what you believe.”
When I’m conversing with someone, I couldn’t care less if they’re conservative or liberal, libertarian or green, Catholic or atheist. Those are really just labels or categories that conceal as much as they reveal. What matters is how a person acts. Do they listen? If they disagree (and I enjoy a good verbal joust), do they do so with a certain sense of civility? Just a touch of humility, a sense that, though they may be almost certain that they’re right, they’re willing to reserve a chance, however small, that they’re wrong?
Put differently, go ahead and tell me why you’re right and I’m wrong, without all the self-righteousness, and without wronging me in the process.
In a small way, I hope that’s what we’re up to here at The Contrary Perspective. Establishing a dialogue with people who may not share our specific beliefs, faith, convictions, and conclusions, and doing it in a way that treats our readers in a respectful way. A way that doesn’t wrong anyone even as we joust about what is right.
After all, the world would be a painfully boring place if we all agreed. Or if no one ever challenged us to examine (and re-examine) our beliefs.