One Grizzled Veteran’s Dream

W.J. Astore

Today I saw this bulletin from FP: Foreign Policy: 

OUTSIDE THE WIRE: Several years after pulling back, American troops will head outside the wire to battle the Taliban and turn up the air war, FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce report.

America’s wars never end.  So much for Armistice Day of 99 years ago.  In place of Woodrow Wilson’s eternal peace, we now have eternal war.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  We have a choice, as this article, that I wrote for Veterans Day in 2009, suggests.

Thirty years ago, I attended Boys State. Run by the American Legion, Boys State introduces high school students to civics and government in a climate that bears a passing resemblance to military basic training. Arranged in “companies,” we students did our share of hurrying up, lining up, and waiting (sound preparation, in fact, for my career in the military). I recall that one morning a “company” of students got to eat first because they launched into a lusty rendition of the Marine Corps hymn. I wasn’t angry at them: I was angry at myself for not thinking of the ruse first.

Today, most of my Boys State experience is a blur, but one event looms large: the remarks made by a grizzled veteran to us assembled boys. Standing humbly before us, he confessed that he hoped organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars would soon wither away. And he said that he hoped none of us would ever become a member of his post.

At first, we didn’t get it. Didn’t he like us? Weren’t we tough enough? (Indeed, I recall that one of our adolescent complaints was that the name “Boys State” didn’t seem manly enough.)

Then it dawned on us what the withering away of organizations like the American Legion and the VFW would mean. That in our future young Americans would no longer be fighting and dying in foreign wars. That our world would be both saner and safer, and only members of an “old guard” like this unnamed veteran would be able to swap true war stories. Our role would simply be to listen with unmeasured awe and undisguised thanks, grateful that our own sons and daughters no longer had to risk life or limb to enemy bullets and bombs.

It pains me that we as a country have allowed this veteran’s dream to die. We as a country continue to enlarge our military, expand our foreign commitments, and fight seemingly endless wars, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in other far-off realms of less-than-vital interest to us.

As a result of these wars, we continue to churn out so many new veterans, including so many wounded veterans, not forgetting those who never made it back.

Collectively, we Americans tend to suppress whatever doubts we have about the wisdom of our wars with unequivocal statements of support for our troops. And on days like Veteran’s Day, we honor those who served, and especially those who paid the ultimate price on the battlefield.

Yet, wouldn’t the best support for our troops be the achievement of the dream of that grizzled vet who cut through a young man’s fog thirty years ago?

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Shouldn’t we be working to achieve a new age in which the rosters of our local VFWs and Legion posts are no longer renewed with the broken bodies and shattered minds of American combat veterans?

Sadly, as we raise more troops and fight more wars, we seem committed to the opposite. Our military just enjoyed its best recruiting class in years. This “success” is not entirely surprising. It’s no longer that difficult to fill our military’s expanding ranks because many of our young men and women simply have little choice but to enlist, whether for economic opportunity, money for college, or benefits like free health care.

Many of course enlist for patriotic reasons as well. Yet the ease of expanding our military ranks during a shooting war is also a painful reminder of the impoverishment of opportunities for young, able-bodied Americans – the bitter fruit of manufacturing jobs sent overseas, of farming jobs eliminated by our own version of corporate collectivization, of a real national unemployment rate that is approaching twenty percent.

On this Veteran’s Day, what if we began to measure our national success and power, not by our military arsenal or by the number of new recruits in the ranks, but rather by the gradual shrinking of our military ranks, the decline of our spending on defense, perhaps even by the growing quiet of our legion posts and VFW halls?

Wouldn’t that be a truer measure of national success: fewer American combat veterans?

Wouldn’t that give us something to celebrate this Veteran’s Day?

I know one old grizzled veteran who would quietly nod his agreement.

Forever War: A Peculiar Form of American Zen

theforeverwar1sted

W.J. Astore

As a teenager, I read Joe Haldeman’s book, “The Forever War.”  The title intrigued, as did the interstellar setting.  Haldeman’s soldiers are caught up in a conflict whose rules keep changing, in part due to time dilation as predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity.  But there’s one thing the soldiers know for certain: no matter what year the calendar says it is, there will always be war.

For the United States today, something similar is true.  Our government, our leaders, have essentially declared a forever war.  Our military leaders have bought into it as well.  The master narrative is one of ceaseless war against a shifting array of enemies.  One year it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan.  The next it’s Al Qaeda.  The next it’s Iraq, followed by Libya and ISIS.  Echoing the time dilation effects of Haldeman’s book, Russia and China loom as enemies of the American future as well as of the past.  One thing is constant: war.

Our government and leaders can no longer imagine a time of peace.  For them the whole world has become a zone of conflict, an irredeemable realm of crusaders jumping from place to place, country to country, even time to time.  I say “time to time” because I had a student, an Army infantry veteran, who described Afghan villages to me as “primitive” and “like traveling back to Biblical times.”  Indeed, U.S. troops are much like Haldeman’s soldiers, jumping in and out of foreign lands, in both “primitive” and modern times, the one constant again being war.

Why the “forever war”?  In part because we as a country have allowed war to become too profitable, even as we’ve assigned it too much meaning in our collective lives.  The USA is a country whose past is littered with wars, whose present is defined by war and preparations for it, and whose bellicose future is seemingly already determined by those who see generational conflicts ahead of us.  In fact, they’re already planning to profit from them.

War, in short, is a peculiar form of American zen, a defining mindset.  When we’re not actually fighting wars, we’re contemplating fighting them.  Our form of meditation is ceaseless violent action.  Wherever the USA goes, there it is, exporting troops and weapons and, if not war itself, the tools and mindset that are conducive to war.

“Doin’ Right Ain’t Got No End”

Bill McKinney as Captain Terrill in "The Outlaw Josey Wales"
Bill McKinney as Captain Terrill in “The Outlaw Josey Wales”

W.J. Astore

President Obama’s recent ten-year commitment to Afghanistan (until 2024 and beyond) put me to mind of a line from The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), the classic Western starring Clint Eastwood.  Eastwood plays the “outlaw” who just wants to be left alone in the aftermath of a brutal civil war.  But another character, the vicious Captain Terrill, wants to pursue and kill all the Confederate irregulars who had fought against the Union.  In hot pursuit of Eastwood and a wounded confederate, Terrill rejects the idea that the killing will stop once the final two “outlaws” are dead.

“Doin’ right ain’t got no end,” Terrill coldly says.

That’s our government’s attitude in a nutshell: “Doin’ right ain’t got no end,” especially when the “right” involves killing outlaws.  No matter how many we kill, there’ll always be more to find. And in the brutally imprecise process of rooting them out and killing them, we’ll make many mistakes and harm many innocents, thereby creating many new enemies — and many more men like Captain Terrill.

Like Terrill, our government’s actions and attitudes have conspired to create a forever war, a score-settling exercise against outlaws that serves to perpetuate terror. We’re trapped in a cycle of violence that’s very much of our own making. We believe we inhabit an implacably hostile realm that supposedly hates us and our freedoms too, and by believing it, we make it so.

This neurotic state recalls a science fiction novel, Deathworld (1960), which I read as a teenager. Its author, Harry Harrison, imagined a world where the flora and fauna are relentlessly hostile to a certain band of can-do colonists, who reply in kind with Spartan-like warrior intensity and murderous brutality.

As impressive as these warriors and their death-dealing technology are, their actions merely beget more violence. Until an outsider visits and sees the situation for what it truly is, the colonists cannot perceive that it’s their own fear and violent natures which are driving their enemies to attack. Unless they change their implacably hostile mindset, their ultimate defeat is inevitable because their actions spawn new enemies and endless violence everywhere.

As the United States exercises its global power in the name of winning a war on terror, we are creating a death world of our own making. As long as we continue to believe we’re “doin’ right” in fighting an open-ended (and seemingly endless) war, Captain Terrill’s words will continue to render a harsh and endless judgment.

“Doin’ right ain’t got no end” – a tragic meme for a death world of our own making.