Memories of War

the-vietnam-memorial
Memories of War: So powerful yet often so fragmentary

W.J. Astore

Memories of war are powerful and fragmentary.  At a national level, we do best at remembering our own war dead while scarcely recognizing the damage to others.  This is one cost of nationalism.  Nationalism is violent, bigoted, and discriminatory.  It elevates a few at the expense of the many.  It fails fully to recognize common human experience, even one as shattering as war.

One example.  I’ve visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  In seeing all those names of American dead on the wall, I was moved to tears.  It’s a remarkable memorial, but what it fails to capture is any sense of the magnitude of death from that war visited upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  As I wrote for Alternet, to visualize the extent of death from America’s war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese would need a wall that would be roughly 20 to 50 times as long as ours.

Think about that for a moment.  A wall perhaps 50 times as long as our Vietnam memorial wall.  It’s a staggering mental image.  Sadly, today in America the only wall garnering much media interest is Trump’s wall along our border with Mexico, yet another manifestation of nationalist bigotry and bias.

John Dower challenges us to think differently.  To explore our common humanity.  To remember the war dead of other nations and peoples, and to record the true cost of America’s wars, both to others and to ourselves.  His latest article at TomDispatch.com explores how Americans both remember and forget their wars.  Here’s an excerpt:

While it is natural for people and nations to focus on their own sacrifice and suffering rather than the death and destruction they themselves inflict, in the case of the United States such cognitive astigmatism is backlighted by the country’s abiding sense of being exceptional, not just in power but also in virtue. In paeans to “American exceptionalism,” it is an article of faith that the highest values of Western and Judeo-Christian civilization guide the nation’s conduct — to which Americans add their country’s purportedly unique embrace of democracy, respect for each and every individual, and stalwart defense of a “rules-based” international order.

Such self-congratulation requires and reinforces selective memory. “Terror,” for instance, has become a word applied to others, never to oneself. And yet during World War II, U.S. and British strategic-bombing planners explicitly regarded their firebombing of enemy cities as terror bombing, and identified destroying the morale of noncombatants in enemy territory as necessary and morally acceptable. Shortly after the Allied devastation of the German city of Dresden in February 1945, Winston Churchill, whose bust circulates in and out of the presidential Oval Office in Washington (it is currently in), referred to the “bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts.”

Too often, Americans believe they’re waging a war on terror, forgetting that war itself is terror.  That war itself is evil.  That doesn’t mean that war is never justified, as it was, I believe, in the struggle against Nazi tyranny in World War II.  Even in justifiable wars, however, we need to recognize that war breeds corruption; that war, in essence, is corruption, a corruption of the human spirit, of a humanity which should be held in common and nourished, but which during war is degraded if not destroyed.

John Dower recognizes this.  It’s a theme he explores in his new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two.  Consider it a primer on war’s many corruptions, and a precis of America’s tendency toward a nationalism of callous indifference when it comes to the damages we inflict on others.  It’s not happy reading, but then again wars shouldn’t be a subject for happiness.

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A remarkable primer and meditation on America’s endless wars

Wars and rumors of war seem always to be with us.  Some would say they’re an inevitable part of the human condition.  Our historical record seems to support that grim conclusion.  Yet there is another way, a more pacific path, a path toward peace.  But to walk that path, we must first fully recognize the tangled undergrowth of war that imperils our every footstep.  Dower’s latest book helps us to do just that.

Where’s the Anti-War Movement?

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Thousands of people with signs of peace gather on Library Mall for the start of an anti-war rally protesting a potential United States-led war against Iraq. Protesters later marched up State Street to the Wisconsin State Capitol Building. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, Ira Chernus had a stimulating article at TomDispatch.com in which he noted the present lack of an American anti-war movement.  When it comes to war and foreign policy, Americans face a Hobson’s choice: the Democrats with drones and Special Ops and bombing against evildoers, or the Republicans with even more drones and Special Ops and bombing against even more evildoers.  The American master narrative, Chernus noted, is essentially all war.

He’s right about this, and I think it’s mainly for five reasons:

  1. The military draft is gone, so our youth can safely (they think) ignore America’s never-ending wars. In Vietnam, with the draft, most of our youth didn’t have the luxury of apathy.  Today, our youth have little personal incentive (as yet) to push back against the prevailing war narrative.
  2. Militarism.  Creeping militarism has shifted the American narrative rightwards.  In the Vietnam period, General Curtis LeMay’s “bomb them back to the stone age” was a fringe opinion; now it’s mainstream with “carpet bombing” Cruz and Trump and Rubio, the “top three” Republican presidential contenders after the Iowa caucuses.
  3. The Democrats have also shifted rightwards, so much so that now both major political parties embrace endless war. War, in short, has been normalized and removed from partisan politics.  As Chernus documents, you simply can’t get an alternative narrative from the U.S. political mainstream.  For that, you have to look to much smaller political parties, e.g. the Green Party.
  4. The U.S. mainstream media has been thoroughly co-opted by corporations that profit from war.  Anti-war ideas simply don’t get published; or, if they do, they’re dismissed as unserious.  I simply can’t imagine any of today’s TV talking heads coming out against the war on terror like Walter Cronkite came out in the 1960s against Vietnam. There is simply no push back from the U.S. media.
  5. Finally, a nebulous factor that’s always lurking: FEAR.  The popular narrative today is that terrorists may kill you at any time right here in America.  So you must be ready to “lockdown“; you must be ready to “shelter in place.”  You must always defer to the police and military to keep you safe.  You must fully fund the military or YOU WILL DIE. Repeated incantations of fear reinforce the master narrative of war.

Chernus makes many good points about how America’s constant warring in the Middle East only feeds radical Islam.  In short, it’s vital to develop a new narrative, not only because the current one feeds war and death, but also because it’s fated to fail.

I doubt pacifism will fly in warrior corp USA.  But why not containment?  Containment worked against the Soviet Union, or so most Americans believe.  If it worked against the far greater threat posed by the USSR, why shouldn’t it work against radical Islam?

Containment suggests several concrete actions: American troops should pull out of the Middle East.  Bombing and drone strikes should stop.  Establish a cordon sanitaire around the area.  Lead a diplomatic effort to resolve the conflicts.  And recognize that violent civil and ideological wars within Islam may need to burn themselves out.

One thing is certain: Because violent U.S. actions are most likely to act as accelerants to radical Islam, we need to stop attacking.  Now.

Yes, the U.S. has a responsibility to help the peoples of the region.  American actions helped to create the mess.  But you don’t “solve” the mess by blowing more people and things to smithereens.

Containment, diplomacy, humanitarian aid.  Not a chest-thumping course of action celebrated by the likes of Trump or Cruz or Clinton, but a new master narrative that would be more likely to spare lives and reduce the chaos in the Middle East.

I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier: A Mother’s Plea for Peace

My copy of the sheet music (1915)
My copy of the sheet music (1915)

W.J. Astore

The year was 1915.  Europe, indeed much of the world, was embroiled in the devastating Great (or World) War.  Under President Woodrow Wilson, the United States was proud to have stayed out of the war, the massive bloodletting of which seemed peculiarly European, an “Old World” form of militarized madness that most Americans wanted no part of.  In fact, in 1916 Wilson would be reelected in large part because he had kept America out of Europe’s great war.  (Of course, the very next year the United States did choose to join the war effort against Germany.)

Yet in 1915 the idea of celebrating the military, nobilizing the military experience, finding higher purpose and meaning in war, was the furthest thing from the minds of most Americans.  Unlike the America of 2015, there was no mantra of “support our troops,” no publicity campaigns that encouraged citizens to “salute” the troops.  What publicity existed discouraged Americans from getting involved in war, a fact exhibited by some old sheet music that I recently ran across in a local thrift shop.

“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” copyright 1915 and “respectfully dedicated to Every Mother – Everywhere,” shows a mother protectively holding her grown son as visions of battle assault her mind near the family hearth.  It was a popular song; you can listen to an old Edison recording here.

The lyrics are as simple as they are telling:

Ten million soldiers to the war have gone,

Who may never return again.

Ten million mothers’ hearts must break,

For the ones who died in vain.

Head bowed down in sorrow in her lonely years,

I heard a mother murmur thro’ her tears:

Chorus:

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,

I brought him up to be my pride and joy,

Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder,

To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,

It’s time to lay the sword and gun away,

There’d be no war today,

If mothers all would say,

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.

(Chorus)

What victory can cheer a mother’s heart,

When she looks at her blighted home?

What victory can bring her back,

All she cared to call her own.

Let each mother answer in the years to be,

Remember that my boy belongs to me!

Nowadays, such lyrics seem hopelessly quaint and naïve, or even cowardly and defeatist.  America must stand up to evildoers around the world.  We must fight ISIS and other elements of radical Islam.  We must “stay the course” in Afghanistan.  We must maintain large and deadly military forces, ever ready to slay other mothers’ sons and daughters in the name of making peace.  Or so we are told, almost daily, by our leaders.

Indeed, our new national chorus goes something like this:  Let’s have another drink of war!  We haven’t had too many.  Keep the bullets coming and the blood flowing.  That is the way to victory!

But as we dream about “victory” by arms, we should recall the line from “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”:

What victory can bring her back, All she cared to call her own.

Unlike in 1915, that’s a question that’s never asked in today’s America.

Prediction for 2014: War Will Continue to Find A Way

“War is like love; it always finds a way.”  So wrote Bertolt Brecht, and when it comes to American politics and foreign policy in 2014, you can bet on Brecht being right.  There is no major anti-war party in the USA today.  Despite claims to fiscal austerity, Democrats and Republicans fall over themselves to fully fund the Pentagon and its ongoing wars across the globe.  Our misguided involvement in Afghanistan lurches into its thirteenth year with promises that it won’t end until 2024 at the earliest.  The only certainty for 2014 is more dead bodies, more casualties of war, more money wasted.

Barbara Tuchman, a historian who knew how to write for the educated public, was right in pointing out the persistence of folly in history.  A heavily militarized U.S. foreign policy is an illustration of that.  Our country continues to seek global dominance through militarized measures, perhaps because we’ve exported so much of our non-militarized economy to countries having cheaper labor. War and weapons are now are primary export.  That, and our desire for total information dominance that produced all of the abuses that Edward Snowden is revealing.

As we persist in war and weapons and surveillance, we’d do well to recall the words of John Bright, a British statesman who spoke about war and its dangers in the House of Commons in 1854. Here’s what Bright had to say:

“It is a painful and terrible thing to think how easy it is to stir up a nation to war … and you will find that wars are always supported by a class of arguments which, after the war is over, the people find were arguments they should not have listened to.”

When are we going to stop listening to arguments in favor of more wars and more weapons and more infringements of our rights, all justified in the name of “toughness” and “sanity” and “security”?

Sadly, not in 2014.

But if we’re truly looking to make meaningful resolutions for 2014, how about bringing our troops home?  How about building fewer weapons?  How about working to eliminate our nuclear arsenal? How about spying less and trusting more?

There are those that think that pursuing a less militant course is naive.  But what’s truly naive is the idea that constant warfare is consistent with any kind of enlightened democracy.

Let’s work together to ensure my prediction for 2014 is wrong.  Let’s find ways to stir up our nation to pursue peace.

John Bright
John Bright

The Persistence of War

A young Tom Cruise loving his machine gun in "Taps"
A young Tom Cruise loving his machine gun in “Taps”

W.J. Astore

“[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.

A Bumper Sticker Collage

A collage of bumper stickers in Great Barrington, Mass.
A collage of bumper stickers in Great Barrington, Mass.  Photo by the author.

A sequel to our recent article, Dueling Bumper Stickers

I remember making collages in grade school; they were always good fun.  I came across this collage of bumper stickers yesterday at the Gypsy Joint Cafe in Great Barrington, Mass.  (They make scrumptious sandwiches and salads, by the way.)

It’s a representative sample of sentiments that are common to progressive places.  (But note the “Don’t mess with Texas,” which is representative of, well, Texans.)

It’s hard to argue with “Teach Peace” or “Peace Is Patriotic.”  “Folk the War” is pretty straightforward.  And I do like the idea of living the life that I love.  And I hope that the more I know, the less I need.

Now I need to find a similar collage of conservative stickers.  Will those stickers be as idealistic, as upbeat, as focused on sustainable food and education and music and peace?

I’m betting not.

W.J. Astore

Forgotten Are the Peacemakers

Monument to Elihu Burritt in New Marlboro, Mass. (author's photo)
Monument to Elihu Burritt in New Marlboro, Mass. (author’s photo)
The Plaque in Honor of Burritt
The Plaque in Honor of Burritt (author’s photo)

Being Catholic, I’m a big fan of the Sermon on the Mount and Christ’s teaching that “blessed are the peacemakers.”  Yet in American history it seems that “forgotten are the peacemakers” would be a more accurate lesson.  We’re much more likely to remember “great” generals, even vainglorious ones like George S. Patton or Douglas MacArthur, than to recognize those who’ve fought hard against long odds for peace.

Elihu Burritt was one such peacemaker.  Known in his day as “The Learned Blacksmith,” Burritt fought for peace and against slavery in the decades before the Civil War in the United States.  He rose from humble roots to international significance, presiding over The League of Universal Brotherhood  in the 1840s and 1850s while authoring many books on humanitarian subjects.

Interestingly, peacemakers like Burritt were often motivated by evangelical Christianity.  They saw murder as a sin and murderous warfare as an especially grievous manifestation of man’s sinfulness.  Many evangelicals of his day were also inspired by their religious beliefs to oppose slavery as a vile and reprehensible practice.

Christian peacemakers like Burritt may not have had much success, but they deserve to be remembered and honored as much as our nation’s most accomplished generals.  That we neglect to honor men and women like Burritt says much about America’s character.

For if we truly are a peace-loving people, why do we fail to honor our most accomplished advocates for peace?

W.J. Astore