Happy 4th of July! And a Global War on Something

sunset july 2014 061
Author’s photo.

W.J. Astore

I live in a fairly posh area of America.  A place where people have vacation “cottages” with pools, a “destination” place for some, especially in July and August.  July 4th is hopping in these parts, with parties and parades and fireworks and trips to the beach and barbecues.  It’s summer, it’s warm and sunny, it’s time to relax with family and friends and enjoy life.

And then I read headlines like this today (from FP: Foreign Policy): “U.S. Troops in the Thick of it in Mosul and Raqqa.”  And this story about U.S. Marines deploying yet again to Helmand Province in Afghanistan:

Helmand. The commander of 300 Marines newly deployed to Helmand province recently told FP’s Paul McLeary he already has the full authority to get his troops out and about with Afghan troops in the fight. “So far we really haven’t seen much of a need to do it,” said U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, “but if there’s a need to be somewhere we have the authority and capability and capacity to be where we need to be.” 

He also advocated for a larger American footprint, in keeping with reported Pentagon plans to add 3,000 to 5,000 more troops in the coming months. “With a little bit larger force over here we would be in a position to have more flexibility” to do some of the advising he believes would help the Afghan forces push back against two years of Taliban offensives. 

And I think of that “Groundhog Day” movie with Bill Murray in which he repeats the same day, again and again, with only minor changes.  If you’ve seen the movie, Murray finally breaks out of what appears to be an infinite loop only when he changes his ways, his approach to life, his mentality.  He becomes a better person and even gets the girl.

When is the USA going to break out of its infinite loop of war?  Only when we change our culture, our mentality.

A “war on terror” is a forever war, an infinite loop, in which the same place names and similar actions crop up again and again.  Names like Mosul and Helmand province. Actions like reprisals and war crimes and the deaths of innocents, because that is the face of war.

Speaking of war crimes, another report today from FP: Foreign Policy:

[A] new Human Rights Watch report signals trouble ahead: witnesses in Mosul say that “Iraqi forces beat unarmed men and boys fleeing the fighting within the last seven days, and said they also obtained information about Iraqi forces executing unarmed men during this time period.”

When will it end?  Freedom includes freedom from forever war.  Yet Americans continue to be told that the price of freedom is having U.S. troops deployed everywhere — the projection of power in 100+ countries.  And some consider it patriotic to support those commitments without question, since to question it is seen as not supporting the troops. Which is nonsense, since our troops fight, at least in theory, to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, which, among other rights, enshrines freedom of speech and the right to dissent.

Can we contemplate a future Fourth of July in which American troops are no longer stuck in an infinite loop, fighting yet again in the blasted streets of Mosul or on the dusty plains of Helmand province?  A day of independence from war?

That would truly be a day to celebrate with parades, parties, and fireworks.

The My Lai Massacre Just Got Worse

The My Lai Massacre
The My Lai Massacre

W.J. Astore

CBS News has an article that shows that President Richard Nixon sought to cover up the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War.  The article draws from notes taken at the time by H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff and hatchet man.  The notes suggest that Nixon ordered “dirty tricks” to discredit the testimony of the true Army heroes who intervened to stop the massacre.  It further suggests neutralizing the gory details of My Lai by playing up atrocities committed by communist forces at Huế (“You think we’re bad in massacring innocents at My Lai?  Well, the commies are a lot worse”).

Here are Haldeman’s notes from his meeting with Nixon:

Credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
Credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

Note that My Lai is treated as a problem in public relations, not as a war crime.  It’s to be managed by dirty tricks and the exploitation of a senator or two.  As long as we all stay on the same page and spout the same message (while suppressing the facts and intimidating and discrediting witnesses), My Lai and the 504 Vietnamese killed there in 1968 can just be made to disappear.  That’s the gist of Haldeman’s notes.

Haldeman’s notes are further evidence of what The Contrary Perspective argued previously on the Vietnam War: We lost more than a war in Vietnam.  We lost our humanity.

The Dreadfulness of War

Confederate dead at Antietam, 1862, photo by Alexander Gardner (National Park Service)
Confederate dead at Antietam, 1862, photo by Alexander Gardner (National Park Service)

In our media and our culture today, there’s an unfortunate tendency to see military service as uniquely efficacious and ennobling, and to see war as necessary and even to view it as antiseptic (notably our so-called “surgical” drone strikes).

But real war is dirty.  It’s as likely to infect us, to spread sepsis through our bodies and souls, as it is to ennoble us by calling forth sacrifice.

This dark reality is captured in this quotation by the cultural critic Louis Menand:

War is specially terrible not because it destroys human beings, who can be destroyed in plenty of other ways, but because it turns human beings into destroyers.

Think here of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales in Afghanistan, who plead guilty to the premeditated murder of sixteen Afghan civilians.  Think here of the atrocities committed by American troops in Vietnam, harrowingly documented in Nick Turse’s recent book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (2013).

The point is not to condemn American troops, who generally serve honorably under challenging, even horrendous, conditions.  The point is to condemn war.

War warps.  War corrupts.  War murders.  It warps men’s souls, corrupts their morals, murders their innocence.

Let’s never forget the dreadfulness of war.

W.J. Astore