XCIV – The Exploitation of Soldiers

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Grow
like savages — as soldiers will,
That
nothing do but meditate on blood.

~
William Shakespeare, King
Henry V

Those
who defend warfare tend to see it only as an abstraction,
a game pitting strategists from opposing collectives against one
another in furtherance of contrived objectives. The ugly details
of orchestrated butchery and torture are to be suppressed, lest
persons of humane sensitivities become upset and demand a cessation
of the game. But facts have ways of insinuating themselves into
the most carefully devised schemes, causing the sordid nature of
warfare to move from the abstract to the concrete. When this occurs
— as it did in the My Lai massacre or, more recently, at Abu Ghraib
— the political establishment is quick to look for scapegoats or
explanations that do not implicate war itself. To the state, the
professed ends of any given war are both irrelevant and fungible:
it is the war system that requires protection.

One
thing I found annoying during the Vietnam War years was the hostility
directed by some anti-war activists to individual soldiers. I was
opposed to that war — as I am to all wars — but I thought there
was something cowardly about those who focused their anger on the
soldiers rather than upon the politicians and the political establishment
that manipulated the atrocities of warfare. Clearly, many war critics
did direct their attentions to the system itself, but too
many chose to concentrate their animosities upon the veterans rather
than the architects of such villainy.

One
sees this same moral cowardice in those Republican politicians who
are calling for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld over his flippant
remarks to a soldier in Iraq, who complained about a lack of adequate
equipment for their protection. In the face of increasing hostility
to the war from both American civilians and soldiers, three Republicans
— Trent Lott, Susan Collins, and Chuck Hagel — decided it was time
to offer up Rumsfeld as a token sacrifice, rather than proposing
the impeachment of President Bush for his pattern of lies, forgeries,
and other deceptions that fomented the war. That Lott and Hagel
— who voted "guilty" in Bill Clinton's impeachment trial
for lying about his relations with Monica Lewinsky — could don moral
blinders for the more sinister lies of George Bush, reflects the
cravenness of people who take a stand on "principle" only
when it is safe to do so. Such people are akin to the "animal
rights" advocates who berate Beverly Hills matrons for wearing
fur coats, instead of confronting "Hells Angels" motorcyclists
for wearing leather jackets.

The
"pecking order" of an institution works in both an "up"
and "down" direction. A sergeant will be sacrificed for
the good of a general, a general for the benefit of a secretary
of defense, and the latter for the sake of a president. If the initial
level of scapegoating is not sufficient to end the criticism, one
proceeds upward to successive levels in the hierarchy until it is
perceived that the wrong has been rectified.

My
words should not be misinterpreted as a suggestion that the soldiers
of any war are not responsible for their acts. Neither am I ignoring
the fact that many American soldiers have engaged in unpardonable
atrocities against unarmed civilians, whether in Vietnam or Iraq.
Each of us is responsible for the consequences of our actions
for one simple reason: we are individually in control of our energies.
A soldier who participates in the systematic killing of others is
accountable for what his behavior has produced because he
is the one who acted.

That
said, however, I am far less interested in browbeating teenagers
who, whether as conscripts or volunteers, decide to partake in the
excitement of war. For millennia, politically-structured societies
have conditioned their young men to look upon war as a glorious
and noble undertaking; an expression of heroic sentiments; a source
of meaning to life that allows you to "be all you can be."

Such
attitudes are so deeply engrained in the culture that relatively
few parents have seen fit to question their sons' expected role
in the war system. I recall fathers, during the Vietnam War years,
expressing shame that their sons chose to depart for Canada rather
than accept their "obligation" to be conscripted into
the war machine. In the feminist-inspired insistence that women
not be deprived of their "equal" right to be blown to
pieces in some foreign land, daughters will also become incorporated
into this state-serving mindset. That parents can accept such twisted
thinking, and can love the state more than they do their own children,
must rank near the top of the list for moral degeneracy!

Politically-structured
societies wallow in lies and, in so doing, tear apart the fabric
of decent social behavior. War, by its very nature, is sociopathic,
as are those who plan for and execute the systematic slaughter of
millions of persons. The idea of a "just" or "moral"
war is so palpably absurd as to make even its suggestion a basis
for questioning the sanity of its advocates. War makes "heroic"
and "honorable" that which, if done privately, would render
one a despicable criminal. We rightly condemn the serial killer
who murders ten or twelve victims, while rewarding those who plot
the political murders of hundreds of thousands with high political
office or the Nobel Peace Prize!

War
dehumanizes people — soldiers and civilians alike — and, for this
reason, I have never understood the willingness of parents to allow
their children to become part of such a dispirited, hostile, life-destroying
system. I can understand how a teenager — whose limited life experiences
are not sufficient to see what is implicit in warfare — might fall
for the heroic imagery that gets reinforced in computer games. I
do not understand this child's parents — with many more years of
awareness — not protecting him or her from this force that devastates
the lives even of its survivors.

Why
are so many war veterans — particularly those who saw deadly combat
— unwilling to relate, even to their families, what they went through
in wartime? Why do they not openly brag of their exploits, as do
older men in recalling the athletic accomplishments of their youth?
And why, knowing of the brutalizing nature of the war system, do
parents who would not allow their sons to join an urban street-gang,
take pride in their children being given over to the likes of Bush,
Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and neocon schemers, to be exploited and
disposed of as best suits their arrogant temperaments?

It
has been encouraging to observe, in recent months, the emergence
of an apparent awareness among many American soldiers of the insanity
of the war system, particularly as it has been playing out in Iraq.
Soldiers have refused to obey orders that would send them on life-threatening
missions; others have spoken out about the lack of adequate armor
and protective equipment; still others have questioned the national
purpose and/or morality of their participation in the killing of
innocent people, particularly children. A number of soldiers have
brought a lawsuit challenging the continuation of their service
beyond the original commitment. Not surprising, National Guard officials
announced that enlistments have fallen well below anticipated levels.

The
issue of ineffective armament has become a focal point for the disaffection
of so many soldiers, who complain of having to scour dumpsites in
search of old armor plate with which to refurbish their combat vehicles.
It is open to question whether the government's indifference to
the plight of these soldiers was best reflected in Rumsfeld's aforementioned
disdainful response to questioning, or in the Army's court-martialing
— and imprisonment – of six reservists for removing scrap metal
and bullet-resistant glass from abandoned vehicles in order to augment
their own. Rush Limbaugh — who has fashioned a lucrative career
out of missing the point on just about every issue — saw fit to
criticize the soldier's inquiry of Rumsfeld not on the merits
of the question, but on the ground that a member of the media had
given him the question to ask! In such an atmosphere of rampant
disregard for the well-being of the troops, I half-expected Rumsfeld
to drag out the old "duck-and-cover" strategy by which
American school-children — in the early Cold War — were advised
to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack!

Perhaps
the most interesting news story involves a Pentagon report that
more than 5,500 Army or Marine Corps servicemen have chosen to desert
rather than go to Iraq. Like their Vietnam War counterparts who
avoided the draft, a number have gone to Canada. I suspect that
Limbaugh and the FoxNews war-whoopers will attribute these mass-desertions
to "cowardice" on the part of the soldiers involved. But
if they took the time to read or listen to these men — instead of
dismissing their interests — they would discover otherwise.

One
young man, Pfc. Dan Felushko, began his military training shortly
after 9/11, and was prepared to fight in Afghanistan. But when he
discovered there was no connection between the 9/11 attacks and
Saddam Hussein, he questioned his participation in a war he believed
to be wrong. He then fled to Canada. "[N]obody should make
me sign away my ability to choose between right and wrong,"
he said, declaring the contract he had signed with the Marines to
be "a devil's contract."

A
recent high school graduate, Brandon Hughey, joined the Army believing
that the war against Iraq "was necessary if they did have these
weapons, and they could end up in our cities and threaten our safety."
He was prepared to die, he said, "to make America safe."
But when the truth about Iraq's alleged "threat" became
known, "[i]t made me angry, because I felt our lives were being
thrown away as soldiers." Echoing the sentiments of the Nuremburg
principles, Hughey stated: "[p]eople should have a right to
say u2018I'm not fighting in that war. That's an illegal war. . . .
I'm not going.'" He, too, left for Canada, adding "I have
to say that my image of my country always being the good guy, and
always fighting for just causes, has been shattered."

Patriotic
types — who see no further than beyond the fringes of their flags
— have always been quick to condemn those who adhere to their deepest
principles. Like the members of a crazed lynch mob, they fail to
see dissenters as the protectors of the values that make a society
decent and productive. It has been America's loss, and Canada's
gain, that men who insist upon the inviolability of their principles
have been driven from the country. There is no more important time
in the life of an individual or a nation than wartime for men and
women to follow the bumper-sticker advice to "question authority."

The
life-sustaining value to insubordination is most clearly revealed
in the face of death. As Samuel Johnson stated, "when a man
knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind
wonderfully." It is unfortunate that most of us wait until
our lives are threatened to energize our consciousness, rather than
seeing the dangers implicit in the prior behavior of our revered
systems.

An
example of how the questioning of authority saved a person's life
was reported to me a few weeks ago. I was speaking with a woman
whose friend was working in a WTC tower when one of the planes hit.
She immediately headed for the doors and stairways to get out, but
was told by her supervisors and colleagues to "stay where you
are," that everything was going to be all right. This woman
responded: "are you crazy? Can't you see what is happening,
here?" Disobeying her bosses, she fled the building to safety.
Her coworkers who stayed behind all died when the building collapsed.

I
would like to meet this woman, as well as the many young men who,
over the years, have chosen expatriation as the price for living
a principled life. Perhaps in their eyes I will see the reflection
of the values that led my ancestors to leave their European homelands
for the opportunity to live as free and responsible human beings
owing their lives to no earthly powers.

The
American political establishment — whose interests transcend Republican
and Democratic party lines — seems as intent on pursuing its violent
ambitions for world domination as did ancient Rome, prior to its
collapse. The consequences of such an undertaking will be rendered
all the more troublesome by the unwillingness of most Americans
to "just say no!" to the narcotic of state power. Still,
there is some hope for the future when a remnant of humanity realizes
that their physical and spiritual survival are to be found in being
masters of their own lives.

Perhaps,
in the example of the woman at the WTC, the rest of us may discover
that our lives depend not on fighting authority, but on walking
away from the crumbling structures in which we are expected
to remain.

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