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.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.