No Victory Parade for 'Most Beautiful Army'

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"Battle
Lessons," an article by Dan Baum in the January 17, 2005 issue
of the New Yorker Magazine, ends with this extraordinary
paragraph that I quote below (with a few ellipses):

"The
[Army] officers fighting in Iraq are, most of the time, remarkably
enthusiastic. This is their war, the only one they may get in their
careers. . . . Within the tiny sliver of war each sees, examples
of brilliance and bravery abound. They're proud to be a part of
u2018the most beautiful Army in the history of the world,' as one recently
returned captain put it; he praised his immediate commander for
wisdom and compassion, and his company for being so disciplined
and professional that it could turn off the violence u2018like good
hunting dog.' . . . They brag about the Q36, a computerized
weapon system that is so sophisticated it can spot an enemy mortar
or rocket in midair, trace its trajectory backward, and fire a response
before the enemy round lands. But they will also tell you that the
war is excruciating. Despite their Buck Rogers technology, they
are losing friends to weapons made from RadioShack gizmos, and the
people they've been sent to help seem to hate them more every day.
They can't imagine when or how they will earn a victory parade."

The
article overall is about quite remarkable things young officers
have done and are continuing to do to form an Internet linkage among
themselves and learn from each other on the spot and in a hurry
the very best ways to deal with the awful situations arising in
Iraq.

In
several paragraphs just preceding the one I have quoted author Baum
lays down a substantial barrage of anti-Rumsfeld fire, noting General
Shinseki's argument before the invasion of Iraq that more troops
were needed than were in Rumsfeld's plan, and also noting Rumsfeld's
firing of Army Secretary Thomas White (no relation of mine) for
opposing him on a number of issues, including the number of troops
needed. He also cites a gathering of Army brass he attended just
before the recent election where H.R. McMaster's book, Dereliction
of Duty was much on view.

Apparently
the point of that 1997 book, newly popular, Baum says, with Army
officers, is that in the Vietnam war of lamentable memory all four
chiefs of staff "went along" with McNamara when they didn't
agree with him; they failed to publicly voice their misgivings.
"Each one of those four went to their graves thinking they
didn't do enough to protest," Thomas White told Baum, "They
should have put their stars on the table and said, u2018We won't be
part of this.'"

One
has to ask what good it would have done if they had indeed put their
stars on the table. Shinseki and White did; and got shoved to one
side. Command is command, and Bush and Rumsfeld are now top command,
as LBJ and McNamara were for Vietnam. What command says goes. Bush
is on record lately claiming he was right all along and his reelection
confirms him. No surprise there.

I
evaluate this New Yorker piece as an element, an exceedingly
interesting and subtle element, in the campaign to get Rumsfeld
blamed for the disaster in Iraq, and try to convince us that his
primary mistake was in launching the war with insufficient troop
strength. Whereas, I say the truth is that the primary mistake was
launching an aggressive, preemptive war against a nation that was
no threat to us. And that is not at bottom Rumsfeld's fault. Quadrupling
the troop strength would not have changed things. Bush was the only
man in the line of command who could have stopped the Iraq invasion
and war. He chose not to do so. He may have been pushed or persuaded
by others, but he's the man with the big official airplane, so he
gets to have all the blame. You say Cheney is running things behind
Bush? And perhaps others are behind Cheney? Maybe so, but Bush has
the name and therefore the game. May he enjoy its ultimate rewards.

The
above considerations aside, Baum's article was, for me at least,
a kind of heartwrencher. Let me try to explain why. Baum makes his
"young officers" seem as intelligent, concerned, and faithful
to their calling as career military men as any group could be. Bright,
even brilliant, resourceful, well intentioned, puzzled by the mixed
view of their work on the home front, they come through in this
piece as good and fair-minded men. Recent West Point grads must
be heavily represented among them. These men are certainly among
the finest the nation produces. They are our Kshatriya class. The
old Vedic stratification of society, which goes back thousands of
years, took careful note of the types of men and established the
Law of Varna to determine the four basic roles in life, which are
also the "inherited professions," the only legitimate
means of making one's living.

(Yes,
I know, we are talking only of men here; but in ancient societies
women were thought to be exempt from trade, war, and the sacerdotal
demands of religion because their main business was fostering the
race. I suppose no one in those days thought that there was anything
more important to do. Now that the breeding of more people is often
seen as a disaster, the view of women's place has much changedu2014perhaps
not altogether for the better?)

The
four ancient Varnas (I take this from a pamphlet, "Varnashramadharma,"
by Mahatma Gandhi) are Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra.
Gandhi: "The function of a Brahmana is to study and teach the
science of Brahman (or spiritual truth). He performs the function
as he cannot do otherwise, as it is the law of his being. That secures
him his livelihood, but he will take it as a gift from God. A Kshatriya
will perform the function of protecting the people in the same spirit,
accepting for his livelihood whatever the people can afford to give
him. A Vaishya will pursue wealth-producing occupations for the
welfare of the community, keeping for himself enough for his own
maintenance and rendering the balance to the community in one shape
or other. A Shudra will perform physical labor in the same spirit
of service."

Those
noises I think I hear offstage are perhaps howls of incredulity
that anyone could be so naïve as to suppose any of this could
happen in real life. I haven't space to give you Gandhi's own parrying
of the skeptical questions other Hindus addressed to him and which
he answered with the utmost simplicity and realism. He knew perfectly
well he was dishing out stuff a modern person of any nation can
barely tolerate. But I believe he was on to something. Check out
your acquaintance in terms of these four Varnas and see if it is
not enlightening, see if they do not, considered thoughtfully, illustrate
the accuracy of the old Vedic differentiation.

Gandhi
thought no one could be happy outside his Varna; one might be the
son of a carpenter, and therefore intended to earn one's living
as a carpenter, but one could also be, and perhaps should be, through
one's own interests and efforts, a teacher, a Brahmanau2014except not
for one's livelihood. I think of the shoemaker Jacob Boehme as an
example of this.

It
is important not to confuse genuine Varna with caste, and to know
that Gandhi thought the modern Indian caste system a horror. He,
perhaps more than any other person, was instrumental in ending the
worst of the ghastly injustices visited upon outcastes, the so-called
"untouchables." He thought no one in any Varna was justified
in assuming superiority over anyone in another Varna. "But
if Varna reveals the law of one's being and thus the duty one has
to perform, it confers no right, and the idea of superiority or
inferiority is wholly repugnant to it. All Varnas are equal. . .
."

It
is worth mentioning that one of the three pillars of Swaraj, his
action program for Indian home rule, was the "establishment
of Hindu-Muslim unity." Like other prophets he was not honored,
ultimately, in his own country, which engaged in a ferocious bloodbath
of Hindu-Muslim hatred and broke apart into two nations.

But
I wander from my point about those soldiers in Iraq, those "young
officers" on view in the New Yorker article. They are
in military service out of conviction that it is their "thing"
(a rough translation, I submit, of Varna). They certainly cannot
be in it for the big money. They are entitled to the gratitude and
admiration of their fellow citizens. But they are not going to get
it ("no victory parade") because they have been betrayed
by people occupying the places of two of the other Varnas, usurpers
who have stolen the places of Brahmanas, the teachers and spiritual
guides of society, and the Vaishyas, its wealth producers.

So
instead of true leadership from people properly in Varna as Brahmans
and Vaishyas, we are led by ideologues and moneybags who wouldn't
know a Varna from an alley cat. Our Kshatriyas have been sent on
fools' errands and are now locked into a thankless and shameful
mess in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, and they will not be extricated
from them, not this week and not next, by any New Yorker
article.

January
19, 2005

Tom
White [send him mail]
writes from Odessa, Texas. He is the author of Bill
W., A Different Kind of Hero: The Story of Alcoholics Anonymous

(2003).

Tom
White Archives

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