The Desert They Call Peace

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Ubi solitudinem
faciunt, pacem appellant.

These words
of Tacitus came from the mouth of Calgacus, the Caledonian tribal
leader, just before he and his minions were vanquished by the Agricola-led
Roman armies in Mons Grapius (83 A.D./C.E.). Nearly two millennia
later, they remain perhaps the best summation of the essence of
war and its outcomes.

"They
made a desert and called it peace." If past conflagrations
teach us nothing else, it should be this: However noble some believe
its ostensible purpose to be, war can end only with destruction
on one side, or both – and perhaps even among people and lands
that were supposed to be neutral. Furthermore, the repercussions
of the money, materiel and lives expended in the cause of destroying
a putative enemy deplete not only a nation’s might and wealth, but
also the spirits of people on both sides.

I was reminded
of this after reading Ira Katz's editorial, "War
Remembrance
," on this site. He proposes war memorials that
do not glorify slaughter and use abstract terms such as "honor"
and "sacrifice," but instead show such things as "the
poignant letter of a soldier to a mother the day before he murders
someone else's mother."

His proposals
are ones I can wholeheartedly endorse. I would also add another
component to the museums and other sites he envisions: re-enactments
of actual military training. Better yet, I would encourage more
people to actually undergo it themselves – without, of course, actually
joining or being conscripted into the Armed Forces.

Recalling
my own military training nearly three decades later (That's as close
as this lady will come to revealing her age! ;-) ), I realize that
it was designed to cause young people like me to put aside any sense
of what most of us would think of us morality and decency. It also,
in many ways, defies common sense. Yet, because it is done in isolation
from anything else anyone does in his or her life, it is easy for
a culture to "compartmentalize" or simply ignore it in
much the same way that diners who are savoring medallions of veal
don't think about the conditions under which calves are raised or
slaughtered.

One could say
that it was intended to create a "desert" in our minds
and spirits which we could claim as a "victory" –
or peace, if you will – over our previously mundane and presumably
undisciplined quotidian existence.

First of
all, my training, like that of other recruits, was conducted far
from the communities in which most of my "classmates"
and I were born and raised. In essence, we are quarantined for the
duration. As any interrogator or torturer knows, it's a lot easier
to render someone malleable if he or she is kept away from whatever
formed his or her previous identity.

For the first
few weeks, there was no interruption in the training. When breaks
– "leaves" – were finally granted, they were
not long enough for many of us to return to, much less to spend
any significant time with, loved ones. And the bases in which training
takes place – think of Camp Lejeune or Fort Bragg – are
in or next to towns in which the main diversions are bars and massage,
tattoo and porn parlors. Few parents or elders, no matter how libertine
they may be, would want their kids around such things. Yet those
same guardians think nothing of letting their charges join the military,
where it's almost impossible not to be exposed to the very things
that, if they partook of them while at home, would lead to the arrest
of these same caretakers for endangering the welfare of a minor.

Years after
undergoing it, I realized that one of the main purposes of boot
camp is to break down the recruit's sense of him or her self –
whatever it may be – and to re-form him or her as one who will
unquestioningly obey orders and subsume his or her interests to
that of what our drill instructors called "the big green fighting
machine." This is done, in part, by having the newbie perform
demeaning tasks and subjecting the enlistee to rigid yet capricious
discipline. The drill sergeant might make you "Drop and give
fifty!" or to clean a toilet bowl with your bare hands because
he has a hangover or got into an argument with his wife.

In retrospect,
perhaps the most disturbing aspect of that attempted psychological
disassembly and reassembly occurred on the rifle range. Few, if
any, of us in my "class" had ever handled a weapon, much
less shot at anybody, previously. We started by learning how to
disassemble and reassemble our M-16's. While this serves a practical
purpose for anyone who should end up in a field of combat, it also
had another effect: What had been a fearsome weapon for many of
us became simply a tool for accomplishing a task.

Then, once
we knew our "friends" inside and out, we took them to
the target range. At first, we shot at concentric circles that didn't
look much different from the targets of many children's toys and
games. It was just bigger.

However,
over the weeks, the shapes of our targets gradually changed: from
round to oblong, and finally into something that resembled a person.
As the targets morphed, drill instructors give them names: In my
day, "Igor" and "Ivan" were common. (I'm sure
today's recruits shoot at "Saddam" or "Muhammad.")
Thus did the drill sergeant accomplish something that even the most
brilliant and demented psychiatrist would have difficulty in achieving:
He broke our resistance to killing other people, yet managed to
convince us that whom we were killing wasn't really human.

I have
talked with people who have toiled in the Armed Forces of this and
other nations, and some who are currently enlisted. (One was a student
of mine this semester and is going to Iraq during the first week
of the New Year.) The details may vary somewhat, but the overall
scheme of military training is much the same throughout the world
and has been throughout history.

Most of us,
whether or not we have any religious background, are taught "Thou
shalt not kill," or some dictum with the same meaning. Even
with the increase in gang membership and its resulting violence,
it's still pretty rare for a child or a teenager to kill someone
else, at least in countries that aren't in a state of war. Also,
studies have shown that most people retain at least some resistance
to killing: Compare the number of people on Death Row in the US
to the number of people who are actually executed. (To me, that
alone is a good reason to abolish the death penalty.) And, of course,
anyone who kills – as Albert Camus so poignantly showed in
L'etranger (The
Stranger
) is not the same person he or she was before taking
another life.

Yet we are
explicitly or implicitly taught that the ending of another person's
existence – creating a desert where something once flowered,
so to speak – is going to help bring about peace, which is
usually defined as the conflict ending in a "victory"
for our side.

If the lesson
of Tacitus's words is not internalized, many more will blindly go
along with the brainwashing that occurs in military bases –
and through the lies and other distortions political leaders use
to drum up support for marching their young people to slaughter.

And
as Katz pointed out, those young people may be or could become artists,
engineers, musicians or doctors. But they may never have the chance
to put those talents to use in ways that truly benefit themselves
and others. Instead, he – like the young man I taught this
semester – will be sent to create deserts that some leader
can call peace.

January
2, 2006

Justine
Nicholas [send her mail]
teaches English at the City University of New York.

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