Is Military Service Honorable?

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Last night Vi and I watched for the first time a documentary, shot by my friend Jim Coyne, on Joan Baez and the movement against a war no one any longer remembers, far away, on another planet. It was lovely filmwork. Jim is a genius. I may have to stop having friends. I feel inferior to all of them. It gets depressing.

Of no interest to anyone but me, perhaps, it completely changed my understanding of Baez, whom I had regarded for forty years as just another pretty voice. No. Smart, tough, principled in a world that isn’t. I hereby apologize.

In that war—I forget what planet it was on—the freaks and professors and mothers and the simply decent finally managed stop the carnage, though only after the Pentagon had killed 60,000 American kids and a million or so Vietnamese, not to mention devastating Laos and bringing Pol Pot to power. God I’m proud. We’re such a force for democracy.

When the GIs left Asia in ’73, the commie peaceniks thought they had won. And they had, for ten minutes. The grip of the military on the country loosened briefly.

Unfortunately the soldiers learned. Not how to win wars, which they do poorly if at all, but how to keep a war going. Winning a war isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The promotions and contracts stop. When you are paid to do something, it is in your interest not to finish doing it.

The Pentagon’s first lesson learned was to avoid conscription, as the conscripted and their families will take to the streets. By using an army of volunteer suckers about whom nobody of importance cares, the military severs its wars from most of the country, which loses interest. The brass are then free to do as they choose.

The second lesson learned was that while defeating the enemy is not necessary, and perhaps not desirable, controlling the press is everything. And they did it.

So forty or so years after all the love-ins, the marches, the righteous dope (all of which may seem silly, but in my view preferable to watching a Cambodian mother screaming over the opened bleeding guts of her child) the Pentagon is at it again. Once more the jets howl over remote primitive countries, countries that did nothing to the US and couldn’t have, and promotions flow, and contracts, and generals demand more troops and more money to stop communism. Excuse me, terrorism. Soon, the Chinese, a better threat, coming to a theater near you. With the passing of years, one demon fades into another. Switching enemies is much easier now, what with search-and-replace.

But it’s all about democracy and freedom and patriotism and Saving America from…from something. The hoopla changes little, and how well it works. Patriotic friends sometimes say to me of the military ardent things like, “When your country says go, you go!” I seldom point out that no one in their families is in the slightest danger of having to go, nor that “the country” is recruiting hard and they aren’t urging their children to enlist; nor do I ask, “What is your attitude toward having your daughter drafted onto the streets of Baghdad for five tours, perhaps coming back drooling and gurbling for life after having her brains scrambled by a roadside bomb?” Patriotism is important to patriots. They are full of it, and I’m about a quart low. I shut up. I don’t want to lose friends.

Yet…I think I must be a communist. It seems to me that when your country says “go,” you should ask, “Why?” Do you have a reason to kill whoever you are being sent to kill? Then go. Otherwise, don’t. If I told you to go to Ottawa and kill Canadians, you would think me mad, and think it correctly. Why then should you obediently kill them because a politician in Washington tells you to do it? I do not understand.

And of course “your country” doesn’t tell you anything at all. Countries are abstractions. Men tell you to go, and for their own purposes: Dick Cheney or George Bush, Nixon or Nitze, or the men who run the petroleum industry, or people in the Israeli lobby, or men in the military companies who want contracts, or officers who want to give war a try.

Why are these people “my country”? And why isn’t Joan Baez my country instead of David Petraeus? I will choose who is my country, thank you. Ledbelly, Benny Goodman, Carl Perkins and Miss Emily Anne will come before Lemay, McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, and Obama. Long before.

Soldiers talk much of honor. I do not understand how military service can possibly be thought honorable. If the Wehrmacht were landing in North Carolina, yes, but I do not believe that it is. Where is the honor in bombing from the air lightly armed peasants who can’t fight back? It is cowardly, yes, and obscene, but do not talk of honor. Murder for hire is murder for hire.

We now have men who sit at screens, drinking coffee and firing missiles from remote robotic aircraft at people on the ground whom they cannot identify. Brave men, they. I could burst into a kindergarten and kill the children with a ball bat. The one is as honorable as the other.

Recently I saw on television a black sergeant in Afghanistan, probably chosen by his commander for photogenicity, standing in front of a tank or mobile gun, I forget which. He said something scripted like “This is a such-and-such unit, the most powerful fighting force in the world.” This sort of ritual cockiness is carefully ingrained. Near my barracks in Parris Island was a sign, “The most dangerous thing in the world is a Marine rifleman.” If it had said “an ambitious colonel” it would have come closer to truth.

But one may wonder (unless one already knows) how good the Pentagon’s military really is. A pissed-off peasant with an RPG would seem on the evidence more effective than the pricey zoom-kapows arrayed against him.

I cannot endorse the politics of the Taliban. If one of them told me that my daughter couldn’t go to school, one of us would leave the room on a stretcher. Yet as fighting men, are they not magnificent? They have only rifles, explosives, RPGs, and balls. Their enemies have unlimited air support, helicopters, armor, artillery, sophisticated communications, night-vision gear, good food and excellent medical care. The Taliban take heavy casualties, their enemies almost none. The ragheads do not even have PX privileges. Yet they have not been defeated. A fight on even terms would last perhaps five minutes.

This, for a trillion dollars.

What the hell. Plus ca change, plus ca doesn’t. Next year in Beijing. Tell you what, though. I never liked Kum Ba Yah, and “We Shall Overcome” is probably the sappiest song ever written. But those people had nothing to be ashamed of.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest book is Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit his blog.

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