and the Culture of War
come of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I still find myself
having many of those famous Second Thoughts popularized by David
Horowitz (though I arrived at a different destination). To many
of my generation, this reconsideration is seen as anything from
unnecessary to bewildering. Most of the American public seems
to share this attitude, hence it's no wonder that the effects of
bad foreign and economic policy continue.
Charles Rangel (D, NY) recently proposed resurrecting the military
draft. It's a silly idea, but it reveals the current level
of desperation among pacifists to stop the fanatical war cabal in
the White House. In 1968 I registered for the draft and waited
for my birth date (August 31, 1950) to be drawn for selection.
August 31 drew number 11, and if it were not for my 1-Y deferment
(i.e., losing the use of my left arm to polio), I would have been
on my way to Southeast Asia. Many of my friends were "lucky"
enough to be selected, but I truly wanted to go. As the horrors
and futility of Vietnam now become more obvious with every passing
year, what was it that played a large part in convincing me that
I wanted to go?
and the Rise of Television
the 1950s, World War II was still fresh in the public mind and television
was becoming an increasingly prominent part of everyday life.
TV programming in the 1950s was filled with Westerns and war movies
balanced with the occasional horror film at the local drive in.
Westerns always had good guys prevailing over bad guys by
way of the gun. The adventures of Wyatt Earp (Wyatt Earp),
Johnny Uma (The Rebel), Paladin (Have
Gun Will Travel), Maverick (Maverick),
and Marshall Dillon (Gunsmoke)
made the Western king. Virtually all Westerns centered on
bad guys committing a crime followed by good guys killing the bad
guys for their crime. This injected an atmosphere of self-righteous
vigilantism into the culture. Americans were inherently good
people, could readily discern good from evil, and therefore not
only had the right to march around their communities and cities
like Robert Conrad with their chests puffed out, but also march
around the Western hemisphere or world and "put the hurt" on people
of whom they didn't approve.
this time more literal enactments of war were of course found in
such conspicuous weekly TV dramas as 12
O’clock High and Combat.
12 O'clock was about the adventures of a squadron of B-17s.
Combat documented the activities of a squad of American GIs
in the European theatre. When conducting their assigned patrol
and encountering German troops or winning over a German position,
the small squad numbering 46 soldiers always implausibly survived
the fierce fire fight while numerous German soldiers were always
killed. This military implausibility of Americans winning
just because they were good ol' Americans preceded the inane Rambo
series by decades. One can only wonder how the rest of the
world has marveled at our cultural arrogance as these movies and
TV shows are replayed overseas. One wonders what their appeal
could be to the rest of the world. My hunch is that some clever
impresario has reclassified them as comedies.
comedies continued the cultural dishonesty. Hogan’s
Heroes and McHale’s
Navy seldom (if ever at all) showed hand-to-hand combat
and limited the human carnage and destruction of war to safely distant
explosions of bombs. The main characters were always heroes
and rarely did we see crew members suffer loss of life or limb or
kill fellow soldiers in agonizing incidents of friendly fire.
In the interest of added realism, some programs did allow some death.
These "kill off" roles lasted for usually no more than a few episodes.
(It was truly a pity for any acting career to get typecast into
could have been better at portraying the horror of war but were
only used to create a reason for a soldier to become a hero (e.g.,
to gladly storm a position to become machine gun fodder).
If killed, the soldier’s sacrifice was always (unconvincingly) portrayed
as leading to some significant advance of Allied troops or the winning
of a key battle. The movie To
Hell and Back (1955) was released as a dramatized autobiography
of the heroic achievements of Audie Murphy during the Second World
War. Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, Audie was depicted
as willing to risk himself to save a position, a comrade, or the
fate of a battle. Much overlooked was the distinct possibility
that there could have been some not-so-admirable reasons for Audie's
behavior. It's been said that Audie’s attraction to heroic
exploits was rooted in a psychological need to "measure up" in terms
of proving his manhood. His small stature caused him to think
that to be considered equal to other soldiers, he had to be braver
than they were, even to the point of recklessness.
of Iwo Jima (1949), John Wayne portrayed hardened Marine
sergeant John Stryker whose job was to eliminate individualism by
training recruits to "…move like one man and think like one
man." The film audience learns that good soldiers train
harder than the enemy and do what they are told. The actor
John Agar played Conway, a cultured son of a military hero who had
an attitude of indifference ("I’m a civilian, not a Marine.
I’m strictly here for tradition."). Conway bucked
against Stryker and his tactics at every move. However, while
daydreaming about his new bride Conway is saved from injury from
a grenade explosion by Stryker and over time the anti-marine becomes
Supermarine. So much so, in fact, that near the end of the
film with Stryker lying dead it is (surprise!) no one other than
Conway who effortlessly steps into Stryker's shoes telling the other
squad members, "Alright, saddle up. Let’s get back in
the war!" Sands, if anything, was excellent in
selling the "adventure of war" to an entire generation of innocent
and impressionable young kids. The Marine branch of the armed
services viewed Sands as one of its best recruiting films
of the Baby Boom such as Ron Kovic grew up on a steady diet of these
war glorification films, and this primed them to be gun and bomb
fodder in Vietnam. Unfortunately for Mr. Kovic and many men
like him, by the time they learned the ugly real truth about war
it was too late. In retrospect, blind support for war was
an objective Hollywood's producers and directors accomplished with
great success. It's too bad many of them weren't sent to the
front lines instead.
small, blue-collar Midwest country town I was raised in was a place
where the VFW was dotingly honored and military service was unquestioningly
revered. In my teens the late 1960s presented me with the
Cold War, a time with which the current generation of young people
is increasingly unfamiliar. More so than today's background
fear of terrorism was the daily confrontation between the nuclear
superpowers. Television was a useful tool to drum a steady
fear into the consciousness of America about communism and Soviet
expansion. Every move and countermove between the superpowers
was sensationalized nightly through the reporting of Walter Cronkite.
Nikita Khrushchev, then leader of the USSR, was on television
pounding his shoe on a podium telling the American public, "We
will bury you!"
thus played a role in centralizing the government's power.
Fear spread to small, local communities. In junior high school
a course on nuclear war and survival was offered. The feeling
was pervasive that nuclear destruction was imminent, so I eagerly
took the course and learned the proper way to build a fallout shelter,
how long to remain in it once the war started, what to stock it
with, and where to find fresh water and edible food during the first
year or two after a nuclear attack. The irony is that it was
well known to the defense establishment that these shelters would
have been easily destroyed and hence useless in any large-scale
attack. Unless they had thick lead walls, they would have
done little to protect the occupants against dangerous gamma radiation.
Yet the defense establishment let the public engage in a ubiquitous
survival-planning charade for decades. "Duck and cover"
bombing drills were carried out with the same regularity as fire
or storm drills, the latter protecting children against much more
plausible and survivable threats. Civil
Defense groups organized, provided guides for building and stocking
fallout shelters, and served as general organs propagating the Cold
people of my generation have quickly forgotten the fear, paranoia,
and propaganda of this era through which we as young Americans endured.
Only in retrospect is it amazing that so many of us so unquestioningly
went along with it. We "knew" that war with the USSR would
lead to our annihilation and deterrence through a strong nuclear
arsenal was the only solution. It was known as MAD, mutually
assured destruction, and a mad season it was. Laughably, the
cultural agitprop insisted that the opportunity to be a traditional
military hero was still alive. Hero status was now said to
be attainable through snitch behavior designed to stop the Terrible
Threat of Communism. Views of communism like those of Murray
Rothbard – that the Soviet menace, based as it was on an incorrigibly
flawed economy, was overblown were seen as anything from
unpatriotic to loony. As time goes on, Rothbard seems to be
vindicated more and more. Nevertheless, the government used
events in Cuba to persuade us that the menace was very real: communism
and hostile missiles within 100 miles of a major US city.
They were "coming to get us" any day.
litmus test of my generation's patriotism was Vietnam. Some
of my friends were drafted, others volunteered and went off to combat.
I received letters from one friend complaining not about the validity
of the war or the atrocities being committed by the likes of John
Kerry, but about not receiving letters from girls. Not getting
letters from girls! Imagine that. Here was someone who
bought into the nonsense that women were going to fawn all over
him now that he was in the Army. After all, they fawned all
over John Wayne because he played soldier on the Big Screen.
Why wouldn't they fawn even more over the real McCoy?
Stevens Wilfong (19501969)
letters I most eagerly awaited were from my friend Gil. We
grew up together attending the same schools and church and becoming
good friends. He was a wonderful hunting, fishing, and camping
companion. In one of his letters sent to me from Nam, he revealed
his desire to be a helicopter door gunner. The Gil I knew
could make it through anything, but this concerned me. Helicopter
door gunner was one of the most perilous positions in the war.
The only appeal it had to young, impressionable guys like Gil was
the glory of braving extreme danger to protect comrades and "kill
gooks." Gil swore me to strict confidence about his desire
for this dangerous position, imploring me not to tell his parents.
I tried to dissuade him, but my efforts were in vain. As I
reflect on it now, his impetuous desire to put himself in harm's
way was exactly what the fictional Stryker, Conway, and Thomas would
have done. It is what I tried to do but was prevented.
my deferment kept me home, I counted the days until Gil's return.
I looked forward to us returning to afternoons of fishing at the
lake, nights sitting around the campfire joking, telling stories,
and lying about girls. I missed our trips rabbit hunting in
the winter and our debates about which brands of shotguns was the
never forget the beautiful Sunday morning I walked to church and
heard the last thing I'd ever hear about Gil. As I approached
the small building, an ominous dark-colored car almost silently
floated by me on the narrow, gravel road on which I was walking.
Like the Devil's hearse, the car came to a quiet halt in the small
white gravel church parking lot. Two men in crisp officer
uniforms got out of the vehicle and stiffly walked toward the building
with grave expressions on their faces. I got a sick feeling
in the pit of my stomach. As our paths toward the church sanctuary
door converged, their eyes met mine. I asked them if they
needed any help. One of them asked for directions to the church
office. I accompanied them to the office feeling sicker with every
step. As I turned to walk away from the office I overheard their
request to see Mr. and Mrs. Wilfong, an indescribable feeling
of loss overcame me. All the beautiful aspects of nature on
that resplendent country morning suddenly seemed tenuous, fleeting,
that afternoon, under a swollen and fading orange sun, I entered
Gil's home to offer my condolences to his parents. The living
room of their small home was crowded but subdued and somber.
Immediately his mother saw me and quietly approached. "Oh
Rodney… we lost him," she gasped, tears streaming down her
face. Gil's father sat next to her in catatonic despair, not
even able to raise his eyes from the floor, never mind face anyone
in the room.
I returned home in the late-summer twilight along that quiet road
Gil and I had so often traveled, it finally sunk in that he was
gone forever. Gone forever were our future night visits to
the local drive in, future afternoons watching baseball games, and
our plans to live and raise families near each other. The only
thing left to fill his lively presence was a deafening emptiness.
in the Clowns
a paradox that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Stryker and the rest of Hollywood's band of fictional war heroes
from yesteryear were just as deceptive as today's bloodthirsty neoconservatives.
War for world domination doesn't create heroes or winners, just
empty spaces where warm friends, dear family members, and fond memories
once stood. The Northeastern neocon elite doesn’t care about
this because their sons and daughters won't be the ones killing
and dying on the front lines of Dubya's war. In light of this,
a revision of Charlie Rangel's recent proposal just might be the
answer: draft the neocons.
Oglesby, PhD, CPA [send
him mail], teaches accounting in Missouri. He is
treasurer of the Polk County Libertarian Party and the newest contributor
© 2003 LewRockwell.com