No Victory Parade for 'Most Beautiful Army'

"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