The Desert They Call Peace

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