There are two concepts all of us have to struggle with. One is our individuality. The other is the mass.
Individual soldiers who survive combat often come home to realize that all of the horrific and heroic actions they took don’t mean anything. Vietnam, for example, is ruled by a communist government. Nobody but a historian even remembers what World War I was all about, much less the 10 million young men who died fighting it. World War II and Korea are likewise fading from public memory.
It’s poignant to realize that each human being, unique in the entire universe, has at best only a short life. If left in peace, he can experience childhood, youth, middle age and finally old age. But all too often, governments come along, lying to beat the band, and persuade youth to become part of the mass and fight in a war.
I saw a documentary on the Battle of the Somme recently. It was a dandy plan to subject the German trenches in World War I to a heretofore-unprecedented artillery barrage. Then the lads would charge out of their trenches across no man’s land. The generals thought they would punch a hole in the German lines through which the cavalry would ride and break the war wide open.
The artillery barrage, hellish as it was, didn’t do the job. German machine-gunners came out of their bunkers and mowed down the young Brits. About 20,000 died on that day. Altogether, before the battle was over, British casualties would total 370,000.
Even this brief description reduces it all to the abstract. Twenty thousand? What’s that? A number. The Somme is just a place in France. One wishes one could put a face on each of the 20,000. Add a face, a name, a life story. But no, they are just part of the masses that were sacrificed in the 20th century, a portion of the nearly 200 million who died in that failed century.
I’m glad that I discouraged all my children from serving in the military, even though I had served. It is important, I believe, to separate the natural and noble feeling of love of country from the present reality. The young people dying in Iraq are not dying to protect their country. As usual, they were lied to. They’re dying for corporate profits, in which they do not share; they are dying because of some academic’s harebrained belief that we can turn Iraq into a liberal democratic state; they are dying because of political opportunists in Washington.
Iraq is an artificial country created at the end of World War I by British colonialism. It has always existed because a powerful central government, wielding its authority in the most savage manner, has forced it to hold together. That is the only history Iraq has. Can any honest American say that 10 years from now, Iraq will be a peaceful and prosperous country with many monuments to the Americans who liberated it? No, if Iraq exists, it will exist the way it always has — with a central government wielding its power in a savage and bloody manner.
American veterans, like the veterans of other modern wars since 1945, will conclude that all they did turned out to be meaningless.
When the enemy is in American surf, when his foot is on our soil, then we will all fight and gladly die in defense of our country. But it is time to stop supplying cannon fodder to an imperial government pursuing God-knows-what secret schemes in distant parts of the world.
Do not hand your precious one-of-a-kind children over to cynical men who will squander their lives without blinking an eye. It is a sad thing to die for another’s profits.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.