Thursday, August 23, 2012

Boys, Girls, The Military, Illusions and a Must-Read by Chris Hedges

Trench warfare, World War I

The disillusionment comes swiftly. It is not the war of the movies. It is not the glory promised by the recruiters. The mythology fed to you by the church, the press, the school, the state, and the entertainment industry is exposed as a lie. We are not a virtuous nation. God has not blessed America. Victory is not assured. And we can be as evil, even more evil, than those we oppose. War is venal, noisy, frightening, and dirty. The military is a vast bureaucratic machine fueled by hyper-masculine fantasies and arcane and mind-numbing rules. War is always about betrayal—betrayal of the young by the old, of idealists by cynics, and of soldiers and Marines by politicians.
                                             -- Chris Hedges 

You know when the big war holidays come around -- Memorial Day, Veterans' Day, etc. etc.? Those of us who oppose war and shrink from glorifying it in any way, also shrink from expressing our true opinions of it -- how difficult it is to "honor soldiers," pay respect to those who have given us "the ultimate sacrifice" -- because we will (and often are) called unpatriotic, miserable, and ungrateful. I have been called all of these, even by members of my own family, so I generally post a poem or two written by Wilfred Owen, one of the young artists of World War I who not only spoke eloquently of the war he experienced but actually died in the trenches fighting. I've gotten into "trouble" on this blog expressing my opinion of war, my reluctance to pay homage to those who fight it, my struggles and conflicts regarding young men and women who offer themselves up to either kill or be killed and sometimes both. I have a long list of comments, all from Anonymous, who denounce my pacifist leanings, and some have said terrible things about my Swiss husband and even our children. I have a relative who works in a branch of the services who told me recently, quite sarcastically and casually, that he would continue to "be on the watch," guarding me as I ungratefully lived my otherwise carefree life, taking advantage of those, like himself, living a higher purpose. And while I might roll my eyes at the censure (who in the hell does he think is paying his salary?), I balk at the vast distance between those like me and those like him. I wish it weren't so.

War comes wrapped in patriotic slogans; calls for sacrifice, honor, and heroism; and promises of glory. It comes wrapped in the claims of divine providence. It is what a grateful nation asks of its children. It is what is right and just. It is waged to make the nation and the world a better place, to cleanse evil. War is touted as the ultimate test of manhood, where the young can find out what they are made of. From a distance it seems noble. It gives us comrades and power and a chance to play a bit part in the great drama of history. It promises to give us identities as warriors, patriots, as long as we go along with the myth, the one the war-makers need to wage wars and the defense contractors need to increase their profits.

But up close war is a soulless void. War is about barbarity, perversion, and pain. Human decency and tenderness are crushed, and people become objects to use or kill. The noise, the stench, the fear, the scenes of eviscerated bodies and bloated corpses, the cries of the wounded all combine to spin those in combat into another universe. In this moral void, naïvely blessed by secular and religious institutions at home, the hypocrisy of our social conventions, our strict adherence to moral precepts, becomes stark. War, for all its horror, has the power to strip away the trivial and the banal, the empty chatter and foolish obsessions that fill our days. It might let us see, although the cost is tremendous.

When I went to Washington, D.C. last spring with my two sons, I realized that much of the city is built around memorials to war, to violence, to honoring those who have either killed in defense or perished for freedom or been burned or tortured or otherwise obliterated for ideals. I know, such is life, and I'm not going to pretend that I have any answers. I tromped around and exclaimed at the beauty of the monuments, the history of the brave and the great sentiments, even as I shrank at the horror of it all.  My son Oliver, now eleven, has always been a bit star-struck by soldiering, and given his lack of enthusiasm for school, I get nervous, every now and then, that one day he might want to join the military. Last spring, when the Armed Forces took over a section of the parking lot of Sophie's large, public high school, populated primarily by the disadvantaged and minorities, with their trailers and tents and cheerful pamphlets, I felt nauseous. Cool! Oliver said, when he saw the recruiters, spanky shiny in their stiff uniforms. Awesome! It helps that The Husband is utterly and completely anti-war and also has a cool disdain for American jingoism, but every parent knows that our influence on our children is haphazard at best. For all I know, Oliver (much like his mother -- ahem --) might completely buck our system, vote conservative and become a general.

The Husband, disturbed by what he sees in our sons' starry-eyed view of soldiers, guns and blow-em-up escapades,  brought home a recent article in Boston Review written by the Pulitzer prize-winning correspondent Chris Hedges. It's called War is Betrayal: Persistent Myths of Combat. Hedges writes in simple, powerful language that from as far back as The Iliad, the allure of combat is a trap, a ploy, an old, dirty game of deception in which the powerful, who do not go to war, promise a mirage to those who do.

The Husband is going to have Henry, my older son, read it, and then discuss it with Oliver, too. I figure that, at best, it'll begin to help balance out the bullshit that they've already been exposed to, and we'll hopefully steer them toward a different sort of service in the world, recognizing that yes, this is part of life, but we won't kill to make it better.

Read the whole article here.


  1. Thank you for sharing that article.

  2. You know, I think that some boys are just born as warriors. Maybe some girls, too.
    A friend of mine, as pacifistic as you and I, had such a son. He was fascinated with all things military, he loved uniforms. He joined ROTC (WAY against my friend's wishes and the father, if anything, was even more anti-military) and eventually, after the boy became a man, he joined the Marines.
    Went to Iraq.
    And he came back. It almost killed his mother when he was gone. But he survived and so did she. And now he's given her a granddaughter and he's a househusband and he won't kill so much as a fly. Quite literally.

  3. These days it is virtually impossible to take a position without being readily dismissed, ignored or attacked...our positions reflect who we are ... they are expressions of self; unfortunately, the house in which we live is a divided one!

  4. When I was in high school I read Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun (written in 1938). Already against war, this book stunned me further. I agree with all you say, and I also have many friends who are veterans and say it was the best experience of their lives. Though only a very few I know where in actual combat. That may make a difference.

    I also have a huge problem with the fact that it is our country's most disadvantaged people who make up the bulk of our military. It is one of the few options open to them as they begin their adult lives.

    Thank you for this post, I'm going to read the article as well.

  5. Thank you for opening my eyes to Chris Hedges. He says so clearly what we think and feel but can't quite find the words for.

    I've never wanted to stand on a picket line or march for something, sometimes I think it's all so futile. But once in awhile I wish I lived close by to you and that we decided (against both of our natures) to stand together ....against war or some such other horrid ideology. I would feel so brave beside you.

  6. I can't wait to read this article.

    It's so frustrating that we can't be critical of war without generating a huge amount of social opprobrium. Pacifists get accused of "not supporting our troops." What BETTER way to support the troops than to oppose sending them into harm's way, particularly in pursuit of some ridiculous, often hazy goal?

  7. what steve said.

    you know, i read once that military recruiters target teens before they become men (and women), before all their neurons get properly connected at say age 22, because by that time they are able to see the folly of putting themselves in the line of fire. but at 18, 19, 20, war is still a thrilling adventure, their mortality not quite real.

    thanks for this. my own son often flirted with joining the military. I think becoming a fire fighter is his fall back position, and i'll take it.

  8. God bless the husband. M came this close to joining the Army. Nearly killed me.

  9. I too am a pacifist. When I tell people this I get "the look". I was called arrogant once and this from a man who went to Afghanistan to rebuild after it was decimated. He made a shit load of money doing it too. The almighty dollar...but never mind.

    When I tell people that I am a Quaker and being a pacifist is part of my religious beliefs people generally let up but I can see the look behind their eyes. It doesn't make sense to them. They have been raised to think war is a necessary evil and you are a hero if you go off to fight. Hero? Sadly, a product of a society that brainwashes young men and women into thinking that fighting to the death will somehow fix things. And by no means am I saying I have all the answers either. I just know that we need to stop sacrificing young men and women for what is mostly nonsense. How many died in Iraq while hunting WMD? What a waste!
    Anyway... I will share this with you.

    Canadian Council of Churches supports
    US war resisters
    On International Conscientious
    Objectors Day (May 15th), The
    Canadian Council of Churches’
    Commission on Justice and Peace
    released a letter to Jason Kenney, the
    Minister of Citizenship, Immigration
    and Multiculturalism asking “the
    Government of Canada to either allow
    the US war resisters to stay in Canada
    on humanitarian and compassionate
    grounds or to create a mechanism,
    perhaps a revision of Bill C-440, that
    would enable them to apply for status
    from within Canada.”
    The Council’s letter states: “As
    churches, rights of conscience and
    religion hold a particular significance
    for us as we seek to encourage people
    to live faithful lives. We are of the
    opinion that when they have followed
    their conscience in the decision they
    made to refuse to serve in war and to
    come to Canada then their
    circumstances warrant humanitarian
    and compassionate relief. Their beliefs
    are protected under domestic and
    international law, and facilitating their
    punishment by returning them to the
    United States, in our opinion, is
    regrettable.” 80% of Christians in
    Canada are represented through the
    Council, so this endorsement is

    It's a start...



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