CAVEAT (A fancy Latin word for WARNING): Any topic that qualifies as a complicated conversation generally contains a lot of heated passion from every side, regardless of the topic being explored. I will of course be talking from my own point of view, so go with the assumption that it’s my opinion. When I give facts, I will also provide the appropriate links so that you know it’s NOT my opinion.
So before I wade into the fray, I remind my gentle readers that regardless of how much of a twist your knickers get into, this is still a POLITE conversation. Anything less than polite (flaming, obscenity directed at the author or the other comments, hate speech, derogatory remarks without real substance for an alternate view, or sheer stupidity) will be deleted and the user will be blocked.
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…” (Shakespeare, Henry V, Act iii, scene i)
CAVEAT, Part Two: some of the photographs in this essay are not pretty. Most of them, in fact. They are meant to disturb you and to educate you. If they offend you, just don’t look at them. And don’t bother commenting on how upset they made you, because as I just told you, they should make you upset.
Once a year, this nation honors our military; those currently serving, those who served and survived, and the many, many war dead. You should recognize this particular memorial as the raising of the flag on the small island of Iwo Jima during WWII. I will continue to add pictures of war in this essay. Some will be the sanitized, socially acceptable memorials and carefully arranged photos of our soldiers. Others will not be. Be prepared. If they bother you, well, they are supposed to–and if you are offended, be offended on your own time and not in my writing space. Stop reading if you end up *that* offended. (Refer to the header above when in doubt as to what to do.)
It is my intention, the writing of this, to honor all of our veterans, throughout most of this past century. I’m not going to talk about the (un)Civil War, or the war against the British when we fought to become a nation unto ourselves. No, I want to look at what is, in the steady stream of time passing, the “recent” past, starting at about World War II. I also will generally use male pronouns, as until fairly recently, only men went to fight. Of course we all know better. Women have been as knee-deep in battle as any man, even back in the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
Men could not have fought successfully as they did (either side of the conflict) if it weren’t for the unspoken, unacknowledged but very active support given by the females of the our species. Cooks, laundresses, nurses, doctors when needs must, providing not only the physical relief for mundane physical needs–but also providing more intangible things such as a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on (because Big Boys DO cry), and yes, even sex and not always for money. Don’t mock or denigrate those women who shared their bodies with lonely, frightened young men.
And don’t kid yourself that all those soldiers were Real Men, impervious to fear and willing, even eager, to go out and kill–or be killed. No one in their right mind actively courts death, seriously pursues activities that will almost assuredly lead to their own personal end of life. The concept of dying for their country is a vague and nebulous thing, something that might happen, but never really to them. And that idea lasts until their first fire fight, the first bomb that lands near their platoon and they watch their comrades die right before their eyes. And then, THEN, they are slapped in the face with the cold, hard fact that Death doesn’t care who it takes. When your time is up, Death has no problem collecting souls.
Don’t fall for the myth of the war movies, where the hero always survives, where the big name star is still standing at the end, waving the flag and serving as propaganda to con other young men into signing up for battle. War is NOT glorious. War is bloody, messy, degrading, demoralizing, and there is no way to push a button and try to play out the battle again to a successful end this time. It’s not a game. There are no series of bosses, easy to hard levels, a chance to build up extra hit points before facing the Final Boss. Every encounter with the enemy can be anyone’s last battle–even if it’s their first one at the same time. War is de-humanizing; it’s literally a case of “kill or be killed” and there’s no chance to determine if there is any other way to solve this puzzle.
There is only one rule in war, in any war–survive at all costs. And it will cost. A lot. Far too many soldiers have lost their humanity in the fight to stay alive, and so we have become witnesses to atrocities that are unbelievable to those who were not there at that time. Photos were taken–and not always by news reporters but by those who had committed these acts and were getting souvenirs of it. And those things that occurred but have no photographic evidence…the whispered conversations, the “I heard (such and such)” comes out to shock and dismay the civilians who have no personal knowledge. And some of those horrors are dismissed as being too much, too dreadful to be believed. Until somehow they are proven and we are aghast at the loss of humanity inherent to the actions.
Disturbing photo here:
I do not know if these soldiers are American or not. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that some men hold the power and are abusing it over the naked man who is about to be smashed with a boot. This is what war is about, this is one look at what war does to otherwise “nice” men.
The litany of wars is long, to the point where it seems as if there’s always a war going on, somewhere in the world. And there is, oh how there is. I mean, really! When you have a conflict go on long enough that it’s actually called “The Hundred Years’ War”? But I am trying to limit myself to the 20th century, from World War II to modern day. And that in itself is a long list. The USA didn’t even enter the world’s war until the date of “infamy”, December 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
It was August in 1945 when the USA ended the war by using atomic weapons for the first time in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That included another famous ship, the USS Indianapolis–but no one knew that until after the war because it was sent by secret mission to take The Bomb to the airfield that would be used to actually deliver the bomb from a B-52. The Indianapolis made its delivery at Tinian, but was sunk by Japanese submarines on its way to the Philippines. It went down with 300 dying on board and then the remaining 900 sailors went in the water–and no one knew where they were because most of the military had no idea of their mission. Those men were in the water for 3 days before rescue eventually came to them–and there was only 317 of the crew of 1,196 aboard still alive. The men in the water had to fight off sharks for those 3 days. Two-thirds of them died by exposure and/or those sharks.
USS Indianapolis Memorial
I have had the incredible experience of meeting a survivor from each of those two famous ships–not both at the same time, of course, but over the years I have traveled and seen the world. In fact, I was actually living in Saigon, Vietnam, for the Tet Offensive of 1968. I can remember going up onto the roof of our apartment and seeing the “fireworks” (all red, because they were actually tracer rounds). My father was working for Air America at the time, having gotten out of the Army as a pilot for cargo planes. He was flying for AA at that time and he always carried a pistol. We lived in a dead-end alley, along with several other American families. The men took turns, keeping guard from the rooftop at the open end of the alley–and one man actually did kill two Viet Cong who were coming into the area. I didn’t know that then; after all, I was just 6 years old. I didn’t understand about the war.
My father is now a fully disabled “Agent Orange” veteran. My mother told me that they would used tanker trucks to spray the Agent Orange (exfoliant) and then “wash” the trucks out in the river. They would fill up the tank with water and the men would use that to shower themselves. In Agent Orange residue. This is also what war is like, when your military uses things, not even really considered weapons, to facilitate their battle efforts–and end up hurting their own soldiers.
It’s generally accepted today that the Vietnam war was a huge failure. So many young men (and women) killed, so much money spent on the equipment used, that often failed in the wet heat of the jungle, trying to fight an enemy that could disappear like mist into that same jungle. That was the last war that used conscripted (“called up”) soldiers, with the draft taking the young men indiscriminately, killing potential doctors, teachers, firemen, fathers, scholars; men who might have changed the world but never lived to show any sort of meaningful contributing factor to our world. This is just as true for the women who also died in that conflict. Keep in mind that they were not drafted. They volunteered to go, knowing that they might not return. Does that make their deaths somehow more significant? I don’t know. I consider all the deaths, male or female, drafted or not–all of them as an enormous waste of potential that will never be realized.
Vietnam Memorial Wall, Washington DC
The Vietnam war was the first one that was essentially fought in “real time”. We now had had the technology to show the war on the home television sets. We had reporters in uniform, with helmets, standing alongside of the soldiers, telling the civilians just what was going on. We SAW, for the first time, war live and happening NOW. Not a bland newspaper article, carefully written to only present the best view. No, we saw the Real Thing, up close and personal. Many of our citizens vilified the soldiers, spitting on them as they returned, wounded in body and soul. Many who would have died in earlier wars from the terrible wounds now lived, sort of. Missing limbs, missing eyes, head shots that somehow healed physically but the mind…was never the same. We had to learn the terms of “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” and “flashbacks”. Society suddenly had a group of very, very angry men; men who knew that the entire thing had been a lie, had been hopeless and the upper ranks who had known that but had thrown their enlisted bodies at the enemy as if they were nothing more than a human bomb.
An addition to the Vietnam Memorial, called “Walking Into the Wall”
This was a war where the lieutenants learned not to turn their backs on their own men because they might be killed by “friendly fire”. Keep in mind–lieutenants are the lowest of the officers. They were fresh out of college, with the ink on their commission (that piece of paper making them an officer) still wet, with no more battle experience than a child. And they were put in charge of men who had been fighting together long enough to have steel bonds holding them in place–and frequently, the lieutenant would give orders without any knowledge behind them, never understanding just what it was he was directing them to do–but they knew. They understand that if they followed those orders, they would almost assuredly die, to a man. It took a smart lieutenant to let his most senior sergeant make the orders because that was what would keep all of them alive the longest.
This was the war that we never won, would never win. We just gave up and what was left of our military slunk back home to derision and ridicule. No hero’s welcome for them. And no treatment for the host of mental disorders that accompanied them back to their native land. It has taken YEARS for the government to finally address that and begin the process of helping them adjust and re-acclimatize to being in a non-war environment. Thank all the gods for the dog, who has stepped up and into his working vest, to help these men remember what being human should feel like, to help the man at his side live a meaningful life again, without needing a gun to feel safe.
The Vietnam war also taught another lesson that is more sinister and causes more problems now than it could ever hope to solve: the birth of the Military Industrial Complex. Sadly, our economy is based on waging war. We have several corporations who end product is not a tangible product, but the ephemeral one of a continual ongoing war. It doesn’t really matter against who, or the apparent reason (always a great sounding one) for fighting, just as long as there is a war going on somewhere, using up planes and jeeps and … soldiers. Women are now included in that group. I suggest because we are running out of males who are willing to sign up for a quick trip overseas and the eternal chance of dying wherever the war is being run.
Old men send young men into battle without blinking their eyes at the number that goes. Without a thought for the home front, for the family left behind each of those soldiers, for the mothers and fathers, the daughters and sons, the lovers, the husbands’ wives they will never have, the children who will not be born, the lives that will not be lived. All sacrificed to the Military Industrial Complex, the “too big to fail” corporations that makes their millions and billions through the deaths of others, never their own CEOs or shareholders.
We talk about the Middle East as if it were one place. It’s not, it never has been. It has been a warzone since before the USA was even born. It has ALWAYS had strife and battle for water, for land, for oil. Each tribe considers every other tribe to be the interloper on *their* patch of sand, ever since the first time two different men spotted each other in the distance, back when horses were barely known and camels were the way to get around. A nomadic life was the only one that was sustainable–so oases and waterholes became the goldmines of life, worth killing for, worth dying for. Over the millennia, these tribes have only become more insular, more wary of “the stranger”. “If you eat at my table, I cannot kill you.” the saying goes. Actually, it ends like this: “I cannot kill you for three days.” That means you have exactly 3 days to get beyond my reach.
Life in a desert is harsh beyond our plush American way so understanding it, truly comprehending it in our heart and bones, is impossible. Even the worst American household is like Paradise compared to the harshness and unforgiving nature of the desert. So when you’re talking about a desert dweller, they are, by necessity and by Nature, also going to be harsh and unforgiving. They must, or they will not survive. And over the years, this means that only the harshest survive to breed. They teach their children to be harsh as well, because of course they want their children to live. As Americans, we simply cannot understand that in a truly visceral way–and “knowing” it in a purely theoretical and hypothetical way is insufficient to be able to meet them on common ground. No wonder we label them as ignorant savages. They aren’t; remember out of these tribes we have received Arabic numerals, the very ones we use to write our accounting books. We have geometry, astronomy and other learning that came from these dwellers in the sand.
As in many other groups, religion entered their way of life and just like Christianity, ended up leading to more wars than any peaceful acceptance of their fellow humans. (Fellow and gals? Whatever the word is, I mean all others, not just males.) Muslims, again just like Christians, argue amongst themselves as to their common book and what each part means, splitting into sects that have to argue (and make war) against those who don’t believe in their interpretation.
Americans can’t even get their own nation to agree on one religion–which is not necessarily a bad thing. We are a wildly diverse nation to begin with; how could we all agree on just one of any subject, including and almost especially, religion? And we think we can use to force to make other nations agree and stop fighting? That’s a major show of irony right there: waging war to … stop war?
In other writings I have done, I have made the point that the human mind can really only hold about 150 people in itself. Our brains cannot truly comprehend thousands of people, let alone millions. Our tribe, our group of no more than about 150 discrete individuals, that’s it. I firmly believe that’s why we are so insular, so damned…tribal. Because we can identify it, name it, and name the parts of it. That is why the concept of one child dying in a car crash makes us more emotional, we feel it more, than the concept of thousands dying in a tsunami or earthquake–even if they take place within the boundaries of our own country.
Even a small number of people involved in a bad thing can be glossed over, not really sympathized about, if it happens “somewhere else, over *there*”. It’s not real to us. But it should be, when it involves our people in uniform. They are first and foremost, people. Men and women who have the same type of dreams and hopes as the rest of us–to have a good life, to live to be an old person, to perhaps have children, a career that doesn’t involve a gun (or having to kill someone else every day), a chance to live their life without war. Many of them, far too many of them, never get that. Take a look at the units that are being put together to go “over there” to fight people they’ve never even seen. Yet. They’ve been taught to hate those people, to fear them and to kill them without mercy–because those people will sure as hell try to kill them.
Look at them, there in the photograph. All of them young, fit and ready for action. How many of them died that day? The next day? The next week? All right, how many of them lived to make it back to their homes?
General William Tecumseh Sherman, a Northern soldier during the Civil War, said words that are famous: “War is Hell”. He was the general who ordered the evacuation and subsequent burning of the city of Atlanta. He knew, intimately and deeply, the truth of that simple, three word sentence. War IS Hell. Ask any veteran who has “seen action”. It’s a euphemism, an oh-so-polite way of saying, “everybody was shooting at everybody else and I managed to survive”.
With a drafted army, you get a complete cross section of every type of human being. Not everyone is cut out to be a soldier, not everyone has what it takes to look through the scope of a rifle, see the face of the person you’re trying to kill–and pull that trigger. I would suggest that there is a problem with an all volunteer army because you are attracting the people who want to be soldiers, who want to go and kill other human beings for the glory of war and for their “patriotic duty”–which in modern times is not what makes a nation great.
Our killing machines are scientifically designed to be efficient and rapid. There is no time to think over what you’re actually doing. No waiting for the fuse to hit the powder, as there was in the Revolutionary and Civil wars. No having only one shot in the gun; now we have multi-shot cartridges that can be changed out faster than those single shot rifles could be reloaded. We have also employed other types of attacks: gas, anti-personnel bombs, long distance, directed bombs, airplanes than can actually carpet the ground with hundreds of bombs at once. And of course, there’s always the one Big Deterrent, the atomic bomb. Or perhaps just a smaller, baby version to remind people that “We Will Use It If You Make Us”.
That Military Industrial Complex (MIC) keeps coming up with newer, faster, deadlier tanks and airplanes. They make bigger vehicles to take more men and equipment faster up to the front lines. The MIC is as bad as any dress designer, having to come up with new designs every season, in order to at least match last year’s earnings and to hopefully exceed them. Their stockholders demand a large return on their money! And we’re back to the money that drives the war economy, which is our nation’s economy now. If we stop all our wars, if we bring back to our own native land (so to speak, whose land it really is belongs in another essay)–if we bring back all the young men and women we sent out, our war-driven economy would crash and die.
I think we should let it. I think it’s time to create a productive economy, driven by innovation and invention of things that have nothing to do with war, but everything to do with living a better life. And I do mean better in pretty much every sense of that word. Better for the people living it, better for the planet we’re living on, better for world relations, better for our own states’ relations with each other–a truly UNITED country for once.
War is Hell. And we need to stop sacrificing the brightest, shiniest young people to it. We need to find other ways to settle conflict, ways that truly end the killing and stay fixed on mutual respect and satisfactory conditions for all to live by. I don’t care what the question is–the answer should never first nor foremost, should never ever even be, “War”. War has never permanently solved any problem. The use of force has no “sticking” power–the “other” side just looks for a bigger gun, a faster rocket, another group of young people to sacrifice to the cause.
We’ve had TWO worldwide wars. We’ve had police actions that were just unnamed wars. We’ve had “neutralizing” presence in places that were just none of our business, all to protect a fossil fuel that is rapidly being depleted. Some day, when it’s all gone, maybe that generation will look back through time at us and laugh at our pathetic attempts to maintain control of that smelly, messy liquid.
Veterans know better. They have seen things that no human being should be asked to witness. They have done things that they are ashamed of, things that they are proud of, the things they were asked or ordered to do because they are American soldiers. And many, many of them died in a foreign country, giving the ultimate gift of their very life to war. What a waste, what a heroic act–and never done for any ideal, but to protect their brothers in arms, to make sure each man gets out of this hell they have been sent to. War is Hell. Never forget that. Never forget the sacrifices made. Honor the dead, keep their memory alive, as they were once alive. Respect their death, coming long before their number of years had been used up. Because war is Hell and not everyone can serve–and not everyone will serve. Maybe someday, we’ll be able to say that “no one must, no one needs to serve”.
A deeply sincere and humble “Thank you” to those who live with the memory of the Hellish war. A silent but sincere intention of thanks to those who died in Hell. It is Memorial Day, a day to remember, to never forget, to live with the hope that we can make it end before too many more of our young people are squandered on a battlefield.
(From World War One, “In Flanders Fields”)