Monday, October 12, 2009

"The best and the brightest" is a crock: The U.S. Military as a form of welfare and a cult of the dead


I have never understood this: our men and women in uniform as supposed to be the best and the brightest people in our nation, yet I think we all know that this is just more rhetoric, more lies. We all know it's bullshit and that the best and the brightest aren't rushing out to join--with noteworthy exceptions like a Pat Tillman or a Sergeant York-- they're heading to where the good paying jobs are. There is also the dark side of the military in our culture: People like Lt. William Calley, the commanding officer present at My Lai during the Vietnam conflict who told his men (Calley was under orders himself) to slaughter the entire village, every man, woman, and child--and they complied. And how many movies have we seen with crazy veterans killing when they get home? For many, all this changed the perception of American soldiers across the world forever, never mind America.

Interestingly, Calley recently apologized for this atrocity at a Knights of Columbus gathering in Ohio, his home state where he's worked in a cushy job as a jeweler since at least the early 1970s. Hardly anyone noticed and it was barely reported. Most of the men who served under him haven't been so lucky, so pampered, which is a matter of race as well as class. Speaking of class, a huge percentage of our homeless are veterans, most from the Vietnam War. The claims regarding all of our troops are wildly distorted claims. They are lies the occlude the reality on the ground.
Like a lot of things in modern American culture, this over-adulation begins with the First World War and has more to do with motivating the domestic population towards another, future war then it does in actually honoring the dead. It's about money and power.

The Cult of the Dead Solider is about creating a false history where our troops have always held to the rules of war and where every conflict is a just one. Even very recent history must be misrepresented. In the official story, all of our troops are noble young men and women who heard the call of their nation and joined to defend it and its environs for the common good. The reality--as we should know by now--is far less glamorous and any person capable of independent thought should view such assertions with the utmost suspicion. Life in the modern world is a minefield. After 1973, we switched over to what is now euphemistically known as the "peacetime army," and the rest applies to the other branches, they're all-volunteer now too. Yet, economic conscription is still conscription and we all know that many Americans join--as they are right now in large numbers--when the economy is bad and there are few other alternatives. In other cases, it's simply a matter of individuals who couldn't hack it in civilian society and literally had no other options regardless of the state of the economy. If you think I'm kidding, look at the lives of retired military and how rapidly they become unraveled after discharge. So why are they all "heroes"? They sound desperate to me, and I grant that this isn't the entire story, but it's the bulk of it.

In 1991, noted historian George Mosse published his seminal Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, a book that details how the Cult of the Dead Soldier came into being and what its purpose is. Frequently, our soldiers have been painted in our culture as young, nubile, and brave, having come to the military out of pure patriotism and a sense of sacrifice for the group. Again, while there is some truth to this, I think we all know that many people--in the past and the present--have joined because they had nowhere else to go, something that's been a truism well before 1973 when the draft was ended. There was a good reason for this that has a lot to do with the current version of the Cult: the myths weren't true and the very real perception that the children of the poor were fighting the wars of rich men was commonplace and hasn't gone away entirely. As a matter of fact, it's alive and well. This healthy and cynical contention came out of the revelations of war crimes, the Pentagon Papers, but really out of ground level experience. People knew they were being screwed and lied to.

The enthusiasm of going to war is a normal prelude to reality setting-in: at the end of WWI in Germany there was no talk of glory, no celebrations over the war dead, no parties celebrating the loss. The reaction of many after any war is to want to forget and to cling very tenaciously to the myths of warfare and nationalism--that there was glory in it, that the sacrifices were necessary for the group, and that it was all a worthy cause that enriched all. That's a hard sell nowadays, but the desire to believe it is still very much alive, and it's part of a pathology. This dynamic was played-out in many different ways in our culture since 1973, from Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo" movies where the muscle-bound actor went back to Vietnam to "win this time," to the the equally bad "Top Gun," Reagan's exhortations to get us involved in Central America during the 1980s, and the depictions of military men and women in recruiting ads as young, vital, cleanly-scrubbed, and pure in intentions and behavior.
The enthusiasm which youth had once felt for war as adventure and personal fulfillment was difficult to sustain after experiencing the reality of war, but the nation, using the Myth of the War Experience, was able to keep the flame alight. ...Yet it was the political Right and not the Left which was able to annex the cult and make the most of it. The inability of the Left to forget the reality of the war and to enter inot the Myth of the War Experience was a gain for the political Right, which was able to exploit the suffering of millions for its own political ends. The Myth of the War Experience helped to transcend the horror of war and at the same time supported the utopia which nationalism sought to project as an alternative to the reality of postwar Germany. (Mosse, 106)
The true costs of war and the endless suffering and repercussions have been all-but-forbidden except with noteworthy exceptions. During this conflict, so little suffering and carnage is being shown to the public that the culture had to do catch-up with endless displays of gore in CSI programs on network television. But, generally, Vietnam has posed too much of a challenge, and so, damage control has been the approach since that sordid conflict. The domestic information war was like this before Vietnam, but the methods have had to become more subtle, which makes them more insidious, from lousy xenophobic action films to video games. Our troops should never be viewed as angels nor our causes automatically "just" or "necessary," but that's the message being spoon-fed to our children.

In a democracy, talk of war should always be highly contentious and there should be a very serious debate over its necessity and what its real world costs are going to be. "Will we be better off?" should be at the top of the list. Have we been better off since the Vietnam War? The invasion of Panama in 1989 and the Gulf War in 1991? The Balkans during the rest of the 1990s? When does it end? It depends on who you ask. The shift from classical depictions of our troops has shifted to that of the victim: recall when it was alleged that American POW Jessica Lynch was mistreated and raped by her Iraqi captors. It was a total lie concocted by propaganda chiefs at the Pentagon.

Lynch once stated,
"They used me to symbolize all this stuff. It's wrong. I don't know why they filmed [my rescue] or why they say these things."

The Pentagon went as far as to coerce Lynch into lying about what happened while she was being held by Iraqi troops and doctors during the invasion in late March 2003, even including the allegation in her ghost written biography; Lynch has since accused the military of using her in a propaganda effort to sell the war and that they embellished her own account. Less than one year after her ordeal, the Pentagon-backed "Saving Jessica Lynch" aired, selling more lies. Instead, she was used as a pawn on several levels, not merely including the lie that she was raped by Iraqi troops, it being a bald appeal to classic American racism as well as sexism.
But why did the West Virginian Lynch join the military? She needed money for college...

There are much better and efficient ways to care for our young people, to give them a real shot at the future, and it would behoove us to begin the process of demilitarization within our economy. Patrick Tillman is another stellar example in the deification-through-victimhood of our troops. The irony is, Tillman really was a hero, but not for the reasons that the Pentagon's propagandists told us. He was a hero because he saw the war in Iraq as a lie, as a violation of international law, and I believe he went overseas to bear witness to the crimes so that he could testify about them when the smoke had cleared. I also believe that his fellow troops and possibly some officers figured this out as well. They had to use him in death for their ends because...you do the math. They destroyed his uniform and his diary. Why did they stop at that? Bad press.