The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war’s appeal.
― Chris Hedges, Author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
If you’re going to have a military, especially one that is sent to fight as many wars as ours is, you need to desensitize soldiers to the value of human life, so that they will kill without hesitation or reflection.
But in attempting to form young men and women in that way, the military must work against something very powerful, very deeply ingrained in the human psyche. There is a very strong, intrinsically human revulsion to killing our fellow humans. You can talk all day about “it’s ok because it’s war” and “it was you or them” or any of the other lies Mother Culture tells you about killing in the particular instance of war, but unless you are a sociopath, the reality of what war actually is — hellish, brutal, murderous, senseless and soul-destroying — always trumps that, somewhere inside.
If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be impossible to embrace the myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan and listen to the wails of their parents, we would not be able to repeat clichés we use to justify war. This is why war is carefully sanitized. This is why we are given war’s perverse and dark thrill but are spared from seeing war’s consequences. The mythic visions of war keep it heroic and entertaining…
The wounded, the crippled, and the dead are, in this great charade, swiftly carted offstage. They are war’s refuse. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they tell is too painful for us to hear. We prefer to celebrate ourselves and our nation by imbibing the myths of glory, honor, patriotism, and heroism, words that in combat become empty and meaningless.
I vividly remember watching a report on MTV (of all places) during the opening weeks of the Iraq War, and the correspondent interviewed a group of infantrymen on a desolate stretch of Iraqi highway, leaning against a Bradley Fighting Vehicle during a pause in the action. One soldier, a young private who looked to still be in his teens, said the following to her: “When you first kill someone in battle, a piece of your soul dies with him. I don’t think you ever get that back.”
There was a saying half a century ago in the protests against Vietnam: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In other words, if you have the world’s most powerful military, then it will tend to be the card you reach for first: it seems your strongest suit.
I have a hard time with folks who try and wave off objections to war with some explanation like, “Well, what is one to do? In a fallen world, war will always be a fact of life.”
There is something to this – war is indeed a result of human brokenness – but I sometimes think that attitude lets us off way too easy.
What if war is there because we human beings in the world either support it, at least tacitly, or else we don’t do enough to stop it? What if it doesn’t have to be this way? Why can’t we Americans raise a generation who has no experience with losing friends in battle?
There is an important distinction between hope and optimism – hope being the belief that change for the better is possible, and optimism being the belief that change is inevitable. This Memorial Day weekend, as we ponder the 1.34 million American military men and women who have died in America’s wars through the centuries, maybe we can leaven our sadness with the hope that we can build a world where young men no longer have to experience a piece of their soul dying in battle. I think the men in battlefield cemeteries scattered across the globe would agree that this hope is a decent one to cherish.