Warriors Are Not Heroes: Chapter 5 Of “War Is A Lie” By David Swanson
Pericles honored those who had died in war on the side of Athens:
“I have dwelt upon the greatness of Athens because I want to show you that we are contending for a higher prize than those who enjoy none of these privileges, and to establish by manifest proof the merit of these men whom I am now commemorating. Their loftiest praise has been already spoken. For in magnifying the city I have magnified them, and men like them whose virtues made her glorious. And of how few Hellenes can it be said as of them, that their deeds when weighed in the balance have been found equal to their fame! I believe that a death such as theirs has been the true measure of a man’s worth; it may be the first revelation of his virtues, but is at any rate their final seal. For even those who come short in other ways may justly plead the valor with which they have fought for their country; they have blotted out the evil with the good, and have benefited the state more by their public services than they have injured her by their private actions.
“None of these men were enervated by wealth or hesitated to resign the pleasures of life; none of them put off the evil day in the hope, natural to poverty, that a man, though poor, may one day become rich. But, deeming that the punishment of their enemies was sweeter than any of these things, and that they could fall in no nobler cause, they determined at the hazard of their lives to be honorably avenged, and to leave the rest. They resigned to hope their unknown chance of happiness; but in the face of death they resolved to rely upon themselves alone. And when the moment came they were minded to resist and suffer, rather than to fly and save their lives; they ran away from the word of dishonor, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory.”
Abraham Lincoln honored those who had died in war on the side of the North:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Even though presidents don’t say these thing anymore, and if they can help it don’t talk about the dead at all, the same message goes without saying today. Soldiers are praised to the skies, and the part about their risking their lives is understood without being mentioned. Generals are so effusively praised that it’s not uncommon for them to get the impression they run the government. Presidents much prefer being Commander in Chief to being chief executive. The former can be treated almost as a deity, while the latter is a well-known liar and cheat.
But the prestige of the generals and the presidents comes from their closeness to the unknown yet glorious troops. When the bigwigs don’t want their policies questioned, they need merely suggest that such questioning constitutes criticism of the troops or expression of doubt regarding the invincibility of the troops. In fact, wars themselves do very well to associate themselves with soldiers. The soldiers’ glory may all derive from the possibility that they will be killed in a war, but the war itself is only glorious because of the presence of the sainted troops — not actual particular troops, but the abstract heroic givers of the ultimate sacrifice pre-honored by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
As long as the greatest honor one can aspire to is to be shipped off and killed in somebody’s war, there will be wars. President John F. Kennedy wrote in a letter to a friend something he would never have put in a speech: “War will exist until the distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today.” I would tweak that statement a little. It should include those refusing to participate in a war whether or not they are granted the status of “conscientious objector.” And it should include those resisting the war nonviolently outside of the military as well, including by traveling to the expected sites of bombings in order to serve as “human shields.”
When President Barack Obama was given a Nobel Peace Prize and remarked that other people were more deserving, I immediately thought of several. Some of the bravest people I know or have heard of have refused to take part in our current wars or tried to place their bodies into the gears of the war machine. If they enjoyed the same reputation and prestige as the warriors, we would all hear about them. If they were so honored, some of them would be permitted to speak through our television stations and newspapers, and before long war would, indeed, no longer exist.
Section: WHAT IS A HERO?
Let’s look more closely at the myth of military heroism handed down to us by Pericles and Lincoln. Random House defines a hero as follows (and defines heroine the same way, substituting “woman” for “man”):
“1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
“2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.
“4. Classical Mythology.
“a. a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity.”
Courage or ability. Brave deeds and noble qualities. There is something more here than merely courage and bravery, merely facing up to fear and danger. But what? A hero is regarded as a model or ideal. Clearly someone who bravely jumped out a 20-story window would not meet that definition, even if their bravery was as brave as brave could be. Clearly heroism must require bravery of a sort that people regard as a model for themselves and others. It must include prowess and beneficence. That is, the bravery can’t just be bravery; it must also be good and kind. Jumping out a window does not qualify. The question, then, is whether killing and dying in wars should qualify as good and kind. Nobody doubts that it’s courageous and brave.
If you look up “bravery” in the dictionary, by the way, you’ll find “courage” and “valor.” Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary defines “valor” as
“a soldierly compound of vanity, duty, and the gambler’s hope.
‘Why have you halted?’ roared the commander of a division at Chickamauga, who had ordered a charge: ‘move forward, sir, at once.’
‘General,’ said the commander of the delinquent brigade, ‘I am persuaded that any further display of valor by my troops will bring them into collision with the enemy.’“
But would such valor be good and kind or destructive and foolhardy? Bierce had himself been a Union soldier at Chickamauga and had come away disgusted. Many years later, when it had become possible to publish stories about the Civil War that didn’t glow with the holy glory of militarism, Bierce published a story called “Chickamauga” in 1889 in the San Francisco Examiner that makes participating in such a battle appear the most grotesquely evil and horrifying deed one could ever do. Many soldiers have since told similar tales.
It’s curious that war, something consistently recounted as ugly and horrible, should qualify its participants for glory. Of course, the glory doesn’t last. Mentally disturbed veterans are kicked aside in our society. In fact, in dozens of cases documented between 2007 and 2010, soldiers who had been deemed physically and psychologically fit and welcomed into the military, performed “honorably,” and had no recorded history of psychological problems. Then, upon being wounded, the same formerly healthy soldiers were diagnosed with a pre-existing personality disorder, discharged, and denied treatment for their wounds. One soldier was locked in a closet until he agreed to sign a statement that he had a pre-existing disorder — a procedure the Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called “torture.”
Active duty troops, the real ones, are not treated by the military or society with particular reverence or respect. But the mythical, generic “troop” is a secular saint purely because of his or her willingness to rush off and die in the very same sort of mindless murderous orgy that ants regularly engage in. Yes, ants. Those teeny little pests with brains the size of . . . well, the size of something smaller than an ant: they wage war. And they’re better at it than we are.
Section: ARE ANTS HEROES TOO?
Ants wage long and complex wars with extensive organization and unmatched determination, or what we might call “valor.” They are absolutely loyal to the cause in a way that no patriotic humans can match: “It’d be like having an American flag tattooed to you at birth,” ecologist and photojournalist Mark Moffett told Wired magazine. Ants will kill other ants without flinching. Ants will make the “ultimate sacrifice” with no hesitation. Ants will proceed with their mission rather than stop to help a wounded warrior.
The ants who go to the front, where they kill and die first, are the smallest and weakest ones. They are sacrificed as part of a winning strategy. “In some ant armies, there can be millions of expendable troops sweeping forward in a dense swarm that’s up to 100 feet wide.” In one of Moffett’s photos, which shows “the marauder ant in Malaysia, several of the weak ants are being sliced in half by a larger enemy termite with black, scissor-like jaws.” What would Pericles say at their funeral?
“According to Moffett, we might actually learn a thing or two from how ants wage war. For one, ant armies operate with precise organization despite a lack of central command.” And no wars would be complete without some lying: “Like humans, ants can try to outwit foes with cheats and lies.” In another photo, “two ants face off in an effort to prove their superiority — which, in this ant species, is designated by physical height. But the wily ant on the right is standing on a pebble to gain a solid inch over his nemesis.” Would honest Abe approve?
In fact, ants are such dedicated warriors that they can even fight civil wars that make that little skirmish between the North and South look like touch football. A parasitic wasp, Ichneumon eumerus, can dose an ant nest with a chemical secretion that causes the ants to fight a civil war, half the nest against the other half. Imagine if we had such a drug for humans, a sort of a prescription-strength Fox News. If we dosed the nation, would all the resulting warriors be heroes or just half of them? Are the ants heroes? And if they are not, is it because of what they are doing or purely because of what they are thinking about what they are doing? And what if the drug makes them think they are risking their lives for the benefit of future life on earth or to keep the anthill safe for democracy?
Section: BRAVERY PLUS
Soldiers are generally lied to, as the whole society is lied to, and — in addition — as only military recruiters can lie to you. Soldiers often believe they are on a noble mission. And they can be very brave. But so can police officers and fire fighters in quite similar ways, for worthwhile ends but much less glory and hoo-ha. What is the good of being courageous for a destructive project? If you mistakenly believe you are doing something valuable, your bravery might — I think — be tragic. And it might be bravery worth emulating in other circumstances. But you yourself would hardly be a model or an ideal. Your actions would not have been good and kind. In fact, in a common but completely nonsensical pattern of speech, you could end up being denounced as a “coward.”
When terrorists flew airplanes into buildings on September 11, 2001, they may have been cruel, murderous, sick, despicable, criminal, insane, or bloodthirsty, but what they were usually called on U.S. television was “cowards.” It was hard not to be struck, in fact, by their bravery, which is probably why so many commentators instantly reached for the opposite description. “Bravery” is understood to be a good thing, so mass murder can’t be bravery, so therefore it was cowardice. I’m guessing this was the thought process. One television host didn’t play along.
“We have been the cowards,” said Bill Maher, agreeing with a guest who had said the 9-11 murderers were not cowards. “Lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it. Not cowardly. You’re right.” Maher was not defending the murders. He was merely defending the English language. He lost his job anyway.
The problem that I think Maher identified is that we’ve glorified bravery for its own sake without stopping to realize that we don’t really mean that. The drill sergeant means it. The military wants soldiers as brave as ants, soldiers who will follow orders, even orders likely to get them killed, without stopping to think anything over for themselves, without pausing for even a second to wonder whether the orders are admirable or evil. We’d be lost without bravery. We need it to confront all kinds of unavoidable dangers, but mindless bravery is useless or worse, and certainly not heroic. What we need is something more like honor. Our model and ideal person should be someone who is willing to take risks when required for what he or she has carefully determined to be a good means to a good end. Our goal should not be embarrassing the rest of the world’s primates, even violent chimpanzees, through our mindless imitation of little bugs. “The ‘heroes,’“ wrote Norman Thomas,
“whether of the victorious or the vanquished nation, have been disciplined in the acceptance of violence and a kind of blind obedience to leaders. In war there is no choice between complete obedience and mutiny. Yet a decent civilization depends on the capacity of men [and women] to govern themselves by processes under which loyalty is consistent with constructive criticism.”
There are good things about soldiering: courage and selflessness; group solidarity, sacrifice, and support for one’s buddies, and — at least in one’s imagination — for the greater world; physical and mental challenges; and adrenaline. But the whole endeavor brings out the best for the worst by using the noblest traits of character to serve the vilest ends. Other aspects of military life are obedience, cruelty, vengefulness, sadism, racism, fear, terror, injury, trauma, anguish, and death. And the greatest of these is the obedience, because it can lead to all the others. The military conditions its recruits to believe that obedience is part of trust, and that by trusting superiors you can receive proper preparation, perform better as a unit, and stay safe. “Let go of that rope now!” and someone catches you. At least in training. Someone is screaming one inch from your nose: “I’ll wipe the floor with your sorry ass, soldier!” Yet you survive. At least in training.
Following orders in a war, and facing enemies that want you dead, actually tends to get you killed, even if you’ve been conditioned to behave as if it didn’t. It still will. And your loved ones will be devastated. But the military will roll right along without you, having put a little more cash into the pockets of weapons makers, and having made millions of people a little more likely to join anti-American terrorist groups. And if your modern-day soldier job is to blast distant strangers to bits without directly risking your own life at all, don’t kid yourself that you’ll be able to live peacefully with what you’ve done, or that anybody’s going to think you’re a hero. That’s not heroic; it’s neither brave nor good, much less both.
Section: A SERVICE INDUSTRY
On June 16, 2010, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine, who, unlike most of her colleagues, was listening to her constituents and opposing further funding of the wars, questioned General David Petraeus in a House Armed Services Committee hearing as follows:
“Thank you . . . General Petraeus for being with us today and for your great service to this country. We greatly appreciate that, and I want to say at the offset (sic) how much I appreciate the hard work and sacrifice of our troops, particularly representing the state of Maine where we have a high proportion of people who have served in the military, um, we’re grateful for their work and their sacrifice and, uh, the sacrifice of their families. . . .
“I disagree with you basically on the premise that our continued military presence in Afghanistan actually strengthens our national security. Since the surge of troops in southern and eastern Afghanistan started, we have seen only increased levels of violence, coupled with an incompetent and corrupt Afghan government. I am of the belief that continuing with this surge and increasing the level of American forces will have the same result: more American lives lost, and we will be no closer to success. In my opinion the American people remain skeptical that continuing to put their sons and daughters in harm’s way in Afghanistan is worth the price being paid, and I think they have good reason to feel that way. It seems that increased military operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan have resulted in increased instability, increased violence, and more civilian casualties . . . . “
This and more was all part of the congresswoman’s opening question, congressional questioning often being more about speaking for one’s allotted five minutes than allowing the witness to speak. Pingree went on to recount evidence that when U.S. forces pull out of areas in Afghanistan, local leaders can be better able to oppose the Taliban — its chief recruiting tool having been the U.S. occupation. She quoted the Russian ambassador who was familiar with the Soviet Union’s earlier occupation of Afghanistan as saying that the United States had by now made all the same mistakes and was moving on to making new ones. After Petraeus expressed his complete disagreement, without actually providing any new information, Pingree interrupted:
“In the interest of time, and I know I’m going to run out here, I’ll just say I appreciate and I appreciated from the start that you and I disagree. I wanted to put the sentiment out there that I do think increasingly the American public is concerned about the expense, the loss of lives, and I think all of us are concerned with our lack of success, but thank you very much for your service.”
At that point, Petraeus jumped in to explain that he wanted to get out of Afghanistan, that he shared all of Pingree’s concerns, but that he believed what he was doing actually was improving national security. The reason we were in Afghanistan was “very clear,” he said, without explaining what it was. Pingree said: “I’ll just say again: I appreciate your service. We have a strategic disagreement here.”
Pingree’s “questioning” was the closest thing we ever see in Congress — and it’s very rare — to an articulation of the view of the majority of the public. And it wasn’t just talk. Pingree followed up by voting against the funding of an escalation in Afghanistan. But I’ve quoted this exchange in order to point out something else. While accusing General Petraeus of causing young American men and women to be killed for no good reason, causing Afghan civilians to be killed for no good reason, destabilizing Afghanistan and making us less rather than more secure, Congresswoman Pingree managed to thank the general three times for this “service.” Huh?
Let’s correct a deep misunderstanding. War is not a service. Taking my tax dollars, and in return killing innocent people and endangering my family with the possible blowback is just not a service. I don’t feel served by such action. I don’t ask for it. I’m not mailing an extra check to Washington as a tip to express my gratitude. If you want to serve humanity, there are many wiser career moves than joining the death machine — and as a bonus you get to stay alive and have your services appreciated. Therefore I will not call what the Department of War does “service” or the people who do it “service men and women” or the committees that purport to oversee what actually they rubberstamp “armed services” committees. What we need are unarmed services committees, and we need them with the reputation and prestige that Kennedy wrote about. A Department of Defense limited to actual defense would be a different story.
Section: ABOUT BEING DEAD
During recent wars, presidents have tended not to go near any battlefields, if there are any battlefields, even after the fact as Lincoln did, or even to attend military funerals back home, or even to allow cameras to film the bodies returning in boxes (something forbidden during George W. Bush’s presidency), or even to give speeches that mention the dead. There are endless speeches about the noble causes of the wars and even the bravery of the troops. The topic of dying, however, is for some reason regularly evaded.
Franklin Roosevelt once said on the radio “Eleven brave and loyal men of our Navy were killed by the Nazis.” Roosevelt was pretending a German submarine had attacked the USS Kearny unprovoked and with no warning. In reality the sailors may have been extremely brave, but in Roosevelt’s tall tale, they would have actually been innocent unsuspecting bystanders attacked while minding their own business on a merchant ship. How much bravery and loyalty would that have required?
To his credit, in an unusual acknowledgment of what war involves, Roosevelt later said of the coming war:
“The casualty lists of soldiers will undoubtedly be large. I deeply feel the anxiety of all families of the men in our armed forces and the relatives of the people in cities which have been bombed.”
FDR did not, however, attend soldiers’ funerals. Lyndon Johnson avoided the topic of war dead, and attended only two funerals out of the tens of thousands of soldiers he’d ordered to their deaths. Nixon and both presidents Bush collectively attended a grand total of zero funerals of the soldiers they sent to die.
And, needless to say, presidents never honor the non-American victims of their wars. If “liberating” a country requires “sacrificing” a few thousand Americans and a few hundred thousand natives, why aren’t all of those people mourned? Even if you think the war was justified and accomplished some mysterious good, doesn’t honesty require recognizing who has died?
President Ronald Reagan visited a cemetery of German war dead from World War II. His itinerary was the result of negotiations with Germany’s president who was aware that Reagan might visit the site of a former concentration camp as well. Reagan remarked, prior to the trip, “There’s nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also. . . . They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” Were they? Were Nazi soldiers killed in the war victims? Does it depend on whether they believed they were doing something good? Does it depend on how old they were and what lies were told them? Does it depend whether they were employed on a battlefield or in a concentration camp?
And what about American war dead? Are a million Iraqis collateral damage and 4,000 Americans heroic casualties? Or are all 1,004,000 victims? Or are those who were attacked victims and those who did the attacking murderers? I think there’s actually room for some subtlety here, and that any such question is best answered in terms of a particular individual, and that even then there can be more than one answer. But I think the legal answer — that those participating in an aggressive war are murderers, and the other side their victims — gets at an important part of the moral answer. And I think it’s an answer that becomes more correct and complete the more people become aware of it.
President George W. Bush, together with a visiting foreign head of state, held a press conference at the enormous house he called his “ranch” in Crawford, Texas, on August 4, 2005. He was asked about 14 Marines from Brook Park, Ohio, who had just been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Bush replied,
“The people of Brook Park and the family members of those who lost their life, I hope they can take comfort in the fact that millions of their fellow citizens pray for them. I hope they also take comfort in the understanding that the sacrifice was made in a noble cause.”
Two days later, Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, camped out near a gate to Bush’s property in an effort to ask him what in the world the noble cause was. Thousands of people joined her, including members of Veterans for Peace at whose conference she had been speaking just before heading to Crawford. The media gave the story lots of attention for weeks, but Bush never answered the question.
Most presidents do visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But the soldiers who died at Gettysburg are not remembered. We remember that the North won the war, but we have no individual or collective memory of each soldier who was part of that victory. Soldiers are almost all unknown, and the Tomb of the Unknown represents them all. This is an aspect of war that was present even when Pericles spoke, but was perhaps less present during the knightly battles and crusades of the Middle Ages, or in Japan during the age of the samurai. When war is waged with swords and armor — expensive equipment suited only to elite killers who specialize in killing and nothing else — those warriors may risk their lives for their own personal glory.
Section: THE SWORDS AND HORSES ARE ONLY IN THE RECRUITING ADS
When “noble” referred to those inheriting wealth as well as the characteristics expected of them, each soldier was at least slightly more than a cog in a war machine. That changed with guns, and with the tactics Americans learned from the natives and employed against the British. Now, any poor man could be a war hero, and he would be given a medal or a stripe in place of nobility. “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon,” remarked Napoleon Bonaparte. In the French Revolution, you didn’t need a family crest; you could fight and die for a national flag. By the time of Napoleon and of the U.S. Civil War, you didn’t even need daring or ingenuity to be an ideal warrior. You just had to take your place in a long line, stand there, and sometimes pretend to shoot your gun.
Cynthia Wachtell’s book War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature 1861-1914 tells a story of opposition to war overcoming self-deceptions, self-censorship, the censorship of the publishing industry, and public unpopularity, and establishing itself as a constant thread and genre of U.S. literature (and cinema) ever since. It’s a story, in large part, of people clinging to old ideas of warrior nobility and finally beginning to let them go.
In the years leading up to and including the Civil War, war — almost by definition — could not be opposed in literature. Under the heavy influence of Sir Walter Scott, war was presented as an idealized and romantic endeavor. Death was painted with soft tones of desirable sleep, natural beauty, and chivalric glory. Wounds and injuries did not appear. Fear, frustration, stupidity, resentment and other characteristics so central to actual war did not exist in its fictionalized form.
“Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war,” remarked Mark Twain, “that he is in great measure responsible for the war.” Northern character bore a striking resemblance to the Southern variety. “If the North and South could agree on little else during the war years,” Wachtell writes,
“they were in easy agreement about their literary preferences. Whether their allegiance was to the Confederacy or the Union, readers wanted to be reassured that their sons, brothers, and fathers were playing parts in a noble endeavor that was favored by God. Popular wartime writers drew on a shared vocabulary of highly sentimentalized expressions of pain, sorrow, and sacrifice. Less rosy and idealized interpretations of the war were unwelcome.”
Glorification of war was dominant through what Phillip Knightley calls the “golden age” for war correspondents, 1865-1914:
“To readers in London or New York, distant battles in strange places must have seemed unreal, and the Golden Age style of war reporting — where guns flash, cannons thunder, the struggle rages, the general is brave, the soldiers are gallant, and their bayonets make short work of the enemy — only added to the illusion that it was all a thrilling adventure story.”
We’re still living off this antiquated pro-war literature today. It roams the land like a zombie, just as surely as do creationism, global-warming denial, and racism. It shapes congress members’ servile reverence for David Petraeus as surely as it would if he fought with a sword and a horse rather than a desk and a television studio. And it is just as deadly and pointless as it was when the soldiers of World War I marched off to die in the fields for it:
“Both sides recalled ancient glories, using the symbol of the warrior knight to portray battle as an exercise in manly honor and aristocratic leadership, while using modern technology to fight a war of attrition. At the Battle of the Somme, begun in July 1916, British forces bombarded enemy lines for eight days and then advanced from the trenches shoulder to shoulder. German machine gunners killed 20,000 of them the first day. After four months the German forces had fallen back a few miles at a cost of 600,000 Allied dead and 750,000 German dead. In contrast to the colonial conflicts familiar to all the imperial powers involved, the death toll on both sides was appallingly high.”
Because war makers lie throughout the course of wars, just as they do prior to launching them, the people of Britain, France, Germany, and later the United States, were not remotely aware of the full extent of the casualties as World War I played out. Had they been, they might have stopped it.
Section: WAR IS FOR THE POOR
Even to say that we’ve democratized war is to put a pleasant spin on things, and not just because war decisions are still made by an unaccountable elite. Since the Vietnam War, the United States has dropped all pretense of a military draft equally applied to all. Instead we spend billions of dollars on recruitment, increase military pay, and offer signing bonuses until enough people “voluntarily” join by signing contracts that allow the military to change the terms at will.
If more troops are needed, just extend the contracts of the ones you’ve got. Need more still? Federalize the National Guard and send kids off to war who signed up thinking they’d be helping hurricane victims. Still not enough? Hire contractors for transportation, cooking, cleaning, and construction. Let the soldiers be pure soldiers whose only job is to kill, just like the knights of old. Boom, you’ve instantly doubled the size of your force, and nobody’s noticed except the profiteers.
Still need more killers? Hire mercenaries. Hire foreign mercenaries. Not enough? Spend trillions of dollars on technology to maximize the power of each person. Use unmanned aircraft so nobody gets hurt. Promise immigrants they’ll be citizens if they join. Change the standards for enlistment: take ‘em older, fatter, in worse health, with less education, with criminal records. Make high schools give recruiters aptitude test results and students’ contact information, and promise students they can pursue their chosen field within the wonderful world of death, and that you’ll send them to college if they live — hey, just promising it costs you nothing. If they’re resistant, you started too late. Put military video games in shopping malls. Send uniformed generals into kindergartens to warm the children up to the idea of truly and properly swearing allegiance to that flag. Spend 10 times the money on recruiting each new soldier as we spend educating each child. Do anything, anything, anything other than starting a draft.
But there’s a name for this practice of avoiding a traditional draft. It’s called a poverty draft. Because people tend not to want to participate in wars, those who have other career options tend to choose those other options. Those who see the military as one of their only choices, their only shot at a college education, or their only way to escape their troubled lives are more likely to enlist. According to the Not Your Soldier Project:
“The majority of military recruits come from below-median income neighborhoods.
“In 2004, 71 percent of black recruits, 65 percent of Latino recruits, and 58 percent of white recruits came from below-median income neighborhoods.
“The percentage of recruits who were regular high school graduates dropped from 86 percent in 2004 to 73 percent in 2006.
“[The recruiters] never mention that the college money is difficult to come by — only 16 percent of enlisted personnel who completed four years of military duty ever received money for schooling. They don’t say that the job skills they promise won’t transfer into the real world. Only 12 percent of male veterans and 6 percent of female veterans use skills learned in the military in their current jobs. And of course, they downplay the risk of being killed while on duty.”
In a 2007 article Jorge Mariscal cited analysis by the Associated Press that found that “nearly three-fourths of [U.S. troops] killed in Iraq came from towns where the per capita income was below the national average. More than half came from towns where the percentage of people living in poverty topped the national average.”
“It perhaps should come as no surprise,” wrote Mariscal,
“that the Army GED Plus Enlistment Program, in which applicants without high school diplomas are allowed to enlist while they complete a high school equivalency certificate, is focused on inner-city areas.
“When working-class youth make it to their local community college, they often encounter military recruiters working hard to discourage them. ‘You’re not going anywhere here,’ recruiters say. ‘This place is a dead end. I can offer you more.’ Pentagon-sponsored studies — such as the RAND Corporation’s ‘Recruiting Youth in the College Market: Current Practices and Future Policy Options’ — speak openly about college as the recruiter’s number one competitor for the youth market. . . .
“Not all recruits, of course, are driven by financial need. In working-class communities of every color, there are often long-standing traditions of military service and links between service and privileged forms of masculinity. For communities often marked as ‘foreign,’ such as Latinos and Asians, there is pressure to serve in order to prove that one is ‘American.’ For recent immigrants, there is the lure of gaining legal resident status or citizenship. Economic pressure, however, is an undeniable motivation. . . .”
Mariscal understands that there are many other motivations as well, including the desire to do something useful and important for others. But he believes those generous impulses are being misdirected:
“In this scenario, the desire to ‘make a difference,’ once inserted into the military apparatus, means young Americans may have to kill innocent people or become brutalized by the realities of combat. Take the tragic example of Sgt. Paul Cortez, who graduated in 2000 from Central High School in the working-class town of Barstow, Calif., joined the Army, and was sent to Iraq. On March 12, 2006, he participated in the gang rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her entire family.
“When asked about Cortez, a classmate said: ‘He would never do something like that. He would never hurt a female. He would never hit one or even raise his hand to one. Fighting for his country is one thing, but not when it comes to raping and murdering. That’s not him.’ Let us accept the claim that ‘that’s not him.’ Nevertheless, because of a series of unspeakable and unpardonable events within the context of an illegal and immoral war, ‘that’ is what he became. On February 21, 2007, Cortez pled guilty to the rape and four counts of felony murder. He was convicted a few days later, sentenced to life in prison and a lifetime in his own personal hell.”
In a 2010 book called The Casualty Gap, Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen look at the data from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. They found that only in World War II was a fair draft employed, while the other three wars drew disproportionately from poorer and less educated Americans, opening a “casualty gap” that grew dramatically larger in Korea, again in Vietnam, and yet again in the War on Iraq as the military shifted from conscription to “volunteer.” The authors also cite a survey showing that as Americans become aware of this casualty gap, they become less supportive of wars.
The transition from war primarily by the rich to war primarily by the poor has been a very gradual one and is far from complete. For one thing, those in the highest positions of power in the military are more likely to have come from privileged backgrounds. And regardless of their background, top officers are the least likely to see dangerous combat. Leading the troops into battle is not how it works anymore, except in our imaginations. Both presidents Bush saw their approval ratings soar in public opinion polls when they fought wars — at least at first when the wars were still new and magnificent. Never mind that these presidents fought their wars from the air-conditioned Oval Office. One result of this is that those making the decisions upon which the most lives hang are the least likely to see war death up close, or to have ever seen it.
Section: THE AIR-CONDITIONED NIGHTMARE
The first President Bush had seen World War II from an airplane, already a distance away from the dying, although not as far away as Reagan who had avoided going to war. Just as thinking of enemies as subhuman makes it easier to kill them, bombing them from high in the sky is much easier psychologically than participating in a knife fight or shooting a traitor standing blindfolded beside a wall. Presidents Clinton and Bush Jr. avoided the Vietnam War, Clinton through educational privilege, Bush through being the son of his father. President Obama never went to war. Vice Presidents Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden, like Clinton and Bush Jr., dodged the draft. Vice President Al Gore went to the Vietnam War briefly, but as an army journalist, not a soldier who saw combat.
Rarely does someone deciding that thousands must die have the experience of having seen it happen. On August 15, 1941, the Nazis had already killed a lot of people. But Heinrich Himmler, one of the top military bigwigs in the country who would oversee the murder of six million Jews, had never seen anyone die. He asked to watch a shooting in Minsk. Jews were told to jump into a ditch where they were shot and covered with dirt. Then more were told to jump in. They were shot and covered. Himmler stood right at the edge watching, until something from someone’s head splashed onto his coat. He turned pale and turned away. The local commander said to him:
“Look at the eyes of the men in this Kommando. What kind of followers are we training here? Either neurotics or savages!”
Himmler told them to do their duty even if it was hard. He returned to doing his from the comfort of a desk.
Section: SHALT THOU KILL OR NOT?
Killing sounds a lot easier than it is. Throughout history, men have risked their own lives to avoid having to take part in wars:
“Men have fled their homelands, served lengthy prison terms, hacked off limbs, shot off feet or index fingers, feigned illness or insanity, or, if they could afford to, paid surrogates to fight in their stead. ‘Some draw their teeth, some blind themselves, and others maim themselves, on their way to us,’ the governor of Egypt complained of his peasant recruits in the early nineteenth century. So unreliable was the rank and file of the eighteenth-century Prussian army that military manuals forbade camping near a woods or forest. The troops would simply melt away into the trees.”
Although killing non-human animals comes easily to most people, killing one’s fellow human beings is so radically outside the normal focus of one’s life which involves co-existing with people that many cultures have developed rituals to transform a normal person into a warrior, and sometimes back again following a war. The ancient Greeks, Aztecs, Chinese, Yanomamo Indians, and Scythians also used alcohol or other drugs to facilitate killing.
Very few people kill outside of the military, and most of them are extremely disturbed individuals. James Gilligan, in his book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, diagnosed the root cause of murderous or suicidal violence as deep shame and humiliation, a desperate need for respect and status (and, fundamentally love and care) so intense that only killing (oneself and/or others) could ease the pain — or, rather, the lack of feeling. When a person becomes so ashamed of his needs (and of being ashamed), Gilligan writes, and when he sees no nonviolent solutions, and when he lacks the ability to feel love or guilt or fear, the result can be violence. But what if violence is the start? What if you condition healthy people to kill without thought? Can the result be a mental state resembling that of the person who’s internally driven to kill?
The choice to engage in violence outside of war is not a rational one, and often involves magical thinking, as Gilligan explains by analyzing the meaning of crimes in which murderers have mutilated their victims’ bodies or their own. “I am convinced,” he writes,
“that violent behavior, even at its most apparently senseless, incomprehensible, and psychotic, is an understandable response to an identifiable, specifiable set of conditions; and that even when it seems motivated by ‘rational’ self-interest, it is the end product of a series of irrational, self-destructive, and unconscious motives that can be studied, identified, and understood.”
The mutilation of bodies, whatever drives it in each case, is a fairly common practice in war, although engaged in mostly by people who were not inclined to murderous violence prior to joining the military. Numerous war trophy photos from the War on Iraq show corpses and body parts mutilated and displayed in close-up, laid out on a platter as if for cannibals. Many of these images were sent by American soldiers to a website that marketed pornography. Presumably, these images were viewed as war pornography. Presumably, they were created by people who had come to love war — not by the Himmlers or the Dick Cheneys who enjoy sending others, but by people who actually enjoyed being there, people who signed up for college money or adventure and were trained as sociopathic killers.
On June 9, 2006, the U.S. military killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, took a photo of his dead head, blew it up to enormous proportions, and displayed it in a frame at a press conference. From the way it was framed, the head could have been connected to a body or not. Presumably this was meant to be not only proof of his death, but a kind of revenge for al-Zarqawi’s beheading of Americans.
Gilligan’s understanding of what motivates violence comes from working in prisons and mental health institutions, not from participating in war, and not from watching the news. He suggests that the obvious explanation for violence is usually wrong:
“Some people think that armed robbers commit their crimes in order to get money. And of course, sometimes, that is how they rationalize their behavior. But when you sit down and talk with people who repeatedly commit such crimes, what you hear is, ‘I never got so much respect before in my life as I did when I first pointed a gun at somebody,’ or, ‘You wouldn’t believe how much respect you get when you have a gun pointed at some dude’s face.’ For men who have lived for a lifetime on a diet of contempt and disdain, the temptation to gain instant respect in this way can be worth far more than the cost of going to prison, or even of dying.”
While violence, at least in the civilian world, may be irrational, Gilligan suggests clear ways in which it can be prevented or encouraged. If you wanted to increase violence, he writes, you would take the following steps that the United States has taken: Punish more and more people more and more harshly; ban drugs that inhibit violence and legalize and advertise those that stimulate it; use taxes and economic policies to widen disparities in wealth and income; deny the poor education; perpetuate racism; produce entertainment that glorifies violence; make lethal weapons readily available; maximize the polarization of social roles of men and women; encourage prejudice against homosexuality; use violence to punish children in school and at home; and keep unemployment sufficiently high. And why would you do that or tolerate it? Possibly because most victims of violence are poor, and the poor tend to organize and demand their rights better when they aren’t terrorized by crime.
Gilligan looks at violent crimes, especially murder, and then turns his attention to our system of violent punishment, including the death penalty, prison rape, and solitary confinement. He views retributive punishment as the same sort of irrational violence as the crimes it is punishing. He sees structural violence and poverty as doing the most damage, but he does not address the subject of war. In scattered references Gilligan makes clear that he lumps war into his theory of violence, and yet in one place he opposes ending wars, and nowhere does he explain how his theory can be coherently applied.
Wars are created by governments, just like our criminal justice system. Do they have similar roots? Do soldiers and mercenaries and contractors and bureaucrats feel shame and humiliation? Do war propaganda and military training produce the idea that the enemy has disrespected the warrior who must now kill to recover his honor? Or is the humiliation of the drill sergeant intended to produce a reaction redirected against the enemy? What about the congress members and presidents, the generals and weapons corporation CEOs, and the corporate media — those who actually decide to have a war and make it happen? Don’t they have a high degree of status and respect already, even if they may have gone into politics because of their exceptional desire for such attention? Aren’t there more mundane motivations, like financial profit, campaign financing, and vote winning at work here, even if the writings of the Project for the New American Century have a lot to say about boldness and dominance and control?
And what about the public at large, including all those nonviolent war supporters? Common slogans and bumper stickers include: “These colors don’t run,” “Proud to be an American,” “Never back down,” “Don’t cut and run.” Nothing could be more irrational or symbolic than a war on a tactic or an emotion, as in the “Global War on Terror,” which was launched as revenge, even though the primary people against whom the revenge was desired were already dead. Do people think their pride and self-worth depend on the vengeance to be found in bombing Afghanistan until there’s nobody left resisting U.S. dominance? If so, it will do not a bit of good to explain to them that such actions actually make us less safe. But what if people who crave respect find out that such behavior makes our country despised or a laughingstock, or that the government is playing them for fools, that Europeans have a higher standard of living as a result of not putting all their money into wars, or that a puppet president like Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai has been making off with suitcases of American money?
Regardless, other research finds that only about two percent of people actually enjoy killing, and they are extremely mentally disturbed. The purpose of military training is to make normal people, including normal war supporters, into sociopaths, at least in the context of war, to get them to do in war what would be viewed as the single worst thing they could do at any other time or place. The way people can be predictably trained to kill in war is to simulate killing in training. Recruits who stab dummies to death, chant “Blood makes the grass grow!”, and shoot target practice with human-looking targets, will kill in battle when they’re scared out of their minds. They won’t need their minds. Their reflexes will take over. “The only thing that has any hope of influencing the midbrain,” writes Dave Grossman, “is also the only thing that influences a dog: classical and operant conditioning.”
“That is what is used when training firefighters and airline pilots to react to emergency situations: precise replication of the stimulus that they will face (in a flame house or a flight simulator) and then extensive shaping of the desired response to that stimulus. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response. In the crisis, when these individuals are scared out of their wits, they react properly and they save lives. . . . We do not tell school children what they should do in case of fire, we condition them; and when they are frightened, they do the right thing.”
It is only through intense and well-designed conditioning that most people can be brought to kill. As Grossman and others have documented, “throughout history the majority of men on the battlefield would not attempt to kill the enemy, even to save their own lives or the lives of their friends.” We’ve changed that.
Grossman believes that phony violence in movies, video games, and the rest of our culture is a major contributor to actual violence in society and he condemns it, even while advising on better ways in which the military can create wartime killers. While Grossman is in the business of counseling soldiers traumatized by having killed, he assists in producing more killing. I don’t think his motivations are as awful as that sounds. I think he simply believes killing is transformed into a force for good by a declaration of war by his country. At the same time he advocates for reducing simulations of violence in the media and in children’s games. Nowhere in On Killing does he address the awkward fact that violent media powerful enough to drive non-war violence must also make the work of military recruiters and trainers easier.
In 2010, protests by peace activists forced the Army to close down something it had called the Army Experience Center, which had been located in a Pennsylvania shopping mall. At the center, kids had played war-simulating video games that included the use of real military weapons hooked up to video screens. Recruiters offered helpful tips. The Army did this for children too young to legally be recruited, clearly believing that it would boost recruitment later on. Of course, other ways we teach children that violence can be good and useful include the continued use of war itself and the use of state executions in our criminal justice system.
In August 2010, a judge in Alabama tried a man for the crime of threatening on the Facebook website to commit mass murder similar to a shooting spree that killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. The sentence? The man had to join the military. The Army said it would take him after he was off probation. “Military is a good, good thing for you,” the judge told him. “I’d say it’s an appropriate outcome,” the man’s lawyer agreed.
If there is a connection between violence outside of war and inside it, if the two are not completely unrelated activities, one might expect to see above-average rates of violence from veterans of war, especially from those who have engaged in face-to-face combat on the ground. In 2007, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report, using 2004 data, on veterans in prison, announcing:
“Among adult males in the U.S. population in 2004, veterans were half as likely as non-veterans to be in prison (630 prisoners per 100,000 veterans, compared to 1,390 prisoners per 100,000 non-veteran U.S. residents).” That seems significant, and I’ve seen it quoted without what came next:
“The difference is largely explained by age. Two-thirds of male veterans in the U.S. population were at least 55 years old, compared to 17 percent of non-veteran men. The incarceration rate of these older male veterans (182 per 100,000) was far lower than for those under age 55 (1,483 per 100,000).”
But this doesn’t tell us whether veterans are more or less likely to be incarcerated, much less violent. The report tells us that more of those veterans who are incarcerated have been convicted of violent crimes than is the case for incarcerated non-veterans, and that only a minority of those veterans who are incarcerated have been in combat. But it does not tell us whether men or women who have been in combat are more or less likely to commit violent crimes than others in their same age group.
If crime statistics did show an increased rate of violent crime by war veterans, no politician who wanted to remain a politician for long would be eager to publish them. In April 2009, newspapers reported that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security had been advising their employees who were looking into white supremacists and “militia/sovereign-citizen extremist groups” to focus on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. The resulting storm of indignation could not have been more volcanic had the FBI advised focusing on white people as suspected members of such groups!
Of course it seems unfair to send people off to do a horrible job and then hold a prejudice against them when they get back. Veterans’ groups are dedicated to fighting such prejudices. But group statistics should not be treated as grounds for unfair treatment of individuals. If sending people to war makes them statistically more likely to be dangerous we ought to know that, since sending people to war is something we can choose to stop doing. Nobody will be at any risk of treating veterans unfairly when we have no more veterans.
On July 28, 2009, the Washington Post ran an article that began:
“Soldiers returning from Iraq after serving with a Fort Carson, Colo., combat brigade have exhibited an exceptionally high rate of criminal behavior in their home towns, carrying out a string of killings and other offenses that the ex-soldiers attribute to lax discipline and episodes of indiscriminate killing during their grueling deployment, according to a six-month investigation by the Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper.”
Crimes these soldiers had committed in Iraq included killing civilians at random — in some cases at point-blank range — using banned stun guns on captives, pushing people off bridges, loading weapons with illegal hollow-point bullets, abusing drugs, and mutilating the bodies of Iraqis. Crimes they had committed upon returning home included rape, domestic abuse, shootings, stabbings, kidnappings and suicides.
We can’t extrapolate to the whole military from a case involving 10 veterans, but it is suggestive that the military itself believed that problems typical of the current war experience “may have increased the risks” of veterans committing murder back in the civilian world where murder is no longer admirable.
Numerous studies conclude that veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are significantly more likely to commit acts of violence than veterans not suffering from PTSD. Of course, those suffering PTSD are also more likely to be those who saw a lot of combat. Unless non-suffering veterans have lower rates of violence than civilians, veterans on average must have higher.
While statistics on murder seem hard to come by, those on suicide are more readily available. At the time of this writing, the U.S. military was losing more lives to suicide than to combat, and those troops who had seen combat were committing suicide at a higher rate than those who hadn’t. The Army put the suicide rate for active duty soldiers at 20.2 per 100,000, higher than the U.S. average even when adjusted for gender and age. And the Veterans Administration in 2007 put the suicide rate for U.S. veterans who had left the military at a stunning 56.8 per 100,000, higher than the average suicide rate in any nation on earth, and higher than the average suicide rate for males anywhere outside of Belarus — the same place where Himmler observed mass murder. Time magazine noted on April 13, 2010, that — despite the military’s reluctance to admit it — one contributing factor, amazingly enough, was probably war:
“The experience of combat itself may also play a role. ‘Combat increases fearlessness about death and the capability for suicide,’ said Craig Bryan, a University of Texas psychologist, briefing Pentagon officials in January. The combination of combat exposure and ready access to guns can be lethal to anyone contemplating suicide. About half of soldiers who kill themselves use weapons, and the figure rises to 93 percent among those deployed in war zones.
“Bryan, a suicide expert who recently left the Air Force, says the military finds itself in a catch-22. ‘We train our warriors to use controlled violence and aggression, to suppress strong emotional reactions in the face of adversity, to tolerate physical and emotional pain and to overcome the fear of injury and death,’ he told TIME. While required for combat, ‘these qualities are also associated with increased risk for suicide.’ Such conditioning cannot be dulled ‘without negatively affecting the fighting capability of our military,’ he adds. ‘Service members are, simply put, more capable of killing themselves by sheer consequence of their professional training.’“
Another contributing factor could be the lack of any clear understanding as to what a war is for. Soldiers in a war like the War on Afghanistan have no good basis to believe the horrors they’re facing and committing are justified by something more important. When the president’s representative to Afghanistan can’t communicate the purpose of the war to senators, how can soldiers be expected to know? And how can one live with having killed without knowing what it was for?
Section: VETERANS NOT SO GLORIOUS
Of course, most veterans who run into hard times do not commit suicide. In fact, veterans in the United States — all those “support the troops” speeches by the rich and powerful notwithstanding — are very disproportionately likely to be homeless. The military does not, of course, put the same focus on helping warriors become non-warriors that it put on their previous transformation. And society does not whole-heartedly encourage veterans to believe their actions were justified.
Vietnam War veterans were welcomed back with a good deal of scorn and contempt, which affected their mental state horribly. Veterans of the Wars on Iraq and Afghanistan have often been welcomed home with the question “Do you mean that war is still going on?” That question may not be as damaging as telling someone they’ve committed murder, but it’s a long way from emphasizing the supreme importance and value of what they’ve done.
Saying what may be most helpful to veterans’ mental health is, all else equal, something I’d like to do. But it is not what I am doing in this book. If we are going to get beyond war it will be through developing a culture of greater kindness that shuns cruelty, revenge, and violence. The people primarily responsible for wars are the ones at the top, those discussed in chapter six. Punishing their crimes would deter war in the future. Punishing veterans would not deter war in the least. But the message that needs to permeate our society is not one of praise and gratitude for the worst crimes we produce.
The solution, I think is not to praise or punish veterans, but to show them kindness while speaking the truth required to stop producing more of them. Veterans and non-veterans alike could have free and top-quality mental healthcare, standard healthcare, educational opportunities, job opportunities, childcare, vacations, guaranteed employment, and retirement if we stopped dumping all of our resources into wars. Providing veterans with those basic components of a happy, healthy civilian life would probably more than balance out any discomfort they feel at hearing criticism of war.
Matthis Chiroux is a U.S. soldier who refused to deploy to Iraq. He says that he was stationed in Germany and made friends with a lot of Germans, some of whom told him that what his country was doing in Iraq and Afghanistan was genocide. Chiroux says that this deeply offended him, but that he thought about it and acted on it, and it may very well have saved his life. He is now grateful, he says, to some courageous Germans who were willing to offend him. Here’s to offending people!
I’ve met a number of veterans of the Wars on Iraq and Afghanistan who have found some comfort and relief in becoming vocal opponents of the very wars they fought in and, in some cases, becoming resisters who refuse to fight anymore. Veterans, and even active duty troops, need not be enemies of peace activists. As Captain Paul Chappell points out in his book The End of War, there’s always a large gap between stereotypes. Soldiers who take sadistic joy in slaughtering innocents and peace activists who spit on veterans are miles apart (or perhaps a little closer than they think), but the average participant and opponent of war are much closer together and have much more in common than that which separates them. A significant percentage of Americans, and even a significant percentage of peace activists, work for weapons makers and other suppliers of the war industry.
While soldiers find it easier to kill from a distance with drones or using heat sensors and night vision, playing a video-game war in which they don’t have to see their victims, the politicians who send them into war are even a further step removed and have an even easier time avoiding feelings of responsibility. How else can we understand a situation in which hundreds of members of the House of Representatives are “opponents” and “critics” of wars yet keep funding them? And the rest of us civilians are yet another step removed again.
Soldiers have long found it easier to kill using a piece of equipment requiring more than one person to operate it, diffusing the responsibility. We think in just the same way. There are hundreds of millions of people failing to take drastic measures to stop these wars, so surely I can’t be blamed for the same failure, right? The least I can do, while pushing myself toward stronger opposition, is to sympathize with people who in many cases went into the military in the absence of other options that I had, and to honor above all those who find the courage and heroism within the military to lay down their weapons and refuse to do what they’re told, or at least find the wisdom to speak out in later regret about what they’ve done.
Section: SOLDIERS’ STORIES
The lies that have been told to launch wars have always included dramatic stories, and since the creation of the cinema, stories of heroic warriors have been found there. The Committee on Public Information produced feature-length films as well as giving those 4-minute speeches when reels were changed.
“In The Unbeliever (1918), made with the cooperation of the U.S. Marine Corps, the rich and powerful Phil learns that ‘class pride is junk’ as he watches his chauffeur die in battle, finds faith after seeing an image of Christ walking across the battlefield, and falls in love with a beautiful Belgian girl who barely escapes rape by a German officer.”
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation about the Civil War and reconstruction helped launch a domestic war on black people, but his Hearts of the World in 1918, made with military assistance, taught Americans that World War I was about heroically rescuing the innocent from the clutches of evil ones.
For World War II, the Office of War Information suggested messages, reviewed scripts, and asked that objectionable scenes be cut, taking over the film industry to promote war. The Army also hired Frank Capra to produce seven pro-war films. This practice has, of course, continued to the current day with Hollywood blockbusters being regularly produced with assistance from the U.S. military. The troops in these stories are depicted as heroes.
During real wars, the military loves to tell the dramatic stories of real-life heroes, too. Nothing’s better for recruitment. Just a couple of weeks into the War on Iraq, the U.S. media, at the prompting of the military and the White House, began giving saturation coverage to the story of a female soldier named Jessica Lynch who had supposedly been captured during a hostile exchange and then dramatically rescued. She was both the heroine and the damsel in distress. The Pentagon falsely claimed Lynch had stab and bullet wounds, and that she had been slapped about on her hospital bed and interrogated. Lynch denied the whole story and complained that the military had used her. On April 24, 2007, Lynch testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:
“[Right after my capture], tales of great heroism were being told. My parent’s home in Wirt County was under siege of the media all repeating the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills who went down fighting. It was not true. . . . I am still confused as to why they chose to lie.”
One soldier involved in the operation who knew the stories were false and who commented at the time that the military was “making a movie” was Pat Tillman. He had been a football star and had famously given up a multi-million dollar football contract in order to join the military and do his patriotic duty to protect the country from evil terrorists. He was the most famous actual troop in the U.S. military, and television pundit Ann Coulter called him “an American original — virtuous, pure, and masculine like only an American male can be.”
Except that he came to no longer believe the stories that had led him to enlist, and Ann Coulter stopped praising him. On September 25, 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Tillman had become critical of the Iraq war and had scheduled a meeting with the prominent war critic Noam Chomsky to take place when he returned from Afghanistan, all information that Tillman’s mother and Chomsky later confirmed. Tillman couldn’t confirm it because he had died in Afghanistan in 2004 from three bullets to the forehead at short range, bullets shot by an American.
The White House and the military knew Tillman had died from so-called friendly fire, but they falsely told the media he’d died in a hostile exchange. Senior Army commanders knew the facts and yet approved awarding Tillman a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a posthumous promotion, all based on his having died fighting the enemy.
Dramatic stories that challenge the idea of heroic warriors are told as well. Karen Malpede’s play Prophecy depicts a suicidal veteran of the War on Iraq. Films like In the Valley of Ellah convey the damage that war does to soldiers, and give expression to their belief that what they’ve done is the opposite of heroic. Green Zone depicts a soldier realizing a bit late that the War on Iraq was based on lies.
But there is no need to turn to fiction or to fabricate stories that show soldiers as they really are. All that’s required is talking to them. Many, of course, still support wars after having been in them. Even more support the general idea of war and have pride in what they’ve done, even if they have criticisms of the particular war they were part of. But some become outspoken opponents of wars, recounting their experiences in order to dispel mythologies. Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War gathered near Washington, D.C., in March 2008 for an event they called “Winter Soldier.” They spoke these words:
“He watched the commander who had given us the order to shoot anyone on the street shoot two old ladies that were walking and carrying vegetables. He said that the commander had told him to shoot the women, and when he refused, the commander shot them. So, when this marine started shooting at people in cars that nobody else felt were threatening, he was following his commander’s example.” — Jason Wayne Lemieux
“I remember one woman walking by. She was carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading toward us, so we lit her up with the Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher, and when the dust settled, we realized that the bag was full of groceries. She had been trying to bring us food and we blew her to pieces. . . .
“Something else we were encouraged to do, almost with a wink and a nudge, was to carry drop weapons, or by my third tour, drop shovels. We would carry these weapons or shovels with us because if we accidentally shot a civilian, we could just toss the weapon on the body, and make them look like an insurgent.” — Jason Washburn
“I want to start by showing you a video of the Executive Officer of Kilo Company. We had gotten into a two-hour long firefight, and it was over for quite some time, but he still felt the need to drop a five-hundred pound laser-guided missile on northern Ramadi. — Jon Michael Turner
The video shows the officer gloating after the missile strike: “I think I just killed half of the population of northern Ramadi!”
“On April 18, 2006, I had my first confirmed kill. He was an innocent man. I don’t know his name. I call him ‘the Fat Man.’ During the incident, he walked back to his house, and I shot him in front of his friend and father. The first round didn’t kill him after I’d hit him in the neck. Afterwards, he started screaming and looked right into my eyes. I looked at my friend I was on post with, and I said ‘Well, I can’t let that happen.’ I took another shot and took him out. The rest of his family carried him away. It took seven Iraqis to carry his body.
“We were all congratulated after we had our first kills, and that happened to have been mine. My company commander personally congratulated me. This is the same individual who stated that whoever gets their first kill by stabbing them to death would get a four-day pass when we returned from Iraq. . . .
“I am sorry for the hate and destruction that I have inflicted on innocent people. . . . I am no longer the monster I once was.” — Jon Michael Turner
There were many more stories like these, and what seemed heroic was the telling of them, not what they told. We don’t usually get to hear what soldiers think. As much as the general public is ignored in Washington, D.C., soldiers are even more ignored. Rarely do we even see polls of what troops believe. But in 2006, while presidents and congress members were talking up the war “for the troops” a survey found that 72 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq wanted the war ended before 2007. An even higher percentage, 85 percent, falsely believed the war was “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9-11 attacks.” Of course Saddam Hussein had no role in those attacks. And 77 percent believed a major reason for the war was “to stop Saddam from protecting al Qaeda in Iraq.” Of course there was no al Qaeda in Iraq until the war created it. These soldiers believed the war lies, and they still wanted the war ended. But most of them did not lay down their weapons.
Does their participation in an aggressive war get a pass because they were lied to? Well, it certainly puts even more blame on the top decision makers who need to be held accountable. But more important than answering that question, I think, is preventing future lies to future potential warriors. It is toward that end that the truth about past wars should be brought out. The truth is this: war has not been and cannot be a service. It is not heroic. It is shameful. Part of recognizing these facts will involve stripping away the aura of heroism from soldiers. When politicians stop falsely pretending to have fought in wars — a rather common practice, and something a senatorial candidate was caught doing in 2010 — and start falsely pretending not to have done so, we’ll know we’re making progress.
Another sign of progress looks like this:
“On July 30, , approximately 30 active-duty soldiers, veterans, military families, and supporters held a rally outside the gates of Fort Hood [from which soldiers already suffering PTSD have been sent back to war] with a large banner directed at Colonel Allen, commander of 3rd ACR [Armored Cavalry Regiment], which read ‘Col. Allen . . . Do Not Deploy Wounded Soldiers!’ Demonstrators also carried placards that read:
‘Tell the brass: Kiss my ass!’
‘They lie, we die!’
“The demonstration was at a main entry point for the base, so thousands of active-duty GIs and their families passed by the demonstration. Many also joined after seeing the demonstration. Fort Hood Military Police sent vehicles and troops to intimidate the demonstrators, fearing a growing movement.”