I remember hearing it as a kid: “Marching to Pretoria” – a jaunty, bouncy, up-tempo folk song. Something to get your feet going. The Weavers made it famous, the Smothers Brothers made it a comedy routine.
The British soldiers sang it on their way to the Boer Wars in South Africa. There were two of them: 1880-1881 and 1899-1902. Together they erased 75,000 human lives — soldiers and civilians, men, women, and children — given to battle deaths, disease, and the gruesome vanishing of concentration camps.
If you’re going to war, you give the crowd something to high-step about — ditties to sing as the boys step smartly by. But it’s way more than just a party, it’s a sacred ritual. It has to be: war is a sacred time and space where humans get to act like the gods and ignore their own laws and moral sensibilities. In order to enter that holy other, the nation going to war must first be consecrated with the blood that will be shed, so that the combatants may commit and be victimized by the kind of murderous brutality that is not just illegal but unthinkable in ordinary reality, and so that those who stay home will be absolved of complicity.
“We call on the warrior to exemplify the qualities necessary to prosecute war — courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. The soldier, neglected and even shunned during peacetime, is suddenly held up as the exemplar of our highest ideals, the savior of the state. The soldier is often whom we want to become, although secretly many of us, including most soldiers, know that we can never match the ideal held out before us.
“But war is a god, as the ancient Greeks and Romans knew, and its worship demands human sacrifice. We urge young men to war, making the slaughter they are asked to carry out a rite of passage. And this rite has changed little over the centuries.”
This, and all other quotes in this post, are from War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges (2002) from
We must have the parades and catchy ditties, the rhetoric of outrage and inflammatory headlines, so that we may enter the ecstatic state where we embrace the Myths of War, which give us the clarity and conviction that we are the good guys and they are the bad, our cause is just and theirs is not, and God is on our side and not on theirs.
“Armed movements seek divine sanction and the messianic certitude of absolute truth. They do not need to get this from religions, as we usually think of religion, but a type of religion: Patriotism provides the blessing.
“Patriotism, often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us. …
“Soldiers want at least the consolation of knowing that they risk being blown up by land mines for a greater glory, for a New World. Dimensions, questioning of purpose, the exposure of war crimes carried out by those fighting on our behalf are dangerous to such beliefs. Dissidents who challenge the goodness of our cause, who question the gods of war, who pull back the curtains to expose the lie are usually silenced or ignored.
“We speak of those we fight only in the abstract; we strip them of their human qualities. It is a familiar linguistic corruption.
“The goal of such nationalistic rhetoric is to invoke pity for one’s own. The goal is to show the community that what they hold sacred is under threat. The enemy, we are told, seeks to destroy religious and cultural life, the very identity of the group or state. Nationalistic songs, epic poems, twisted accounts of history take the place of scholarship and art.
“Once we sign on for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.”
And then, once war is executed, we will mourn our own, but not theirs.
“War is not a uniform experience or event … war usually demands, by its very logic, the disabling of the enemy, often broadly defined to include civilians… While we venerate and mourn our own dead we are curiously indifferent about those we kill. Thus killing is done in our name, killing that concerns us little, while those who kill our own are seen as having crawled out of the deepest recesses of the earth, lacking our own humanity and goodness. Our dead. Their dead. They are not the same. Our dead matter, theirs do not.
Lastly, we will perpetuate the Myths of War, so we may do it again.
“And we all become like Nestor in The Iliad, reciting the litany of fallen heroes that went before to spur on a new generation. That the myths are lies, that those wo went before us were no more able to match the ideal than we are, is carefully hidden from public view. The tension between those who know combat, and thus know the public lie, and those who propagate the myth, usually ends with the mythmakers working to silence the witnesses to war.”
All this, to numb ourselves against the very real possibility that Johnny may not in fact come marching home again.