Dulce et decorum est pro patri mori

the great war

“Sweet and proper it is, to die for one’s country.”
Horace, Odes

As the church bells rang on Armistice Day, Wilfred Owen’s mother received the news that he had died almost to the hour a week before.

Owen, like his German counterpart Erich Maria Remarque, wrote starkly of the horrors of war. His best-known piece is “Dulce et Decorum est”:

If in smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind this wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the end
Of vile, incurable sore on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:  Dulce et decorum est
Pro Patri mori.

The title was taken from a line in one of Horace’s “Odes.” Here’s the relevant passage from the original (John Conington translation):

Angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
condiscat et Parthos ferocis
vexet eques metuendus hasta
vitamque sub divo et trepidis agat
in rebus. Illum ex moenibus hosticis
matrona bellantis tyranni
prospiciens et adulta virgo
suspiret, eheu, ne rudis agminum
sponsus lacessat regius asperum
tactu leonem, quem cruenta
per medias rapit ira caedes.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.
To suffer hardness with good cheer,
In sternest school of warfare bred,
Our youth should learn; let steed and spear
Make him one day the Parthian’s dread;
Cold skies, keen perils, brace his life.
Methinks I see from rampired town
Some battling tyrant’s matron wife,
Some maiden, look in terror down,—
“Ah, my dear lord, untrain’d in war!
O tempt not the infuriate mood
Of that fell lion I see! from far
He plunges through a tide of blood!”
What joy, for fatherland to die!
Death’s darts e’en flying feet o’ertake,
Nor spare a recreant chivalry,
A back that cowers, or loins that quake.

Thus the myths of war are perpetuated on the graves of “children ardent for some desperate glory.”

Now they have it.

Their glory returned, but not them.

Dulce et decorum est….

Paying the Moral Debt of War

soldier

War confers on soldiers the right to think and do what is immoral and illegal in peacetime society. This creates a moral debt that must be paid or otherwise ethically discharged in order for the nation at war to return to peacetime business as usual. The returning soldiers bear the burden of this debt, and society must help them be freed of it, although there is little heart for enduring the narcotic withdrawal required:

“However much soldiers regret killing once it is finished, however much they spend their lives trying to cope with the experience, the act itself, fueled by fear, excitement, the pull of the crowd, and the god-like exhilaration of destroying, is often thrilling.”

“Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And this is why for many war is so hard to discuss once it is over.

Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

“How do you talk about morally reprehensible things that have left a bruise on your soul?” asks the author of The Conversation We Refuse to Have About War and Our Veterans, Medium (May 24, 2019). The article is insightful and moving, and I’ll quote it at length:

“The guilt and moral tension many veterans feel is not necessarily post-traumatic stress disorder, but moral injury — the emotional shame and psychological damage soldiers incur when we have to do things that violate our sense of right and wrong. Shooting a woman or child. Killing another human. Watching a friend die. Laughing about situations that would normally disgust us.

“Because so few in America have served, those who have can no longer relate to their peers, friends, and family. We fear being viewed as monsters, or lauded as heroes when we feel the things we’ve done were morally ambiguous or wrong.

“As Amy Amidon, a Navy psychologist, stated in an interview regarding moral injury:

‘Civilians are lucky that we still have a sense of naiveté about what the world is like. The average American means well, but what they need to know is that these [military] men and women are seeing incredible evil, and coming home with that weighing on them and not knowing how to fit back into society.’

“Most of the time… people only want to hear the heroics. They don’t want to know what the war is costing our sons and daughters in regard to mental health, and this only makes the gap wider. In order for our soldiers to heal, society needs to own up to its part in sending us to war. The citizen at home may not have pulled the trigger, but they asked the soldier to go in their place. Citing a 2004 studyDavid Wood explains that the ‘grief over losing a combat buddy was comparable, more than 30 years later, to that of a bereaved spouse whose partner had died in the previous six months.’ The soul wounds we experience are much greater. Society needs to come alongside us rather than pointing us to the VA.

“Historically, many cultures performed purification rites for soldiers returning home from war. These rites purified a broad spectrum of warriors, from the Roman Centurion to the Navajo to the Medieval Knight. Perhaps most fascinating is that soldiers returning home from the Crusades were instructed to observe a period of purification that involved the Christian church and their community. Though the church had sanctioned the Crusades, they viewed taking another life as morally wrong and damaging to their knights’ souls.

“Today, churches typically put veterans on stage to praise our heroics or speak of a great battle we’ve overcome while drawing spiritual parallels for their congregation. What they don’t do is talk about the moral weight we bear on their behalf.

“Dr. Jonathan Shay, the clinical psychologist who coined the term moral injury, argues that in order for the soldier and society to find healing, we must come together and bear the moral responsibility of what soldiers have done in our name.

“As General Douglas MacArthur eloquently put it:

‘The soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.’”

More next time.

Photo by Obed Hernández on Unsplash

 

The Narcotic of War

all quiet

Erich Maria Remarque was 18 when Germany sent him to the Western Front in the war that would end all wars, where he was wounded five times. In 1929, eleven years after Armistice Day, his novel Im Westen Nichts Neues — All Quiet on the Western Front — was published with his promise that it would “try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” The book spoke unflinchingly of the horrors of war. It became an instant bestseller, a worldwide classic, and was made into a movie. Four years later, the Nazis banned the book and the movie.[1]

In War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning[2], Chris Hedges says this about Remarque and the book:

“The German veteran of World War I Erich Maria Remarque, in All Quiet on the Western Front, wrote of the narcotic of war that quickly transformed men into beasts. He knew the ecstatic high of violence and the debilitating mental and physical destruction that comes with prolonged exposure to war’s addiction.

“‘We run on,’ he wrote, ‘overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God knows what devils; this wave that multiplies our strength with fear and madness and greed of life, seeking and fighting for nothing but deliverance.’”

War is horrible, war is brutal, war brings out the worst of what humanity is capable of… and it’s also addicting.

“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug… It is peddled by mythmakers — historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state — all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess:  excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. it dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. “

Those of us who stay home probably don’t know that our soldiers feel that. And it surely never occurs to us that our enemies feel the same:

“When we ingest the anodyne of war we feel what those we strive to destroy feel, including the Islamist fundamentalists who are painted as alien, barbaric, and uncivilized. It is the same narcotic.”

Hedges confesses his own addiction and difficulty of withdrawal from the narcotic of war:

“I partook of it for many years. And like every recovering addict there is a part of me that remains nostalgic for war’s simplicity and high, even as I cope with the scars it has left behind, mourn the deaths of those I worked with, and struggle with the bestiality I would have been better off not witnessing. There is a part of me — maybe it is a part of many of us — that decided at certain moments that I would rather die like this than go back to the routine of life. The chance to exist for an intense and overpowering moment, even if it meant certain oblivion, seemed worth it in the midst of war– and very stupid one the war ended.

“In the fall of 1995, a few weeks after the war in Bosnia ended, I sat with friends who had suffered horribly… Yet all [they] did that afternoon was lament the days when they lived in fear and hunger emaciated, targeted by Serbian gunners on the heights above. They did not wish back the suffering, and yet, they admitted, those days may have been the fullest of their lives. They looked at me in despair. I knew them when they were being stonked by hundreds of shells a day, when they had not water to bathe in or to wash their clothes, when they huddled in unheated, darkened apartments with plastic sheeting for windows. But what they expressed was real. It was the disillusionment  with a sterile, futile, empty present. Peace had again exposed the void that the rush of was, of battle, had filled. Once again they were, as perhaps we all are along, no longer bound by that common sense of struggle, no longer given the opportunity to be noble, heroic, no longer sure what life was about or what it meant.

“The old comradeship, however false, that allowed them to love men and women they hardly knew, indeed, whom they may not have liked before the war, had vanished. Moreover, they had seen that all the sacrifice had been for naught. They had been betrayed. The corrupt old Communist party bosses, who became nationalists overnight and go my friends into the mess in the first place, those who had grown rich off their suffering, were still in power. There was a 70 percent unemployment rate. They depended on handouts from the international community. They knew the lie of war, the mockery of their idealism and struggled with their shattered illusions. They had seen the grinning skull of death that speaks in the end for war. They understood that their cause, once as fashionable in certain intellectual circles as they were themselves, lay forgotten. No longer did actors, politicians, and artists scramble to visit, acts that were almost always ones of gross self-promotion. And yet they wished it all back. I did too.”

Continued next time.

[1] For more, see Wikipedia, also this article and this one.

[2] All quotes in this post are from this source.

All War is Holy War

holy war

According to one anthropologist,[1] the Yanomami Amazonian tribe lives in a “chronic state of war”:  violence against outsiders and members alike is a normal way of life. Their culture is the exception — most require a shift from peacetime to wartime culture in order for maiming and murdering to be acceptable. The shift begins with a cause to rally around:

“It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort.”

War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges (2002).[2]

Most cultures are governed by some version of “Thou shalt not kill,” but God and the gods are not so constrained — they can and do kill, and direct their followers to do so. Therefore, to justify the mayhem, the state must become religious, and its cause must be sacred.

“War celebrates only power — and we come to believe in wartime that it is the only real form of power. It preys on our most primal and savage impulses. It allows us  to do what peacetime society forbids or restrains us from doing:  It allows us to kill.”

In wartime, the state is anointed with the requisite elements of religious culture:  dogmas and orthodox language; rites of initiation and passage; songs, symbols, metaphors, and icons; customs and laws to honor heroes, demonize foes, discipline skeptics, and punish nonbelievers.

“Because we in modern society have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the state in times of war.

“We believe in the nobility and self-sacrifice demanded by war… We discover in the communal struggle, the shared sense of meaning and purpose, a cause. War fills our spiritual void.”

Religious anointing reverses the secular aversion to killing and death:

“War finds its meaning in death.

“The cause is built on the backs of victims, portrayed always as innocent. Indeed, most conflicts are ignited with martyrs, whether real or created. The death of an innocent, one who is perceived as emblematic of the nation or the group under attack, becomes the initial rallying point for war. These dead become the standard bearers of the cause and all causes feed off the steady supply of corpses.

“The cause, sanctified by the dead, cannot be questioned without dishonoring those who gave up their lives. We become enmeshed in the imposed language.

“There is a constant act of remembering and honoring the fallen during war. These ceremonies sanctify the cause.

The first death is the most essential:

“Elias Canetti [winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981] wrote, “it is the first death which infects everyone with the feeling of being threatened. It is impossible to overrate the part played  by the first dead man in the kindling of war. Rulers who want to unleash war know very well that they must procure or invent a first victim. It need not be anyone of particular importance, and can even be someone quite unknown. Nothing matters except his death, and it must be believed that the enemy is responsible for this. Every possible cause of his death is suppressed except one:  his membership of the group to which one belongs oneself.”

Dissent has no place in the culture of war. The nation’s institutions and citizens are expected to speak the language of war, which frames and limits public discourse.

“The adoption of the cause means adoption of the language of the cause.

“The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting the cause. And some of the most important cheerleaders of the cause are the reporters. This is true in nearly every war. During the Gulf War, as in the weeks after the September attacks, communities gathered for vigils and worship services. The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura. We, even those in the press, spoke in the collective.

“The official jargon obscures the game of war — the hunters and the hunted. We accept terms imposed on us by the state — for example, the “war on terror” — and these terms set the narrow parameters by which we are able to think and discuss.”

Exaltation of the nation, faith in the cause, honoring of the dead, and conformity to the language of war make doubt and dissent damnable:

“When we speak within the confines of this language we give up our linguistic capacity to question and make moral choices.

“The cause is unassailable, wrapped in the mystery reserved for the divine. Those who attempt to expose the fabrications and to unwrap the contradictions of the cause are left isolated and reviled.

“The state and the institutions of state become, for many, the center of worship in wartime. To expose the holes in the myth is to court excommunication.

“When any contradiction is raised or there is a sense that the cause is not just in an absolute sense, the doubts are attacked as apostasy.”

In war, the state shares dominion with the gods. When war ends, the state’s leaders, intoxicated with power, may not release war’s grip on the culture:

“There is a danger of a growing fusion between those in the state who wage war — both for and against modern states — and those who believe they understand and can act as agents of God.

“The moral certitude of the state in wartime is a kind of fundamentalism… And this dangerous messianic brand of religion, one where self-doubt is minimal, has come increasingly to color the modern world of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”

For the state to revert to peacetime culture, the moral shift that supported war must be reversed by both civilians and soldiers. This requires a harrowing withdrawal from addiction to wartime culture. We’ll talk about that next time.

[1] Napoleon Alphonseau Chagnon,

[2] All quotes in this article are from Chris Hedges’ book.

Marching to Pretoria

Marching to Pretoria  marching to Pretoria Smothers Brothers

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.

marching to pretoria - soldiers

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.

when johnny comes rolling home

“A Permanent Armaments Industry Of Vast Proportions”

Eisenhower

“We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” President Eisenhower said in his farewell address. (See last week’s post.) At the time, “vast proportions,” meant:

 “three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment,” and

“we annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.”

That was nearly 60 years ago. What are the numbers today?

As for people who work in the “defense establishment,” this 2009 chart counted roughly three million people in the armed forces and defense department — a number confirmed by this 2012 report, which counted another three and a half million people employed by corporate defense contractors. But neither of those sources captures all defense-related jobs. This oft-cited report from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs indicates that each “$1 billion in military spending creates approximately 11,200 jobs.” Based on current military budget numbers (see below), that would be around 8 million — 11 million people in defense jobs in addition to the 3 million people currently employed by the Defense Dept.

Employment numbers are clearly up.[1] What about comparing military spending to corporate income?

In 2015, U.S. military spending was $586 billion. In 2019, it will be $716 billion (up 22%) or $989 billion (up 69%), depending how you count it. Also in 2015, worldwide military spending was $1.6 trillion. The U.S. accounted for 37% of that amount — about as much as the next seven largest national military budgets combined, over twice the #2 country (China) and ten times the #6 country (Russia).[2] World military spending rose to $1.8 trillion in 2018. Again depending on how you count the USA’s 2019 budget numbers, they will represent 40- 55% of that total.

In 1961, total corporate net income reported to the IRS was approximately $75 Million, Today U.S. corporate profits are roughly $2.0 trillion, Comparing the two is like comparing the solar system to the Milky Way.

Vast proportions” indeed. Apparently President Eisenhower’s warnings went unheeded:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

What does the U.S. do with all that firepower? Sixty years of history since Eisenhower’s speech indicate that every now and then you conjure up the need to use it, and when you do, vigilance either in “the councils of government” or by “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” is the first to go:

“Before conflicts begin, the first people silenced — often with violence — are not the nationalist leaders of the opposing ethnic or religious group, who are useful in that they serve to dump gasoline on the evolving conflict. Those voices within the ethnic group or the nation that question the state’s lust and need for war are targeted. These dissidents are the most dangerous. They give us an alternative language, one that refused to define the other as “barbarian” or “evil,” one that recognizes the humanity of the enemy, one that does not condone violence as a form of communication. Such voices are rarely heeded.

“In wartime the state seeks to destroy its own culture. It is only when this destruction has been completed that the state can begin to exterminate the culture of its opponents. In times of conflict authentic culture is subversive. As the cause championed by the state comes to define national identity, as the myth of war entices a nation to glory and sacrifice, those who question the value of the cause and the veracity of the myths are branded internal enemies.

“States at war silence their own authentic and human culture. When this destruction is well advanced they find the lack of critical and moral restraint useful in the campaign to exterminate the culture of their opponents. By destroying authentic culture — that which allows us to question and examine ourselves and our society — the state erodes the moral fabric. It is replaced with a warped version of reality. The enemy is dehumanized, the universe starkly divided between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. The cause is celebrated, often in overt religious forms, as a manifestation of divine or historical will. All is dedicated to promoting and glorifying the myth, the nation, the cause.”

From War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Chris Hedges.

More coming up re: the cultural dynamics of war.

[1] Researching this article, it struck me that the budget numbers seem disproportionately large relative to the number of jobs created. Click here and here for articles that make the same observation, citing both the Watson Institute report and other sources. The Watson Institute report also indicates that the same dollars spent on education, healthcare, clean energy, and tax cuts to fuel personal consumption would create significantly more new jobs.

[2] Click here for Wikipedia’s somewhat dated ranking of military spending by country and click here for a ranking of the top 20 U.S. Department of Defense contractors in 2018.

“The Military-Industrial Complex” — Who Said That?

I like ike

On Jan.17,1961, three days before giving way to his successor in the Oval Office (JFK), President Eisenhower delivered a farewell speech.

The Cold War was underway, and the Soviet Union had gotten a leg up — this is from the NASA History Office:

“History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I.

“That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.

“As a technical achievement, Sputnik caught the world’s attention and the American public off-guard… the public feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S.”

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson compared Sputnik’s impact to the furor that ensured when, on January 11, 2007, China blasted one of its own weather satellites out of the sky:

“The hit put tens of thousands of long-lived fragments into high Earth orbit, adding to the already considerable dangers posed by debris previously generated by other countries, notably ours. China was roundly criticized by other spacefaring nations for making such a mess:  twelve days later, its foreign ministry declared that the action ‘was not directed at any country and does not constitute a threat to any country.’

“Hmm. That’s a little like saying the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957 was not a threat — even though Sputnik’s booster rocket was an intercontinental ballistic missile, even though Cold Warriors had been thirsting for a space-based reconnaissance vehicle since the end of World War II, even though postwar Soviet rocket research had been focusing on the delivery of a nuclear bomb across the Pacific, and even though Sputnik’s peacefully pulsing radio transmitter was sitting where a nuclear warhead would otherwise have been.”

Accessory to War:  The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang

In his farewell address, the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces — the man who had given the go-ahead for the D-Day invasion — described the U.S. response to what he described as “a hostile ideology — global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.” (Click below for the relevant portion of the speech. Click here for the full text.)

Eisenhower

The U.S. would no longer improvise its mobilization to war case by case, Eisenhower said, but instead would maintain a standing military:

“Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

“Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”

The times required it, Eisenhower said, but he also issued a sober warning:

“We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.

“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Thus the phrase  “military industrial complex” entered both the USA’s national lexicon and culture:

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. … Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

Because this new cultural institution of “vast proportions” was in direct opposition to “our peaceful methods and goals,” Eisenhower urged “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to vigilance, believing it had the power to prevent the military from becoming disproportionately powerful.

How well has the USA heeded this warning? We’ll talk about that next time.

It’s a MAD MAD MAD MAD World

Mad,_Mad,_Mad,_Mad_World_(1963)_theatrical_poster

MAD — Mutually Assured Destruction — might be the most ironic policy acronym ever. The theory behind it seems reasonable:  if everybody knows that nuclear war will end in total destruction no matter who starts it, then nobody will start it.

The theory holds if both sides have sufficient fire power and neither has a foolproof defense or survival strategy. President Reagan tried to one-up the latter with his Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, but it didn’t last. President Putin has made similar claims recently, but nobody seems to be taking him seriously. Thus MAD lives on. But if it’s so airtight, then why aren’t we relieved? Why do we still feel the “assured destruction” shadow?

Well for one thing, MAD can’t deter everybody. It only takes one nutcase with access to the button, and there’s always been one of those somewhere, either in charge of a nation that has the bomb or a religion, revolution, or other powerful institution that might get its hands on it.

“What we can say is that, as of this morning, those with the power to exterminate life have not done so. But this is not altogether comforting, and history is no more reassuring.”

The Deterrence Myth Aeon Magazine (Jan. 9, 2018) (Except where otherwise noted, the following quotes are also from this source.)

For another thing, “it is not legitimate to argue that nuclear weapons have deterred any sort of war, or that they will do so in the future” — even when there is an imbalance of power:

“Even when possessed by just one side, nuclear weapons have not deterred other forms of war. The Chinese, Cuban, Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions all took place even though a nuclear-armed US backed the overthrown governments. Similarly, the US lost the Vietnam War, just as the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan, despite both countries not only possessing nuclear weapons, but also more and better conventional arms than their adversaries. Nor did nuclear weapons aid Russia in its unsuccessful war against Chechen rebels in 1994-96, or in 1999-2000, when Russia’s conventional weapons devastated the suffering Chechen Republic. Nuclear weapons did not help the US achieve its goals in Iraq or Afghanistan, which have become expensive catastrophic failures for the country with the world’s most advanced nuclear weapons. Moreover, despite its nuclear arsenal, the US remains fearful of domestic terrorist attacks, which are more likely to be made with nuclear weapons than be deterred by them.”

Plus, however rational MAD may be in theory, it ignores the impetuous aspects of human nature:

“Deterrence theory assumes optimal rationality on the part of decision-makers. It presumes that those with their fingers on the nuclear triggers are rational actors who will also remain calm and cognitively unimpaired under extremely stressful conditions. It also presumes that leaders will always retain control over their forces and that, moreover, they will always retain control over their emotions as well, making decisions based solely on a cool calculation of strategic costs and benefits.

“Deterrence theory maintains, in short, that each side will scare the pants off the other with the prospect of the most hideous, unimaginable consequences, and will then conduct itself with the utmost deliberate and precise rationality. Virtually everything known about human psychology suggests that this is absurd.

“It requires no arcane wisdom to know that people often act out of misperceptions, anger, despair, insanity, stubbornness, revenge, pride and/or dogmatic conviction. Moreover, in certain situations – as when either side is convinced that war is inevitable, or when the pressures to avoid losing face are especially intense – an irrational act, including a lethal one, can appear appropriate, even unavoidable.”

Further, deterrence requires readiness — another rational-sounding ideal, but where to draw the line between self-defense and aggression is anybody’s guess.

“The military knows its purpose, and that purpose does not end with awareness and deterrence. The commander of Air Force Space Command is clear about the mandate. ‘Our job is to prepare for conflict. We hope this preparation will deter potential adversaries…, but our job is to be ready when and if that day comes.’”

Accessory to War:  The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang

That said, MAD’s fatal flaw might be that it promotes militarism as a shared cultural belief,[1] which feeds the beast known as the “military-industrial complex” — a term usually associated with dissent, which belies its origins. More on that next time.

[1] The author of The Deterrence Myth is David P. Barash, who has written about demilitarization as a preferable strategy. See Strength Through Peace:  How Demilitarization Led to Peace and Happiness in Costa Rica, and What the Rest of the World can Learn From a Tiny, Tropical Nation. See also Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are. 

 

Sex and the Neutron Bomb

neutron bomb

Remember the neutron bomb? I do — this new kind of nuke that would kill people but leave structures intact. It’s odd how, when you put it so starkly, a common reaction is revulsion — there seems to be something particularly ghastly about the thought of a sudden mushroom cloud, then everybody drops dead while the material world stays intact.

Physicist Samuel Cohen was known as the “Father of the Neutron Bomb.” His feelings about it were far from revulsion:

“Until the day he died, physicist Samuel Cohen declared that his invention, the neutron bomb, was a “moral” and “sane” weapon that would kill enemy combatants, while sparing civilians and cities.

“According to his memoirShame: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb[1], he hit upon his idea during a 1951 visit to Seoul, where he witnessed the devastation of the Korean War: ‘The question I asked of myself was something like: If we’re going to go on fighting these damned fool wars in the future, shelling and bombing cities to smithereens and wrecking the lives of their surviving inhabitants, might there be some kind of nuclear weapon that could avoid all this?’”

Though it Seems Crazy Now, the Neutron Bomb Was Intended to be Humane, Gizmodo (Sept. 19, 2014). (This piece provides a great history of the bomb.)

Presidents Nixon and Ford had the neutron bomb on the political agenda, Carter tanked it, Reagan revived it, and Pres. Bush Sr.finally dumped it for good. Along the way, it provoked massive public protests in the USA and especially in Europe.

“This, then, was the final insult. After the neutron bomb had been maligned and misunderstood, it was misapplied, and became just another profligate military boondoggle. Cohen made no secret of his dissatisfaction. His rants were not calculated to make friends or influence people, and he was forced into an early retirement in 1985.

“Stocks of American neutron bombs were retained for a couple more years, but George Bush Senior finally made a policy decision to eliminate all battlefield nuclear weapons, and thus “the most moral weapon ever invented” was scrapped without benefiting anyone other than the defense contractors who built it.

“Cohen was left wondering about the real motives of people who mold military policy. He ran across a book from the Pentagon library titled The Sexual Cycle of Human Warfare by a former British colonel named Normal Walter. Although Walter was not trained as a scientist, his view of warfare was basically sociobiological. He argued that in our evolutionary past, inter-tribal conflicts enabled elders to discipline younger, competitive males and reduce their numbers. According to this theory, war became institutionalized by older males who wanted to maximize the number of single females by culling the number of younger males.

“The hypothesis was unprovable, but Cohen certainly saw that warfare satisfied an emotional need. In his words, ‘We just plain like to fight wars. We adore the military, and over the decades countless millions of young Americans have entered the services to fight. They were more than willing, and their parents accepted it. It’s in the genes.’”

From Charles Platt’s The Profits of Fear – an Overview and Postscript to Shame.

Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, wrote this:

“The Sexual Cycle of Human Warfare by Major Norman Walter … is shamefully neglected. Indeed, I doubt if more than a handful of people know it or know of it. And yet its thesis is original and highly suggestive. It is, briefly, that war is a psychobiological phenomenon, not a political one, and that it can best be studied in terms of such genetic phenomena as hybridization, exogamy and the like. Nature explodes the human group with the aim of genetic recombination. Soldiers never know why they’re fighting (‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here’ was a song of the First World War) and politicians think they know. But the real motives for war lie at the biological level. War, like sex, is ineradicable from human society because is very close to sex.”

The Bible offers its own war and sex story — a kind of backdoor validation of this sociobiological theory of war. It begins with a matter-of-fact, “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle” — as if that’s the most natural thing:  hey it’s Spring, the sap is rising, let’s go to war! Only this time, the king didn’t go with his troops. Instead,

“David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.”

2 Samuel 11: 1 ESV

And thus began not only a war, but the whole Bathsheba affair, by which David committed himself and his descendants to perpetual war:

“Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.”

2 Samuel 12:10 ESV

War forever — because “We just plain like to fight wars… It’s in the genes.”

[1] Cohen put Shame in the public domain. A search will turn up a free copy — such as this source.

The Strangest Dream

johnny cash last night I had the strangest dream

Last night I had the strangest dream
I ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war

Ed Curdy — folksinger, songwriter, Vaudevillian, disc jockey, radio and TV personality — is best remembered for a song he wrote in 1950 that The Weavers recorded ten years later. It was a song for the times, and the Chad Mitchell Trio, Simon &Garfunkel, and many more followed suit. Click here or on the image above for the Johnny Cash version.

The song’s portrayal of how war ends is a period piece:

I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They’d never fight again

And when the papers all were signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands end bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed

A much earlier version of the dream goes back a few thousand years:

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

Isaiah 2: 4 NKJV

The prophecy was given for “the latter days.” Until then, it seems that war — like the poor[1] — will always be with us. Like a lot of people, I wish it weren’t so. When Ed Curdy’s song was making the rounds, I sang along — we really believed it was possible. Now, I’m convinced it’s impossible. It’s just something we seem wired to do. (More on that next time.)

Not everyone agrees — for example the folks at World Beyond War. This is from Myth, War is Inevitable, on their website:

“Even violence on a small scale is not inevitable, but the incredibly difficult task of ending violence is a million miles past the simpler, if still challenging, task of ending organized mass slaughter. War is not something created by the heat of passion. It takes years of preparation and indoctrination, weapons production and training.

 “Developing ways to avoid generating conflicts is part of the answer, but some occurrence of conflict (or major disagreement) is inevitable, which is why we must use more effective and less destructive tools to resolve conflicts and to achieve security.”

According to cultural critic Chris Hedges, people like those at World Beyond War are beset by a fatal blind spot that prevents them from seeing the dark side of human nature that makes utopian visions run off the rails.[2]

“If we see ourselves as the culmination of a long, historical process toward perfectibility, rather than a tragic reflection of what went before, then we are likely to think the ends justify the means. … Fascists and communists combined violent, revolutionary fervor with the Christian millenarian dream of a heaven on earth. They adopted the pseudoscientific doctrine that it was possible to have complete knowledge and complete mastery of the human species. It was that fusion of utopian violence and industrial and bureaucratic power that marked the birth of totalitarianism.

“The totalitarians were aided by the well-meaning but naïve pacifists who appeared in large numbers throughout Europe and the United States following the First World War. The pacifists argued that human beings could be educated and molded to reject war and live in universal harmony. These pacifists, while not succumbing to the disease of militarism, were just as deluded as the militarists were by a utopian belief in human perfectibility. They failed to build an ethic from the stark limitations of human nature. In the ensuing crisis and war they became ineffectual and impotent. These pacifists rejected all acts of violence, even those that could have stopped a resurgent Nazi Germany. They kept their hands clean. This was moral abdication. They, too, divided the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ those who were pure and those who were impure. They, too, sought to convert others to their higher moral state. And by their passivity they aided the forces they hoped to defeat.

“Pacifism, in times of war, falls swiftly out of favor — indeed, it is often branded as a form or treason — but the central myth championed by the pacifists, the myth of human advancement, remains the dominant ideology. Pacifists, although they do not fuel the lust for violence, keep alive the myth that the human species can attain a state of moral perfection. This myth feeds the aggressiveness and cruelty of those who demand the use of violence to cleanse the world

“The danger is not pacifism or militarism. It is the poisonous belief in human perfectibility and the failure to accept our own sinfulness, our own limitations and moral corruption. This belief in our innate goodness becomes dangerous in a crisis, a moment when human beings feel threatened. It enlarges our capacity for aggression, violence, and mass slaughter.”

I Don’t Believe in Atheists:  The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist, Chris Hedges (2008)

Interesting that both Hedges and the World Beyond War website use the term “mass slaughter” for war — which is what it is, despite the ways we try to clean it up. More on that coming up.

[1] Matthew 26: 11

[2] Click here to view this blog’s series on utopia/dystopia.