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

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.

War – What is it Good For?

War what is it good for.PNG

War what is it good for - Springsteen

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing

You might know the song — either the original Edwin Starr 1970 version or the Springsteen cover — so good it made the infamous Clear Channel post-9-11 no play list. You might click the images or the links and have a listen — put you in the mood.

Owlcation provides the textbook explanation that wars are fought for economic or territorial gain; to further religious or nationalist interests; for self-defense or revenge; because of civil strife; or to bring about revolution. Those are rationalizations — things politicians and academicians say after the fact — but whether war is good for any of that is another issue. And it takes rare honesty to say we need war because it’s good for medicine, science, technology innovation, the economy, and the advance of civilization generally — all of which has been said.

Medicine

“For some historians, the Great War and the Second World War together form an ‘age of catastrophe’ or even one single war with a long break. The First World War also inaugurated a profound change beneath politics, in a realm largely hidden from journalism or military and political history. The Great War remade the human body itself.

“The doctors who identified this new human body saw an organism that organises itself, regulates itself, integrates itself, yet was extremely brittle. It was marked by fragility buried under the skin. It shattered easily, even worked against itself. The great number of injured and maimed bodies enabled doctors to create new kinds of medicine, physiology and psychiatry.

“Hints of this new conception of the body were present before the war, but when tens of thousands of soldiers returned with visible and invisible injuries, disordered hearts and broken psyches, it forced medicine to change too. Triage efforts on the battlefield had been sped up and regularised, and the entire front had become something of a giant medical laboratory for testing ideas and therapies. Many soldiers who, just a few decades earlier, would have died of their wounds now survived them. All of this changed the nature of the relationship between surgeons, physicians and psychiatrists, and patients. With survival, previously unknown pathologies emerged. The way in which medical scientists talked about the patient changed: they now described the patient’s body as an integral whole….”

The Maimed And The Healing:  The Casualties Of The First World War Brought A New Understanding Of Human Fragility And Wholeness Aeon Magazine (Dec. 13, 2018)

Science, Innovation, And The Advancement Of Civilization

“Were he alive today, the seventeenth-century Dutch astronomer and mathematician Christiaan Huygens might tell us we’d be fools to think that ambitious undertakings in space can be achieved without massive military support. Back in the 1690s, as Huygens thought about life on Mars and the other planets then know to populate the night sky, he pondered how best to foster inventiveness. For him and his era, profit was a powerful incentive (capitalism was as yet unnamed) and conflict was a divinely endorsed stimulation of creativity:

It has so pleased God to order the Earth… that this mixture of bad Men with good, and Consequences of such a mixture as Misfortunes, Wars, Afflictions, Poverty, and the like, were given us for this very good end, viz. the exercising our Wits and Sharpening our Inventions, by forcing us to provide for our own necessary defenses against our Enemies.

“Yes, waging war requires clever thinking and promotes technical innovation. Not controversial. But Huygens can’t resist linking the absence of armed conflict with intellectual stagnation:

And if Men were to lead their whole Lives in an undisturbed continual Peace, in no fear of Poverty, no danger of War, I don’t doubt they would live little better than Brutes, without all knowledge and enjoyment of those Advantages that make our Lives pass on with pleasure and profit. We should want the wonderful Art of Writing if its great use and necessity in Commerce and war had not forc’d our the Invention. ‘Tis to these we owe our Art of Sailing, our Art of Sowing, and most of those Discoveries of which we are Masters; and almost all the secrets in experimental Knowledge.

“So it’s simple:  no war equals no intellectual ferment. Arm in arm with trade, says Huygens, war has served as the catalyst for literacy, exploration, agriculture, and science.”

Accessory to War:  The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang (2018)

The Economy

“[In February 2009, just after the Great Recession of 2007-2008,] an international group of economists, officials, and academics met under the auspices of Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society to discuss how the world might manage to emerge from its worse-than-usual financial crisis. The Center’s director, Nobel Laureate in economics Edmund Phelps, argued that some financial regulation was called for but stressed that it must “discourage[e] finding for investment in innovation in the non-financial business sector, which has been the main source of dynamism in the U.S. economy.” What’s the non-financial business sector? Military spending, medical equipment, aerospace, computers, Hollywood films, music, and more military spending. For Phelps, dynamism and innovation hand in hand with capitalism — and with war. Asked by a BBC interviewer for a “big thought” on the crisis and whether it constituted “a permanent indictment of capitalism,” he responded, “My big thought is, we desperately need capitalism in order to create interesting work to be done, for ordinary people — unless maybe we can go to war against Mars or something as an alternative.”

“A vibrant economy, in other words, depends on at least one of the following:  the profit motive, war on the ground, or war in space.”

Accessory to War, Tyson and Lang

Personally, I’m with the song’s last stanza —

Oh no, there’s got to be a better way
Say it again, there’s got to be a better way.

More coming up.