Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gettysburg and Iraq: The Lesson We Need to Learn

Our little nuclear family just spent a couple of days touring the battlefield at Gettysburg. The reminders are incessant there that the three-day battle was a turning point of the Civil War.

Even more relentless are the detailed stories of the experiences of individual soldiers. Told in pamphlets, in books, on CDs, and on plaques and signs, the stories make clear that the experience of battle during Gettysburg (July 1 to 3, 1863) was predominantly personal and intimate. Perhaps a tiny percentage of the participants had a global perspective on the battle, the war and implications for the future, but the sheer number of intensely personal stories bury the more analytical and detached accounts.

Of course, this is not news. We can, if we want, listen to harrowing stories from Iraq War veterans or, if we dare, from Iraqi civilians who’ve lived through blockades, hi-tech bombings, foreign occupation and their own civil war. But even this would be redundant. I mean no disrespect, but we have heard all of it before.

I cannot say exactly how I came to my beliefs, but I am anti-war to my very core. And when I consume these personal accounts of heroism and devastation, I struggle to find a way to relate to those stories that both honors the sacrifice of individuals and insists that we ought not go that way ever again.

In wrestling with that ambiguity, I can’t help coming to this conclusion: The experience of battle may have very little to do with resorting to war as policy, which is political, quantifiable and subject (or ought to be) to moral appraisal.

Of course, this position demands elaboration, and fierce advocacy, but I’ll put that obligation off for another time and focus, instead, on this further thought: If the experience of battle is not good preparation for the discussion of war as policy, than it might very well be bad preparation, leaving those who have had that experience unprepared for the challenges of making war policy.

This is an inflammatory statement, I know. I apologize. And I certainly don’t mean to privilege the participation of “chickenhawks” in war policy-making, either. But the experience of warriors who live to tell us about war must be that battle is survivable. That is a problem.

After all, if battle is survivable, then wars, regarded as a series of battles, are survivable, too. Even, winnable.

But wars are winnable only when they are considered in narrow contexts. They are winnable in the same way, perhaps, that some particularly dirty industrial processes and commercial products are viable.

By excluding the liabilities, the collateral damage, the ruined lives, the maimed and tortured survivors, the civilian casualties, the poisoned workers, the toxic byproducts, the costs of treatment and reconstruction, the lost opportunities, one might make a positive case for war and dirty industry. But these exclusions remain costs that must be covered. And they are. As socialized, exported, externalized costs they are borne, these costs of war and industry, by the rest of us.

Touring the Gettysburg battlefield exposes one over and over again to stories about soldiers fighting their way in and out of trouble, fighting heroically, fighting selflessly, dying or suffering and surviving without even a fragmentary idea about what was happening one hundred yards away, or to a dear comrade, or would happen even a few hours later. Such an experience means that a participant absorbs the lessons of terror, of fear, of pain, of deprivation, of sudden hope, of vast relief, of comradeship, of loss, of triumph, of exhilaration and of despair in much the same way that people, momentarily overwhelmed, absorb other experiences in life.

They survive them or fall victim to them. They transcend them or they descend into them. They understand or fail to, but at the end of it all they have had an experience of battle that is intimate, human scale and, perhaps, familiar.

What I fear is that those who survive battle, who return with a variety of reflections, always bring with them at least one common message, perhaps implicit; battle is survivable. And though we want the survivors to survive, it may not be socially useful if that is the message their living presence conveys.

What we on this planet should have learned long ago is that war is unthinkable. But we haven’t. We should have learned that war is not an option. But we haven’t. We should have learned that war is an unequivocal assault on our collective humanity. But we haven’t.

I can’t help thinking that part of the reason we have not learned those things is because some of us appear to survive war. And the rest of us are reassured and attach inappropriate meaning to their survival. If that is true, it follows naturally that we sometimes think that war can be just; and think that we have tried everything and that war is the only remaining option.

But after a few millennia worth of war stories, and after acquiring so recently the capacity to assess the true cost of war in lives and treasure and missed opportunity, we ought to rethink. We have that chance now.
The chance to not flinch at the thought, say, that the loss of 4,000 American lives in Iraq may not have a deeper meaning.

We can resist the impulse to attach large meaning to such loss and sacrifice. We can resist the message that these lives were spent to secure our freedoms, or to purchase democracy for others. It is a scandalous message, really, and drains meaning from those deaths.

Instead, we can agree that there has been enough war. We can agree that the meaning of military sacrifice, courage, and lost lives can best be dignified at this moment in history by the determination that we will war no more.

No comments:

Post a Comment