Tuesday, January 15, 2013

War makes us stupid—and violent

What if it is our collective violence that murders our children and teaches them to murder?

As Americans come to grips with Sandy Hook through various political and social debates about firearms and violence, we seem to have engaged every related subject except the one that might well be the biggest elephant in the room: continuous war and its effect on our culture.

After all, we have been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. This has not been the longest war in U.S. history; the Vietnam War deserves that honor, featuring as it did a decade of covert war making that preceded the significant troop deployments, which began in 1961 and lasted through 1975. Still, by other measures, and before the war in Afghanistan finally concludes, it may very likely turn out to be the longest sustained firefight to this point in American history and, combined with the second war against Iraq, which ran concurrently, the most expensive military action ever.

Yes, the cost and morality of these wars has been argued in detail, but their cultural impact has been examined only rarely. Gun control advocates tell us that two separate instances of American exceptionalism, gun ownership and murder rate, are linked. This seems a very defensible position, and a decent argument for more restrictions on gun ownership, but perhaps a more distinct instance of American uniqueness would be our history of aggressive military action and continuous war.

There may be other examples in history of warlike nations, but none whose wars, troop deployments and police actions have also received regular, sometimes hour-by-hour, media coverage.  Arguably, with the exception of a couple of years in the 1930s, when even feeding troops was a budgetary challenge, the U.S.military has been continuously deployed for aggressive action for more than a century. But Google “cultural impact of war” and you will find very little discussion of how war, war making, and preparation for war might predispose individuals in a society so occupied to engage in violence themselves.

Yet, we have been warned in a variety of ways to beware of continuous war. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is the story of a society where language, politics and social life have been entirely debased by the theatrical propagandizing of war and what appears to be victimless virtual war.

And plenty of other books come to mind about actual war, both fiction and non-fiction, that have helped to clarify the ways in which war traumatizes the people who fight it, the people who are victimized by it, the people who survive it, the people who report it, the people who prepare for it, the people who witness it up close or at a distance, and the people who arrange for others to fight it. All Quiet on the Western Front, Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five, The Things They Carried and lots more are included in a more extensive list of anti-war literature that can be found on Wikipedia.

But the range of writing investigating the traumatic effects of continuous war on countries and cultures is much narrower. Still, an essay written by Simone Weil, The Iliad or The Poem of Force, written as Europe plunged into World War II, is helpful.

“Thus violence obliterates anybody who feels its touch. It comes to seem just as external to its employer as to its victim. And from this springs the idea of a destiny before which executioner and victim stand equally innocent, before which conquered and conqueror are brothers in the same distress,” she wrote.

“A moderate use of force, which alone would enable man to escape being enmeshed in its machinery, would require superhuman virtue, which is as rare as dignity in weakness,” she continued. “Moreover, moderation itself is not without its perils, since prestige, from which force derives at least three quarters of its strength, rests principally on that marvelous indifference that the strong feel toward the weak, an indifference so contagious that it infects the very people who are the objects of it.”

Weil is a difficult and demanding writer, asking the reader to follow chains of reasoning that are both complicated and precise. In her essay, Weil largely confines analysis of The Iliad to assessments of the effect of war on combatants, but any reasonable extension of her ideas suggests that some of the changes in feeling and behavior that war causes for warriors ripple through the society from which they come and to which they return as survivors of war.

American fighters returning home may suffer deeply from the traumas of war and of reintegration and inadequacy of services and opportunities at home, but we also celebrate them as heroes at football half-time shows and at patriotic celebrations and at political rallies and state of the union speeches. They have used force, to the extreme, in pursuit of policy goals and military objectives; they possess the “prestige” to which Weil refers.

By and large, the most celebrated athletes in our culture, like home run hitters and middle linebackers share a similar prestige based on the havoc they create. Football coaches are celebrated in the same manner as generals, at least until we realize that prestige is a garment that falls off as easily as it goes on, as has been the case with, say, a David Petraeus or a Joe Paterno. The same celebrity is conferred on high school jocks and, sometimes, neighborhood bullies, who often only lose prestige when they suffer defeat. Certainly many of us have memories of the indifference of the powerful towards the weak, memories from childhood, perhaps, or outside the experience of military service.

But imagine in a country where war making has been the rule, never the exception, for more than a century; consider the number of heroes and ghosts of heroes and suffering veterans who live amongst us. Ten million? Twenty million? How many children growing up with no fathers or, increasingly, no mothers? How many lost or damaged lovers? How many neighborhoods shared with one or a half-dozen disabled or severely traumatized veterans? How many of the millions of homeless on our streets are returned veterans or their brothers or their sons? And through our families and our communities and our emergency personnel and our treatment professionals we share the trauma.

Who wants to say that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, was not a child of our many traumas, even of our wars?

Sometimes, especially for warriors, war is almost a delightful game, Weil tells us. “But with the majority of the combatants this state of mind does not persist. Soon there comes a day when fear, or defeat, or the death of beloved comrades touch the warrior’s spirit, and it crumbles in the hand of necessity. At that moment war is no more a game or a dream…And this reality, which he perceives, is hard, much too hard to be borne, for it enfolds death.”

Of course, the death of which Weil speaks can be consciously ignored, it can be fought off, it can be sublimated. But eventually death is all around and present, perhaps with varied and sometimes subtle effects on those who must confront it, embrace it, or pretend it is not there. Ultimately it is not there only for those who kill, or watch their comrades die. It is there for all of us, for those who attend military funerals, or comfort the survivors, or see them at a distance.

Nothing changes that reality, even for those who do not live near military bases or do not see the homeless vets around us. Advanced technologies do not change it; they only raise the price and, in many cases, increase the profits some of us make from war. Drone strikes don’t change it; do not wash President Obama’s hands of the blood of victims, innocent or otherwise. After all, violence makes even the victors equal with the victims, Weil tells us. And, as today’s Washington Post tells us, “More U.S. troops lost to suicide than combat in 2012.”

Ultimately, we may wish to exclude ourselves from Weil’s sweeping conclusions about warriors, but we do not live beyond the sweep of official violence and death. Our taxes pay for war and for our country’s war making capacity, and we pledge ourselves to our country and sing its anthems.

We know that “in war, truth is the first casualty.” Nevertheless, we most often tolerate the lies about weapons of mass destruction or Kuwaiti babies dumped from incubators. And, we even pray to protect our warriors at the expense of those on the other side. As Mark Twain put it more bluntly in The War Prayer,

“Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it…”

This was an American prayer long before Sandy Hook and still is. It is not our video games that are the first cause of our violence towards others and ourselves. More likely, it is our wars.

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