Plus Ça Change, Plus Ça Doesn't
Wars, Wars, Wars
June 3, 2013
Sometimes when I board an airplane the head stew asks passengers to applaud the sacrifices our brave soldiers have made in defending the United States. I don’t applaud. For one thing, no soldier has defended the United States since 1945. For another, any dentist, bus driver, or musician has done more to benefit the country, and less to bankrupt it and give it a bad name, than all the armed services combined. Why don’t we applaud dentists?
It is curious that soldiers are held in honor, revered, and regarded as national heroes. Psychopathic serial killers who murders fifteen co-eds are viewed with revulsion. Why the difference? The young women killed by Ted Bundy were utterly innocent. So were the Iraqis murdered by the Air Force in Baghdad. I don’t see why pointlessly killing the unoffending in one country is admirable, but in another, isn’t.
Of course, soldiers are better at it, and thus much more destructive. They kill hugely, wreaking havoc, destroying countries and lives and cities, while the Bundys get only a few. The distinction is one of efficiency and scale. Morally they are indistinguishable.
Why the loving respect for soldiers? Militaries cultivate every instinct, every crime that decent people abhor. Why is this thought noble? In basic training in the Marines, I learned how to stab a bayonet into a sentry´s kidney so that the agony and sudden loss of blood pressure would quickly silence him. And how to garrote him with my forearm, while at once pulling him backward and throwing my weight onto his head, snapping his neck. Shoot an enemy in the stomach, not the head, we learned, as this will strain his medical services.
Doing these things in defense against an invading army is justified, but hardly something to be proud of. Invaders almost without exception are reprehensible.
Serial killers often torture their victims. So do soldiers. Torture has been part of war since war was invented—and it probably antedates other forms of prostitution. Today only the United States makes torture an avowed part of national policy, but all militaries do it. The internet makes secrecy harder these days, so we hear of Abu Ghraib, of waterboardees in Guantanamo choking, drowning, puking, screaming, begging for mercy. We get hints of crushed joints and lifelong cripples produced in the CIA’s secret torture camps.. Yet there’s nothing peculiarly American about it. Armies do what armies do. Sadism and butchery of prisoners and civilians run through military history.
Soldiers put a great deal of thought into into hurting people as badly as possible. We should be proud of this, I gather. When I covered the armed services, I routinely saw edifying examples. Research was done on blood-colored plastic shrapnel that wouldn’t show up on x-rays so that enemy doctors couldn’t easily keep soldiers alive. There was the Army’s manual on how to keep troops fighting between receiving a lethal dose of radiation and actually being unable to stand up any longer. One technique was not to tell them that they were already dead.
These things are written about by the military in carefully neutral language. The following paragraph is from a report on an anti-armor warhead tested inside a targtet tank at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, but could have come from the labs of any civilized nation:
"The pressure transducer was the Kistler type 6121 piezo-electric gauge. This gauge, having a frequency response of 6 kilohertz, was used to measure air-shock pressures generated in the compartment. The incapacitating effects of temperature were assessed using the burn criteria presented in figure 7."
“Burn criteria” measures the hope of charring enough flesh that the crew will die. “Air shock” means destruction of lung tissue. These can be expressed less coldly. From The Sharp End, an excellent book about soldiers in World War II:
"A tank that is mortally hit belches forth long searing tongues of orange flame from every hatch. As ammunition explodes in the interior, the hull is racked by violent convulsions and sparks erupt from the spout of the barrel like the fireballs of a Roman candle. Silver rivulets of molten aluminum pour from the engine like tears...When the inferno subsides, gallons of lubricating oil in the power train and hundreds of pounds of rubber in the tracks and bogey wheels continue to burn, spewing dense clouds of black smoke over the funeral pyre."
The tank described clearly had good burn criteria. Crews seldom get out.
Why do people tolerate unending bloody conflict? The public’s attitude toward war is I think biologically determined, like most human behavior. A newborn instinctively sucks, at two becomes a minor hellion, at puberty discovers sex and, if a boy, wants a sword, a horse, and a long pointed stick. Human groups innately regard other groups with suspicion that easily turns to hostility and, if they can conquer them, they do.
Part of the animal instinct is concern for the well-being of our pack, but not of theirs. For example, the UN has estimated that over a half million Iraq1 children died as a consequence of the embargo. If even half that number is correct, it is monstrous. Is anyone even interested? No. A mother holding her baby as it dies of preventable diarrhea because the water cannot be chlorinated—she’s one of them Islams, so who cares?
Military aggression seems inbuilt. The worst of men, being aggressive, rise to rule countries, and then attack others. Roosevelt the First famously said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” The problem is that no one with a big stick can speak softly. Them as has sticks wants to use them. Thus all history is a record of the criminally hostile attacking anyone at hand:
Empires expand, usually with massive killing and destruction, with armies led by evil men, greatly respected by the dogs of their respective packs: Timurlane, Hitler, Napoleon, Bush, Lincoln, Peter the Great, Sharon, Alexander, on and on in their thousands. Implausibly, people honor the men who do these things to them.
We are no different. Today the US, having no military enemies, works to expand its empire, which it doesn’t need. It seeks to encircle Russia, encircle China, conquer Afghanistan and Iraq, looks for war with Iran, intrudes militarily in Africa. Why? No reason. It’s just what soldiers do.
The disastrous, unending, malign stupidity of constant war ought to be evident, but seems to make no impression. It never changes. The Greek city-states were always at war, and the Romans, and the Italian city-states, and the Arabs, and the Europeans, and…we are too. Any war is better than no war. Rape, burn, and kill. It’s what soldiers do.