Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gazing into the Abyss

John Quincy Adams wrote this in 1821: "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America's heart, her benedictions and prayers, but she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator of her own."

Has the US government even paid just the littlest attention to that quote? Noooo. Those geezers who founded this country didn't know what they were talking about, did they? Their views are passé, 200 years out of date. It's like the people I meet who think Dubya's MBA is worth more than 2000 years of philosophy and theology. Hmm...now lessee...to whom am I supposed to listen? An ex-drunk and spoiled rich boy with sporadic military attendance, one who thinks God talks to him and has directed him to start Holy World War I, or a man who said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God"?

Are the incompetents who always seem to gravitate towards politics even familiar with that Adams quote? ("Adams? Isn't that a beer?") If they had known it, and paid some mind to it, we would have avoided every war in which we've been involved. In our history I can only remember two times we've been attacked: Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Every other time we attacked them, always, of course, claiming it was because they were about ready to attack us. But (for one example out of many) I certainly don't remember the Philippines ever readying itself for an across-the-Pacific assault on America.

And each time we were attacked, contrary to the "there's no bag over my head" delusions of those who believe it was because We are Good and They are Evil! Evil! Evil!, it was blowback because of the US government's (not the innocent citizens') search abroad for monsters to destroy. But since human nature is imperfect, this war against monsters will be never-ending. (Those who do not understand the cost of fighting monsters are advised to read Beowulf, in which the monster Grendel used as chicken-wings those he slaughtered, when he munched on their "bone-joints.")

A quote by Nietzsche can (and should) be added to Adams' comment: "Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."

I'm sure that Paul Fussell, author of at least 13 books, including The Great War and Modern Memory, which in 1976 won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Award and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, would understand both quotes – most especially the second.

Fussell, who fought in World War II, was wounded in Europe, and even though judged 40% disabled, still ended up fighting in the Pacific theater. He was all of 21 years old. His war memoirs, in which he writes about the "unspeakable savagery of the Pacific war," should be read by all who think that fighting monsters is a purely noble undertaking (remember those crunchy bone-joints!).

The savagery, he writes in Thank God for the Atom Bomb, was on both sides – Japanese and American. Ah, now here we go – here's the explanation for these atrocities, in a sentence: When soldiers go in search of monsters to destroy, sooner or later many will gaze into the abyss, and find the abyss gazing back into them. Is that observation in the Bible? Probably, just in different words. If it isn't, it should be.

"And of course the brutality was just not on one side," writes Fussell. "There was much sadism and cruelty...on ours." Long-term war, when it becomes intense (as opposed to "non-intense war," I ironically suppose), robs many soldiers of their humanity. It's the only way they can survive the horrors. Wearily, unendingly, it has happened this way in every war in history.

In his book Fussell quotes from Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny as to the main reason for the brutality: "The obliviousness of both sides to the fact that the opponents were human beings may perhaps be cited as the key to the many massacres of the Pacific war." Well, duh. Things would be so much easier if our opponents were always really icky giant spiders, like those in the movie Starship Troopers. But they don't exist.

"...Soldiers," Fussell writes, "experience terror and madness, and relieve those frustrations by crazy brutality and sadism...[I]t would be not just stupid but would betray a lamentable want of human experience to expect soldiers to be very sensitive humanitarians."

Soldiers as "very sensitive humanitarians." It's one of those things that makes me go, hmm. The US government thinks the American military should be a combination of monster-slayer and social worker – half bone-crushing Conan, half smarmy Stuart Smalley. On one hand, it believes that soldiers should, as Fussell wrote, "close with and destroy the enemy," but on the other, thinks they should "win hearts and minds." Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing? I am reminded of Vietnam, in which the right hand was telling the Vietnamese we were there to liberate them while the left hand was setting their huts on fire with Zippo lighters.

Fussell also quotes from the World War II war correspondent Edward L. Jones: "We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off of enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter-openers." ("Darn it, Grandma, why didn't you tell me what Grandpa had in that trunk in the basement before I opened it?")

We pretend only the enemy does these things, and not our side, as if our soldiers have a radically different, more ennobled nature than the enemy. The truth? Every person in the world is united by their frailties and imperfections. And sometimes those frailties and imperfections do really bad things.

"A really successful war," writes Fussell, "a psychologically Good War, requires not only the extirpation of a cruel enemy abroad. It requires as a corollary the apotheosis of the pure of heart at home...[i]f for years you fancy that you are engaged in fighting utter evil, if every element and impulse of society is busy eradicating wickedness, before long you will come to believe that you yourself incarnate pure goodness...[b]ut during the war few cared to perceive that the battle was less between good and evil that between degrees of offensiveness."

Uh oh. It's that old lie about the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness. Which side is which? Oh, heck, it's easy: we have God on our side and they are Spawn of Satan. But wait a minute – our enemies think the same about us! (What? Me the Spawn of the Devil? I'm Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes, although I have a frog.) It is this, the Goebbelsian labeling of the Other as non-human and evil, that is the sole purpose of propaganda.

Fussell will have none of this heretical, Manichean "We are Good and They are Evil" nonsense. "...if you can't imagine yourself an SS officer hustling the Jewish women and children to the gas chamber, you need to be more closely in touch with your buried self," he writes. That "buried self" exists in everyone, even people who think the voices in their heads are God talking to them. To deny this self that all have in common is to, for all practical purposes, claim perfection. Which, with total accuracy, has always been considered blasphemy by those who understand the all-too-common tendency to exalt self, tribe and nation, while simultaneously denigrating the enemy as sub-sub-sub-human.

Unfortunately for humanity, but not so unfortunately for the ravening maw of that Satanic entity know as the State, one of the easiest ways to unearth this buried self is to start a war: it comes out not only in soldiers but in non-combatant citizens, many of whom rage for the death of the enemy (even women, children and infants) while they have no intention whatsoever of proceeding to the front themselves. Instead, they go all grr! woof! woof! grr! on TV and AM radio.

Having seen war first-hand, Fussell understands the horrible waste of lives that is its inherent and eternal nature. Here he quotes John Toland: "...Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead. So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us. Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy, the survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war."

But think of all the jobs created for companies producing artificial arms and legs! And wheelchairs! And the long-term care facilities for those reduced to mental three-year-olds after getting whacked in the head! Think of all the self-deluded sentimental, mawkish chickenhawk armchair-warriors who can go to military cemeteries, and with a tear in their eye, feel proud over the ultimate sacrifice made – by others.

As for the enemy, once we destroy 'em, then we can rebuild 'em. That way, once they get hooked up with DVD players and all the other goodies, they'll easily forgive us blowing the hands and feet off of their children. And after they watch Monsters, Inc. they'll be enlightened to the truth that monsters are really just big cuddly pushovers.

Each generation forgets what war is like, Fussell tells us. They romanticize it, they cheer it, they clean it up and try and make it honorable and patriotic. He says, "Animals and trees and stones cannot be sanitized, only human beings, and that's the reason it's going to happen again, and again, and again, and again."

What was that Santayana said? "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it"? Something like that.

No comments: