Monday, May 28, 2012

De Morituris

I have a post that has been my standard for Memorial Day for years. But this year I'd like to think less about those gone than those still here.
Since 2003 the U.S. seems to have slipped into a bizarre schizophrenia. Our attitude towards the expeditionary wars we have ginned up since the end of the punitive campaign in Afghanistan has varied between a cynical resignation to a hesitant distaste. Meanwhile, our attitude towards the ridiculously small, self-selected group of people who have fought them "for" us has varied between a sort of passive bumper-sticker patriotism to an exaggeratedly disproportionate "gratitude". Charlie Pierce has a fairly good summation of this;
"Now, for the veterans of the two wars of the past decade, we're giving them all kinds of favors and goodies and public applause, and maybe even a parade or two, overcompensating our brains out, but, ultimately, what does all the applause mean at the end of the day? We are apparently fine with two more years of vets coming home from Afghanistan, from a war that 60 percent of us say we oppose. But we support The Troops. Will we become a more skeptical nation the next time a bunch of messianic fantasts concoct a war out of lies? Perhaps, but we support The Troops. Will we tax ourselves sufficiently to pay for what it costs to care for the people we send to one endless war and one war based on lies? Well, geez, we'll have to think about that, but we support The Troops."
The Army I joined, the post-Vietnam, pre-Reagan Army of the early Eighties, had a pretty cynical attitude. We'd seen our brothers, the men who were our platoon sergeants and First Sergeants, used up and then tossed away in RIFs after the end of a war that we tried desperately to pretend that we'd "won" because we were never beaten in the field. We referred to the Army as "the Green Machine" and had a pretty good understanding what the priority of "accomplishing the mission" meant to the "welfare of the troops" if the mission meant that a lot of those troops would die for and in the usual ratio of "pointless" to "contributing-to-the-accomplishing-the-mission".
We understood - because we'd seen it or lived through it - that our "leaders" both civilian and military would "lead" us into unprofitable wars, lie to us about their cunning plans to "win" them, and then toss us aside like used contraceptive devices after the inevitable ugly mess ensued. We had heard the rhetoric about "freedom" and "peace" and knew that as often as those terms meant their face value they were a happy-face sticker for "whatever advances our policy" and "make a wasteland". We were ready to do the things our government told us to do while being pretty cynical about the combination of ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision that determined the way our government would decide what those things were and how they would sell them to the herd.

This stands in fairly dramatic contrast to the current volunteer force, where supposedly: "Six out of seven soldiers and Army civilians, [a new study] reveals, trust their senior leaders to make the right decisions for the Army, and 90 percent of those surveyed remain willing to put the Army’s needs above their own."

This trusting and sacrificing seem both disproportionate and inappropriate after the concatenation of lies, damn lies, and statistics that have characterized the "War on Terror". It would seem to me that having watched one administration lie it's way one war and another continue a second long after it's sell-buy date that it would behoove my country and all Americans to pause on the day we set aside to honor those killed in wars and consider just exactly what it means to "trust" their "leaders" with the lives of their fellow citizens absent any indication that that government, and those leaders, are willing to do the hard calculus to ensure that the exchange of those lives in return for the advancement of the national interest is a transaction that justifies the cost in wrecked lives and shattered bodies.

So. I'd like to think that this Memorial Day that my fellow citizens would do more than just pat the yellow-ribbon magnet on their bumper in a hat-tip to those of my fellow soldiers who went to do their nation's bidding and never returned. I'd like to think that those citizens would remember that the intent of the Founders and Framers was that We the People are supposed to be sovereign.

That it is supposed to be in our names those lives are given or taken, and that if we allow - or, worse, encourage - those who we elect to throw those lives away in the pursuit of lies, or impossibilities, and then once those lies and that nonsense are exposed, do not hold those people and ourselves to account, then we have failed to honor our pledge to them, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
And, hey; I like tradition as much as the next guy.


  1. So what's the accounting for the difference between the cynicism/skepticism of your time and that of the present and recent veterans and soldiers?

    I'm thinking a large part of it results from the emphasis on "professionalism"; "we're paid to do a job and it's our responsibility to see it through".

    Some see propaganda and brainwashing, from the comments here:

    Gallup’s Frank Newport writes:

    Why veterans are so strong in their preference for the Republican presidential candidate is not clear. Previous Gallup analysis has suggested that two processes may be at work. Men who serve in the military may become socialized into a more conservative orientation to politics as a result of their service. Additionally, men who in the last decades have chosen to enlist in the military may have a more Republican orientation to begin with.

    Good post. Part of my honoring Memorial Day was seeing "Battleship" last week.

    Aliens always make fine enemies.


    1. BB, why oh why would any man (you are a man right? I knew a woman named Basil once in Thailand...) do that to himself?

  2. "skepticism of your time and that attitude of the present and recent"


  3. basil: Part of it was, I think, the combination of draftees and the cynical abuse of them during Vietnam.

    Draftees have always been more willing to call bullshit on our "leaders"; they have no stake in the "good of the Army" - their business is the business of the nation, themselves, and their families. I tend to agree that the return to the small, "professional" Army has produced a GI that is more likely to see the interests of the Army as his own; after all, it's his business, and it's hard to make a man see things if his professional livelihood depends on him not seeing them.

    I think another big difference is the enemies of the armies of WW2, Korea, and Vietnam were genuinely dangerous, and in some cases tactically better than we were. There was hate but no contempt for the German panzerkorps, the Chinese infantry, and the North Vietnamese sappers. Our present "enemies" are at best a danger only to individuals - I still get a laugh out of that Abu Muquwama article I linked to. "Unbroken"? Who the hell is going to "break" the U.S. Army 2012? The Taliban field artillery? The Yemeni Al Qaeda air arm? The Iraqi muj panzers? This lack of a genuinely respectable enemy has produced, I think, a real sort of "victory disease" in our civilian and military leaders, and this has trickled down to the regular guys in uniform. And that has led to the present disconnect between those guys and the average joe and jane civilian. The danger is ONLY to the GI; if Hitler's panzers broke through at Houfflaze the American civilian felt the danger, but who gives a shit if Marines get killed in Fallujah? Despite BushCo's attempt to portray the fight in Iraq as "fighting them over there" I don't know anyone outside the 27-percenters that really believed that.

    I still loves me my Army, and hope that the public stops to remember those of my brothers that died doing their bidding. But I honestly think that we deserve a "better" public, a "better" government, and a "better", more thoughtful public understanding of the links between soldiers, civilians, and our "leaders"...

  4. bb

    How does one become socialized into a more conservative orientation to politics as a result of their service? If anything, the military is totally divorced from the "Free market" utopia of the Conservatives. There is no entrepreneurial activity on the military. You are a salaried government employee who is dependent on taxpayer dollars for your job. And that job? Well, Marine Major General Smedley Butler said:

    "War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small 'inside' group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes......Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."

    And he died long before Haliburton, Lockheed Martin and Blackwater came into being!

  5. I think we'd save a lot of money and grief if we just stopped giving Veteran status for undeclared wars.

    1. Anon -

      I agree that we should not fight any wars without a formal Declaration of War. But I do not see it happening anytime soon. Your duly elected representatives in Congress have been authorizing and funding undeclared wars for over two centuries.

      Seems we like these little imperial wars where we can send troops without getting the whole country involved.

      We have had in our history maybe four or five wars in which there were explicit Declarations of War. And how many undeclared wars - 18 to 20 maybe?

  6. The fundamental problem is the high level of dishonesty in public discourse. Everything is lies and distraction. A close-up magician's line of patter is nothing compared to what you get from today's politicos and media.

    Because of this noise, it is almost impossible for any mortal to obtain a decent level of situational awareness. Furthermore, we are betrayed by our natural pattern matching perception.

    We naturally see conspiracies and enemies because it is more important for the monkey to see the jaguar against the dapple of the leaves and run away than it is to sometimes dash screeching up the tree when there is no jaguar. With a lot of monkeys around and relatively few jaguars, this random screeching adds even more noise.

    In this situation a natural coping mechanism is to somewhat randomly bind to a group of voices that you hope is telling you something of the truth. It then takes a huge push to get you to change your mind, because you consider that everyone else is lying to you (which they are) and therefore they are not credible.

    Alas, the people you bound to also are lying to you. When this becomes obvious, you go into avoidance behaviour and try to ignore the situation entirely.

    This avoidance behavior (i.e. passive acceptance) then rewards the noise makers by allowing them to accomplish their goals and sets up another cycle where the noise level gets even higher.

  7. Paul Campos has a good discussion of how pernicious the level of discourse has become when this issue surfaces;

    "We live in a culture in which someone like Hayes cannot suggest, even the most diffident, nuanced, and self-deprecating way, that automatically labeling every American soldier who dies in war a “hero” might be an oversimplification of a difficult set of moral and political questions without thereby releasing such a storm of indignation that he is forced to immediately recant such a terrible heresy.

    When it comes to war and peace nothing less than full-throated stupidity is acceptable in our public discourse, and any sign of ambivalence regarding the righteousness of the various causes for which around 1.34 million American soldiers have died is to be stamped out as an offense to the memory of the honored dead."

    Frankly, this disturbs me and worries me as a sickness in a democratic society. One of the worst aspects of soldier-worship is that it's a pretty short step from there to authority-worship in general. You can see this already working in the mindset of movement conservatives; to question the heroism of any American soldier is treason, to question the need for the U.S. government to tap phones, snoop and poop for Islamic spies is treason...wash, rinse, repeat.

    God knows I don't want to go to the OTHER extreme - a reflexive suspicion and contempt for soldiers. But I'm not really worried about that; the U.S. has always been a country and Americans a people who loves them some guys with guns. So if I worry about anything - other than what seems to be the inevitable arc towards a return to the Gilded Age - it is this complete inability to have blunt discussions and assessments of U.S. military adventures.

  8. You got one thing wrong Chief. The conservatives have boundless contempt for any soldier who defies the system, no matter what acts of valor they may have done. They call them traitors for speaking the truth.


  9. FDChief,

    While I like the majority of your reflection on Memorial Day and the American military, I think you are wrong about the government exploiting the trusting GIs. The Army is more than capable of eating its own, it needs no help from the political establishment.

    Perhaps this current generation of Army leaders (O-5 on up) is worse than yours was but I think that the Army is in complete cahoots with the political establishment. This is not a scenario where the brave, trusting but foolish military walked into a trap. Mostly, I think its the story of a bumbling fool shooting his face off and his even dumber wife thinking he's ok.

    "Don't worry about the bleeding, its evidence that my wound is healing!"
    "Its good that there is gangrene! I now know where all the dead defeatist flesh is and can get rid of it!"

    The Army leadership sold their souls and are as responsible for the current state of affairs as the political leadership is. They can all go take a long walk off a short pier.

  10. As a soldier on the receiving end of all of this, here are my thoughts.

    I find the hero worship shallow, yet very sincere. Those who do it, truly believe that what they are doing is the right thing to do, and get emotional when someone confronts or challenges their belief. But that is all they can do, they feel anything else is futile and ineffective (i.e., protesting policies, etc)

    I believe that the root of the "exaggerated gratitude" goes back to Vietnam. My first thought was that there was a feeling of national guilt about how some members of the US public treated Vietnam veterans returning from the war (Jane Fonda, spitting on soldiers, etc.). But at first, that idea didn't make sense, because the majority of those Americans that I see with this attitude (40 and younger), either weren't born or have no memories of Vietnam. But then it occurred to me, it was the movies that we were raised with.

    As a kid born as Vietnam was ending, I was greatly influenced by movies in the 80s and 90s, more so than by history classes. It was very hard to get a movie made about Vietnam in the 70s. In the 80s, the Vietnam movies came out in force. Most were about the human toll, namely, the service members who fought in them (platoon, hamburger hill, rambo). I always remember the line from Hamburger hill, "Politics man, politics," and soldiers sitting in the jungle talking about how they were going to act back on the block, and how badly they expected to be treated by the people back home.

    In the 90's, the movies got away from the human tragedy, and seemed to have the agenda of "professionalizing" the force (We Were Soldiers once and Young). But there was still a common theme in all of these 80s and 90s movies...Great Americans put in bad situations, and treated poorly at home.

    That is why I feel it is sincere, at least from my generation. Because we have been conditioned (thanks to Hollywood) to worship our heroes, and despise those who spit on them (literally or figuratively).

    But it is shallow, as you guys state above. Because it stops at yellow ribbons, emotional displays of outage against those who don't worship, I'm sorry, honor, appropriately. That is where it stops. Why does it stop there? Why don't we see my generation taking to the streets and putting an end to the wars?

    Again, Hollywood. Me and my generation were raised seeing 60s war protestors as: Druggies, malcontents, disrespectful, and ultimately, completely and utterly futile and ineffective in achieving their silly stated goal of world peace.

    So why protest? Why waste time and energy? Instead, I (speaking for my generation) will do what I can get immediate gratification (which is what we are all about these days). I will volunteer to join the armed forces, or I will put a yellow ribbon on my car, contribute to wounded warriors, stand up and clap to honor the military at sporting events and I feel like I have done everything I can do.

    Anything else would be a futile waste of time, I got too much going on. I have about a 100 emails to answer, someone is texting me right now and, wait a second, I wonder what my friends are posting on Facebook right now, I just got a notification! Time to multitask, catch ya later!

  11. "I find the hero worship shallow, yet very sincere."

    I think you're giving it way too much depth there BG.

    The hero worship is based on the old "Better you than me" sense of self-preservation, and boy-howdy isn't it sincere cause nothing camouflages our true feelings like flattery.

    However, I am proud to say my sons have opted out of any and all military service, and they make no bones about it: "I don't trust the US government, and I sure as hell don't trust the military."

    I am of the same mind. My disappointment with both the Government and the Military strikes deep, and hard as a stone cutting chisel.

    And even though I will vote Obama, it is not a "for" vote, but rather an "against" vote in regards to the Republican's heir apparent, Mr. Romney.

    And I suspect, based on the field of potential candidates for 2016...we're all seriously fucked as a nation.

  12. The whole Memorial Day debate this year was particularly depressing. It seems that very few understand what the "holiday" is about.

    I think part of it as BG describes - I've certainly run into a lot of what I would call well-meaning but ignorant people. They're the ones who go around thanking veterans on Memorial Day which, when you think about it, is kind of creepy.

    And the Chris Hayes thing. What he said wasn't offensive, but it was pretty dumb. But his comment pales in comparison to the chickenhawks who attacked him.

    Anyway, it's depressing that something as simple as Memorial Day is now just another propaganda tool.

  13. There is a definite line between "socially acceptable" and sincere. However, that requires being able to see into the "heart" of the person making the statement under consideration, a skill I have never claimed to possess.

    Since, as Bacevich so aptly stated, "war has become a spectator sport", there are probably a lot of people who feel that cheering on the home team is as much a part of the game as that which takes place on the field itself. Thus, when a batter is pitched four "balls" and is given a "walk" the crowd cheers him as a victorious hero.

    For some bizarre reason, Americans actually declare winners in "one horse races". I remember a local newspaper in TX proudly printing front page photos of a student who won the "Gold Medal" in a state vocational project "competition". That no other student entered a project was never mentioned.

    It is sad that the real reason for Memorial Day is lost on so much of the population, but not much one can do about it.

  14. It feels as if every holiday is just a 'boost the economy' commercial blitz.

    I sometimes think a dose of ultra-orthodox labeling would be amusing: On Veterans' Day, only documented veterans get sale prices, on Mothers' Day, only mothers, and so forth.

    Cause damn it, we don't seem to give a crap what the actual day is about at all. And Memorial Day? Well, show that you did something to memorialize someone or just go the hell away!

  15. One thing that bugs me about the day is that the original holiday was "Decoration Day", and was to memorialize the generation that really DID get harrowed, the guys from the U.S. Civil War. And you can hardly blame the survivors from BOTH sides for wanting to remember the people they loved who had died, many if not most of them in pretty awful and miserable conditions.

    But...within a decade the holiday was used as part of the supporting props for the "Lost Cause" myth that turned the Southern war dead into heroes (there's that word again...) who were noblemen all and fell for "Southern Liberty and Law" instead of the states right to own black people like boxes of Cap'n Crunch.

    So IMO this perversion of the day began damn early. And now, when we can turn on the TV and watch young men and women farkle smartly about the more-or-less worthlessly unpaved parts of the world trying to execute a fairly unexecutable mission that the locals either loathe or wish was done on someone else's cabbage patch in live HD, the mockery has come to fulfillment; we have a nation of the clueless genuflecting to the luckless. Boxcar.

    And I tend to agree with much of your comment, BG, other than the whole "spitting on returning GIs" thing is a complete myth, an urban legend, invented by right wingnuts to impugn the people who tried to help more of those GIs return alive by stopping that ridiculous exercise in secondhand French colonialism. Which makes the entire exercise even more ludicrous; all these good people are falling all over themselves to apologize for an insult that never happened, that was made up, like the entire notion of how we "never lost on the battlefield", to make us feel better about throwing away the lives of a bunch of our young men.

    What a total fuckstory.