February 19, 2016
Even the most piddling life is of momentous consequence to its owner.– James Wolcott
Nowhere is the insanity of the war system more evident than in the dead and broken bodies, along with the emotionally demolished souls, of those who have been sacrificed to it. We often see images of the psychopathic nature of warfare (e.g., the famous photo of a screaming, naked young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack in 1972, or the video of an American helicopter gunship machine-gunning a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters’ journalists). More often, what we do not see are the shattered and disintegrated spirits of men, women, and children who physically survive this well-organized and well-financed collective lunacy, but whose inner sense of being must be regarded as casualties. In between, are the countless numbers of people left blind, legless or armless, mindless, or otherwise in a vegetative state to be cared for by family members.
These erstwhile human beings make up much of the dispirited detritus that gets beached throughout America. Many politicians see their obvious plight as an opportunity to exploit for their own ambitions in getting elected to office. Their proposals usually take the form of creating government programs that will provide dollars to care for such persons. But, as with all politically-based thinking, such an approach fails to ask the right questions.
My criticism of the war system is not focused on the behavior of soldiers; although those who shoot, bomb, and otherwise kill or maim others are responsible for their actions. The helicopter troops who machine-gun harmless civilians are responsible for their evil deeds, just as are the soldiers who sit in trailers outside Las Vegas and guide drone bombers to targets half a world away killing other innocents. The movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, does a wonderful job dramatizing the problems that arise when people try to hide behind the façade of collective authority to excuse their criminal behavior. Judge Haywood – played by Spencer Tracy – responds to one of his fellow judges who stated that the defendants were not responsible for their acts. Judge Haywood has one of the best lines in any movie when he answers his colleague: “You’re going to have to explain that to me. You’re going to have to explain it very carefully.”
I am sickened when I hear people babble, to a soldier in uniform, “thank you for your service.” This is part of the problem that underlies the war system: the failure of otherwise intelligent men and women to think through – in Judge Haywood’s words, “very carefully” – what it is they are commending. Would these same people be inclined to thank a street-corner gang member for his “service” to the neighborhood in which he lived? Would the same words be expressed to a Mafia hit-man for his “service?”
Soldiers go to the bottom of my list of people to criticize for wars – although they do remain on the list. But kids have been so thoroughly propagandized to embrace the war system through schools, the media, motion pictures, computer games, advertising, their friends, and even their families; that by the time they reach age seventeen or eighteen they are entrapped with promises of adventure, college scholarships, or the chance to be part of something “noble” or “heroic.” An individual soldier may have occasion to do something heroic in wartime – Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., who maneuvered his helicopter in order to end the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam is one man who comes to mind – but there is nothing “heroic” in bombing homes and cities; machine-gunning men, women and children; torturing captives; or just joining up.
Those who operate the technologies of death at great distances from those killed – for whom the victims are no more than abstractions that Don Boudreaux referred to as “little puffs of smoke” – enjoy illusions unavailable to foot-soldiers. Like the neocons and other lounge-warriors who never heard a shot fired in anger, those for whom war is but an exercise in woolgathering do not have to internalize the image of a child blown to pieces by a grenade. When a civilian is transformed from the “enemy” into a bloody corpse lying in the street, the soldier who killed him learned the meaning of Richard Weaver’s observation that “ideas have consequences.”
It is symptomatic of how our thinking has produced the destructive nature of our social systems that suicide has become the third-leading cause of death in the world. Perhaps Thomas Mann understood the deeper connections of how our thinking produces the adverse consequences of how we live. “War,” he observed, “is only a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.” But war is sufficiently destructive of the nature of life that soldiers experience its evil force as a deadly infection of their souls. If, as I believe, each of us has a need for spiritual transcendence; of a need to connect up with the rest of the universe, how can those whose soul has been so contaminated hope to restore it to health?
Perhaps a clue to how this cleansing might take place – not only amongst soldiers, but upon the rest of us whose inner sense of being has been polluted by other intrusions upon the nature of life – is to be found not in the alcohol and drugs to which so many have turned in desperation, but in their superficial meaning. A synonym for alcohol is “spirits,” while narcotic drugs often bear such names as “angel dust,” “God’s medicine,” or “ecstasy.” Are these substances ersatz remedies for injuries whose causes we are not encouraged to pursue?
Family members and friends of soldiers going through such tribulations should find some encouragement in their desperate attempts to restore their inner sense of order. The state will, of course, insist upon drugging these young men and women not in order to help them, but to shut them up, lest their pain generate questions that the established order doesn’t want asked. But those who care for the individual soldier’s sufferings should “think outside the box” of institutionalized responses, for outside the box is where many of the soldiers already are and, in any event, the only place in which genuine healing can take place.
The main thrust of my criticism of subjecting young people to the brutalizing and life-destroying character of the war system is directed at the families of these kids. Long before I had children of my own, I was of the view that parents have a moral obligation to protect their children from the tyranny of the state. Parents who would not allow their son to hang out with a street-gang, or their teenage daughter to date a convicted rapist, find some twisted sense of pride in putting a “proud parent of a Marine” bumper-sticker on their car! Why are so many men and women so insistently ignorant of the destructive plans that the state has for their kids? I once knew a man who disowned his son for having run off to Canada instead of submitting himself to the draft to be sent to Vietnam. Why? Do such parents love the state more than they do their own children? If parents have a moral duty to protect their children from harm, why would they not do all that is possible to protect them from the collective madness of war?
Any young person contemplating enlistment in the military should be taken to a veteran’s hospital and allowed to see and visit with what remains of previous enlistees. So, too, should such teenagers be made aware of the fact that government figures admit that an average of twenty-two military veterans commit suicide every day. If more visual evidence is needed, they should be encouraged to watch the powerful ending sequence to the 1969 anti-war musical, Oh! What a Lovely War.
I am less interested in proposing ways in which to compensate victims of state action for the harms suffered, than in trying to encourage the thinking that will put an end to victimization, whether by the state or other forces. Each of us has the energy to walk away from state systems that only loot, maim, kill, or destroy. All that we require is the existential courage to assert our own self-ownership.
But for those who would like to see a government program to compensate the many, many victims of warfare, one might consider a suggestion grounded in economic thinking. The pursuit of our self-interests involves not only trying to maximize income but to minimize costs. Those who control and direct the state’s war-making system consist of what are referred to as the “military-industrial complex.” These are the business firms that both design and produce weapons systems – at a hefty profit in doing so – as well as help to direct the foreign policies of the United States in order to ensure desirable levels of international conflicts upon which their economic interests depend.
There are enormous financial costs such firms must bear in order to secure the right mix of governmental policies that will advance their purposes (e.g., defense spending, foreign policy commitments). Substantial amounts of money must be contributed to politicians (e.g., campaign contributions, multi-millions of dollars for speaking fees) as well as lobbyist fees and public propagandizing advertising expenses. The costs of paying for injuries received by soldiers are, on the other hand, like so many of the unwanted costs of our behavior, simply imposed upon others. A factory that spews smoke onto the lands of neighbors, or dumps industrial wastes into rivers or underground water systems; or the sports teams that insist upon taxpayers paying for the construction of stadia; or the corporation that calls upon the state to use its powers of eminent domain to obtain land without having to negotiate with an owner, are the better-known examples of what economists so appropriately refer to as “socializing the costs.”
But living life responsibly necessitates actors bearing all of the costs of their actions – and, as a corollary, enjoying all of the benefits thereof. Wounded soldiers are an inevitable cost of the war system. Efforts are made to shift this expense to taxpayers who, in any political society, are the default debtors of all state action. Wars that are generated and maintained so that weapons manufacturers, banks, and other corporate-state interests can profit from the carnage, incur costs that, in a world that likes to talk of “responsible behavior,” should be directly borne by those who benefit from this deadly racket. Just as the farmer who sets fire to last season’s crop-stubble is required to compensate his neighbor should the fire escape onto the neighbor’s land and burn down his house, so too, should those who profit from sending other people’s children to war be obliged to pay the costs of helping the returning soldiers to heal. If those who profit so greatly from promoting the slaughter of others were required to internalize these costs, their pro-war incentives would be reduced.