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imperialism & war

Two More Oregon Soldiers Die in the War

As the sad word reaches us about two more deaths half a world away, in a war that should not be, I am feeling conflicted about how to respond to the news. I understand that flags will be flying at half mast tomorrow and the next day, in a symbolic gesture of futility meant to be respectful of the dead. But how much respect can I really offer? Almost none at all.
This probably seems cold to most people, as if I were slandering the dead. But that is not my intention. I, too, am saddened by the news of yet more "collateral damage" in a war that seems like it may never end. I, too, understand that these two human beings surely had other intentions for their lives, than to wind up blowing away with the dusts of Afghanistan. And I, too, wish they had never been asked to go there at all. But I cannot call them heroes. I cannot give them a moment of silence that is not haunted with the dead they took with them. And I cannot give the "brave soldiers" who might survive all this any kind of parade.

Progressives here in Cascadia, like everywhere these days, have adopted what appears at first glance to be both a humanitarian and a politically useful strategy with regard to the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. They claim to be "supporting the troops" by asking that they be brought safely home. There is no overt criticism of "our boys (and girls) in uniform." On the contrary, they are celebrated as heroes, or supported as unwitting victims of the war. No peace march is complete these days, without a mention of how supportive we all are of "our troops," how it's not THEY whom we
are against, it is the war itself.

It's hard to argue the logic in this. This tactic helps to unify people who might otherwise be on opposite sides. People whose sons and daughters are fighting over there are absorbed into a movement that opposes the war, but not the warriors. There is a strength in numbers, and a strength in taking a mass-produced moral high ground that few would dare argue with. And so this strategy seems more politically astute than the naked anger people allegedly showed toward returning vets of the war in Vietnam.

It has emotional appeal, too. Nobody wants to be "against" the "brave americans" who are dying on the battlefields half a world away. Nobody wants to stand in judgement of people who are obviously being victimized by the ruthless policies of US imperialism as much as anyone else. I find myself here too, not wanting to place too much blame on the soldiers themselves. It's hard, after all, to point fingers at people who have been thrust into this war. Many of those soldiers are working class people with few options, who took the military bait. They wanted to "see the world," or they wanted to pay for college, and they were given few other options. Probably, they did not want to die forgotten in the sands of Afghanistan. In a very real sense, these are our brothers and sisters and nobody wants to punish them for a war they did not start and have little voice in ending. Who are we, after all, to judge them. Yes, this is a difficult issue indeed.

This reluctance to blame the soldiers for the folly of the generals has cultural roots going way back for those of us growing up in the wake of the Vietnam war. Every television program, every Hollywood movie, for decades, had the standard tortured war hero, misunderstood by his peers, traumatized by events beyond his control, and without that all-important parade he so clearly "deserved." It's hard not to have been brainwashed by all that, hard not to forget that pointing a gun at other people is a choice after all -- a choice made by soldiers who live and die by the sword.

And then there is the romanticization of "our troops," "our boys," our hometown heroes. The brave soldiers, "protecting our freedom," making the world safe for democracy, and all that. Although this was an old story already, it was reinvented with a vengeance after the shame of Vietnam. This fairy tale was a concerted effort to control the story about what really happens in war, mass marketed to a public who would otherwise never again be willing to send its children off to fight in rich men's wars. But it has been a manufactured hype. A melodramatic band-aid, a mass produced "healing" of the perceived wounds to our national pride suffered in Vietnam. Nevermind that the real wounds were suffered by babies in the Mekong Delta. Nevermind that the pain felt by Americans over Vietnam was the pain of coming to terms with our collective conscience. It was a good and necessary pain, one that might cleanse us of our almost unforgiveable sins of complicity. Nevermind all that, just sit back and revel in the glory of Hollywood war heroes.

I cannot do that, though. I cannot reverently remember "our" fallen troops while the nation ignores the tens of thousands of innocent lives they have taken in this war. It's not that I do not feel for them, I do. It makes me sad to hear of another young man or woman in a US uniform who will never come home because George Bush thinks it's "worth it." I am sobered by the flags flying almost continuously at half mast all over Cascadia, and the knowledge of the cost. In that sense, I suppose I "support the troops." Not as troops, but as human beings who probably deserved better. Still, I think it's time to call a spade a spade.

If our nation learned anything at all from Vietnam, it was that war does not make heroes, that soldiers do not necessarily deserve parades. It's time to recall that message, to remember why this nation came to believe that then, and to reflect on what that means to us now. It was a painful message for those returning from the war -- they wanted parades and adoration and even worship, as they had worshipped the soldiers from their past. Instead, as I understand it, they were called "baby killers," and many did not like it. I cannot tell you how many Vietnam veterans have unburdened sad tales to me about the hell they went through over there, and how they deserved better than the treatment they got when they got back here.

Maybe. But I'm not so sure. Because I've seen the pictures from My Lai, and I will never again be the same supportive audience I once was to crying veterans seeking comfort. Because the stories told in these photographs, and in all the other massacres then and now that never made the news; these stories do not lie. The truth is, "our troops" really are, in fact, killers of babies.

Yes, I've seen the photographs, staring through the years, of the last moments in the lives of human beings who are gone now, but who still cry out for someone to hear them. Whole families clinging to each other in fear. I most clearly remember one in which I could see the delicate hands of a baby, fingers curled around fat little palms, knuckles pressed gently against his mother's breast. Bizarrely, I remember most the little button-up shirt he was wearing, just a little too small for him. He was at that age where babies grow quickly. His little belly was poking out just a little from under the hem, and his mother's arm brushed against the still warm skin beneath his ribs. She held him tightly, like any mother would. Arms curled protectively around him, trying to sheild him from the unimaginable sin in the heart of every good soldier, she is frozen there in time pleading silently for their lives, with eyes long since closed by "our troops" over there.

This picture, burned into my heart, sears all the more because I know it's not the only story like this one crying to be told. I know that "our troops" are over in the Levant now, even as I write this, committing unspeakable sins against human beings, just like they did in Vietnam. And just like in Vietnam, most of us are deaf to their cries, blind to their pain. It's all happening a world away, and we are not confronted with their reality. We can pretend they're not real. We can ignore them. We can plan parades for our hometown heroes, or we can lower flags in respect for the dead on "our side," but we cannot feel compassion for people whose stories we've never heard. The corporate media, ever complicit, has silenced them for the duration out of expediency. Just like Vietnam, we will only hear their cries when it is too late to save them. We will be left with our consciences once the feeding frenzy is over, but we cannot be bothered with them now.

I reject that. I am sad that soldiers died in the war this week. But I do not support "our troops." They are not my troops, and I will never lend support to the sins being committed over there. No, I will not take part in collective gestures of respect for them. Since there are few photos being smuggled from the battlefield by real journalists these days, I must reflect on pictures from Vietnam to remind myself why.

There was another picture, almost too horrible to describe, taken moments after the one I mentioned above. Moments after the warm little hand curled against its mother's breast, moments after frightened villagers blinked goodbye into the lens of the camera and into the eyes of Charlie Company's "hometown heroes." This is an honest picture of the price of selling ones soul to an artificial heroism. Frozen there like an epitaph to all humanity, babies that had gurgled with laughter that morning lay draped over their mothers' bodies. Flies settled among the dead. Not only were they all dead, but one mother and child were so grossly violated that God herself must have wept on that day, so long ago. It's an image that cries out through the intervening years for some kind of answers, some kind of response. And alas, it's an image probably being recreated again and again on Afghan and Iraqi battlefields, as human beings fall down before the darkness lurking in the unseen corners of the human soul. And just as in My Lai, no one will see it in time to make any difference in the outcome.

I did not hear the cries of the mother and baby in that photograph until long after Vietnam. I did not see it in time to save them. But I carry it in my heart, to remind me why I can never be silent about the price of war. I take it out and look at it now and then, in the hopes that it will save someone else some day.

If you still believe that war ever really makes heroes, I urge you to look at the photographs from My Lai. Really look into the faces of the dead, and understand what was lost there. And recognize that no one was allowed to hear their stories until long after that long ago war had ended, just as you are not being allowed to see the real and everyday carniage being visited upon people just as precious, by "our troops," over there, right now.
An Eloquent Statement 27.Sep.2005 19:20

Ben Douglass bendouglass@cheerful.com

Thank you very kindly for having the moral courage to speak such words in such an eloquent fashion. They are words that need to be spoken 100 times a day without any let up, causing great tension among us all.

Honestly CatWoman 27.Sep.2005 20:07

--

I think you're the Tom Paine of our time, or at least a prime representative of articulate analyses of life's difficult positions.

Recreated images 28.Sep.2005 11:23

then and now

While we saw some of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, we have not been allowed to see or hear the worst of them. It was deemed too dangerous to the national will. And what of all the fallen in Falluja? We know that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings died there. But we have pretened otherwise because we have not been confronted with their faces. There have been a few stories trickling out from the wars over there, enough stories to tell us that nothing has changed since Vietnam. Don't wait until long after the war is over, until the photographs start coming out in magazines. Do something about this now. NOW.

in war, everyone loses 28.Sep.2005 18:22

White Lilac

I must disagree in part. I almost always agree with your analysis of issues, and have great respect for your thoughtfulness, so I respond almost with reluctance because I understand and sympathize with your well-articulated thoughts.

First, I agree with you that romanticizing "our troops" is silly, something that actually serves as indirect, positive public relations, or is a myth that has evolved for centuries as grieving families are left to carry on without their loved ones--it would be unbearable to think their children died in vain.

I also agree that war does not make heroes, and that soldiers do not deserve parades solely because of their occupation. However, I want to expound on the idea that "our troops" are "killers of babies." While not all soldiers kill babies, it is undoubtedly true that some do. Many baby-killers, such as bomber pilots, may not even realize who they are because of the nature in which they do their killing. But we agree that some soldiers kill babies, sometimes at places like My Lai that we may never learn about or will learn about only in some distant future, far removed from their screams and torment.

The main point of my comment is to point out that this fact--that some troops kill babies, not to mention many other innocent lives, human and otherwise--is not sufficient for me to abhor soldiers on a personal level. Instead, I see the ruthless killing as the desired outcome of an intense brainwashing process that begins in basic training and spreads like cancer throughout the military.

There's a great article in Harper's magazine about troops that go AWOL ...  http://www.harpers.org/AWOLInAmerica.html . Among others, it includes two young men from the northwest, one from Portland, who are deciding at the very last minute that military life isn't for them.

After reading the article, or others like it, it is easier to understand why I see soldiers as victims themselves. I hate to use that word, but can't quite find the right one. You mention the common reasons for viewing soldiers as victims: for many it isn't a choice, but an economic necessity, something they were pressured into by family, friends or lying recruiters, something that disproportionately affects minorities and people of color. As true as those observations are, I see soldiers as mostly victims of brainwashing. The Harper's article points that out nicely, noting that severe psychological conditioning is necessary to go from the 15% firing rate of WWII to a 90-something percent firing rate of today.

These people, our friends, relatives (disclosure: I have 6 family/friends in Iraq/Afghanistan/Kuwait currently), people from our community--are being brainwashed with our tax dollars, used for purposes of empire during the best years of their lives, and then turned out like so much spent cannon fodder after they are killed, injured, psychologically/mentally shocked, or are simply too old for active duty. Then, of course, their disability and retirement benefits are cut.

By describing soldiers as victims, by no means do I mean to take away from My Lai, current Iraqi massacres, or any of the numerous (innumerable?) atrocities soldiers commit and are committing right now. They are despicable crimes against humanity. However, I see an even greater evil lying within a *system* that is craftily, cunningly designed to take raw recruits, fresh from the streets, and turn them into ruthless killing machines. If we are horrified at the results, it is too simplistic to say that 'soldiers must be bad people to begin with,' or 'they've committed murder, and deserve no respect,' or 'Sgt. Graner and others at Abu Gharib are some real sick fuckers,' or something equally reactionary and superficial. Such comments--judgments really--would only make sense if the soldiers were capable of making a free and fully informed decision about what they are doing. Instead, they are initially pulled in by aggressive marketing campaigns at ages (16-early 20s) when most of them are not fully mature. Then the brainwashing starts in earnest. Your personal identity is stripped from you, and alliances with family and friends are severed, to be replaced with a love for your team and fellow soldier. Once you find yourself in combat, your reflexes and defenses kick in, and you're just fighting for your own life and that of your buddies.

I want to emphasize that soldiers have been used throughout history by powerful rich men to do their bidding. At every turn they are conditioned to not think independently, to not question an order, and to complete their mission. The fact that they can commit horrible crimes in battle does not diminish the culpability of their officers and leaders. The deaths in battle, civilian and 'terrorist' alike, are just byproducts of an enormous brainwashing, indoctrination, psychological terrorism and mental occupation by our military and those who stand to profit from our military industrial complex.

I'll try one more angle, then give it a rest. We would all be appalled if Congress were to draft only those males and females whose IQ was below 85 into active service. We would find it fairer (although still appalling) if the draft did not discriminate on the basis of IQ, because we feel (if you believe in IQ tests at all, but humor me for my example) that intelligence is a characteristic that one has moderate to little control over. In other words, it would seem unfair to draft only "less intelligent" people, simply because they were less intelligent and perhaps less capable of resisting such a draft.

But we have a more sophisticated, yet every bit as twisted a scheme of social engineering going on now, no draft necessary. It is only those individuals who are both economically disadvantaged *and* possess certain character traits that "succeed" in the military. No one ever seems to mention this--it isn't just people of color, working class people, but it's people with particular character traits (which are themselves likely influenced by socioeconomic factors). Character traits may not be the same as intelligence, but both seem equally difficult to change. If you are predisposed to accepting commands, needing or wanting an authoritarian, disciplined regimen in your life, or simply have no identity or sense of who you are, no sense of direction or purpose in life, then you are perfect bantha fodder for the military. You will be remolded into an entirely different person--and yes, you will be capable of horrible things, but this is *killing by proxy*. "Our troops" may pull the trigger, but a handful of mostly white men tricked/forced us into paying for the gun and bullet in the name of national security/defense.

So, bottom line, I'm glad I don't have to deal with the karma that "our troops" do, but I'm much more concerned about those who use troops as mere pawns in much larger geopolitical schemes. (Sort of like the constant gardener, which I saw recently: the posse that kills Ralph Fiennes may be full of butchers, but I also see them as being exploited. In a different environment, one might have been a concert pianist, another might have discovered the cure for cancer, and another might have been a great teacher.)

Ideas for new articles, if someone is inspired:
--> What can we as a community offer potential recruits as an alternative to the military?

--> What can we do to "detox" these troops once they return or drop from active status? Can you imagine living the rest of your life knowing you killed innocent civilians? Some pretty darn tough defense mechanisms going on there.

--> Is there something proactive we can do locally to combat the growing militaristic/fascist climate? Kucinich's idea of a Dept. of Peace sounds a little stoned, but I like the idea of a local group trying to think about/work for peace, focusing on real local issues. I join up with a couple local groups to pass out anti-recruiting literature at high schools targeted by recruiters. There's got to be many more ideas.

Everything but the military. 29.Sep.2005 03:16

Huge

These soldiers really have millions of options available to them. In fact, since the war to end all wars, the option is provided to do everything but the military, which is to be dismantled so civilization can carry on and progress. If one gets serious, you can see that there really is only two kinds of violence, just and unjust and this particular war of bush`s administration is an unjust warwhich is violating all the anti-fascist covenants that the U.S. and Canada are signed onto, namely the Geneva Conventions, The United Nations Charter, the Nuremburg Trials, The world court of the Hague, The newly created International War Crimes Tribunal(modelled on Bertrand Russells War Crimes tribunal used during the U.S. Aggressive war against Indo-China) kVirtually eighty to ninety percent of the worlds people have weighed in on the side of the people of Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq and the other countries that Bush has threatened. History and Herstory is getting ready to play out its condemnation of a Greedy polluting exploiter waring for greedy polluting reasons. Solar energy can replace oil as the prime mover of the industrial revolution. No, think about it, this war is illegal, immoral, corrupt and fascistic (modelling the Axis military strategy of 1) Pre-emtive strikes, 2) Unilateralism, 3) Might makes right.) I agree these returning soldiers will need to be de-toxed, but it will be invain as they and the first Iraq war soldiers will be dying by the hundreds of thousands from radiation sickness (mis-nomered gulf syndrome sickness.) It is not sickness from the Gulf itself, but from the DU weapons of mass destruction employed by the U.S. Military in the country called Iraq (Bagdad was reported to have 200 times the radiactive rate than at the time of the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) Already the first gulf war soldiers have been reported 400,000 sick from radiactive uranium and this time over twice the DU was fired than the first time. No one can unite with such an innane policy as it will love them to death not life. That is the difference between the justice of anti-fascism signified by the present anti-war movement in the U.S.A. and the unjust violence of the present Pro-war grouup. Viva American liberation from the polluting U.S. Imperialist military. I do so hope the American people will rise and put an end to the present criminal, Illegal war.

thanks so much 29.Sep.2005 09:41

eshinni

Thank you, Catwoman, White Lilac and the other posters for your thoughtful words-this is one of the best imc posts I've seen. I and possibly many others become so anguished by the moral swamp we find ourselves in that it's difficult to get the words out. Some days all I can do is scream.

honer the soldiers 29.Sep.2005 13:32

karl roenfanz ( rosey ) k_rosey48@hotmail.com

the common soldier is under orders or brainwashed into doing what they do. most of the officers and government isn't worth the shitcan to bury them in. i've got an understanding about what goes on in the military. i spent ten years there. the governments policy is to crucify the enlisted, but cover-up for the officers

counterpoint 29.Sep.2005 16:00

White Lilac

This is obviously an issue I think about a lot, given that some of my family and friends are unfortunately involved in the military. The best argument I can find to rebut what I've written above is that at some point we tend to hold troops responsible for their own actions. Every penal/justice system that I know of is based on the idea that at some point, people have to be held accountable for their actions, whether or not some external factor affected or motivated them. For example, someone who sexually abuses others because of unresolved issues he harbors from being sexually abused himself as a child, is still considered guilty. The motivation or reason for the abuse might be a reason for lesser punishment, but doesn't absolve the person completely. Instead, it's a tragic, horrible situation where no one wins and everyone loses.

I'm not saying that this is always fair. It may be that someone never reaches full maturity in their life, never achieves full control over their actions, or is so overwhelmed by abuse or traumatic situations that they are arguably not responsible for all of their behavior. Our system of law and public opinion generally doesn't buy this though, we always find it easier to hold the 'perpetrator' accountable, rather than point to a shifting, uncertain, unidentified or unknowable combination of external social conditions.

This is exactly how I feel about my family members in the military. I waver between hating them (I admit it) for their choices, for being so shallow and unthinking, for not being strong enough to resist the propaganda, training, indoctrination and enculturation, and hating the system that both pressured them into this role and pressures them from leaving it, turning them into a completely different person in the process. As much as I try to hug them, hang out and listen to them, comfort them, or really communicate with them, the fact is that the military has permanently changed each of them. They'll never be the same people they were before they entered military service. They can act convincingly normal for awhile, but put them with their buddies and a switch flips in their heads.

This phenomenon is not unique to US troops. Every army in all of western civilization has committed horrific war crimes. Romanticization of aboriginal and native or tribal cultures aside, I don't know of any non-western war or conflict that did not also produce war crimes. We are stuck realizing that WE finance the most powerful standing army in history, a fraction of whose budget could provide universal healthcare for all of us, a fraction of whose budget could finance conservation and alternative energy strategies to decrease the need for a military in the first place, etc., etc. Don't even get me started on how the Dept. of Defense is the nation's (maybe the planet's?) largest polluter.

The most frustrating thing for me, which I still am unwilling to accept, is to realize that I am powerless to change any of this alone. The economic interests driving these wars are HUGE, and start in my gas tank, my organic tomatoes shipped up from Mexico, my made in China shit, and all the rest. I try not to sink into self-loathing when I realize that my lifestyle is partly the reason why my relatives are in Iraq. Even if I consumed no fossil fuel energy (an impossibility in our economy), my actions would not be enough to affect our energy policies at all. It is so morally complicated when you consider that just surviving in this economy requires you to consume so much energy--many of the jobs I'm looking at now (all social work/nonprofit type jobs) require you to have a car, for example. Some days I just feel so depressed and fucked that I just cry, if only to feel something, instead of the shocked numbness that mirrors the pathological emotion states of my shell-shocked relatives.

If you're looking for an alternative, grassroots effort to help us REALLY kick the militarism habit, come to Portland Peak Oil, we meet every Wednesday,  http://www.portlandpeakoil.org . Well worth checking out.

thank you, Catwoman 02.Oct.2005 19:47

regular reader

for another brilliantly written elucidation of the truth. you are incredible!

here are the words of 60's folk singer Donovan, who is one of the few people who has said it as well as you did.

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER

He is five foot two,
anbd he's six feet four,
he fights with missiles and with spears,
he is all of thirty-one,
and he's only a seventeen,
's been a soldier for thousands years.

He's a Catholic, a Hindy,
an atheist, A Chein,
A Buddhist, a Baptist and a Jew,
and he knows, he shouldn't kill,
and he knows, he always will,
care for me, my friend, and I will care for you.

And he's fighting for Canada,
he's fighting for France,
he's fighting for the USA
and he's fighting for the Russains,
he's fihgting for Japan,
and he thinks we put an end to war this way.

And he's fighting for democrazy,
he's fighting for the Reds,
he says it's for the peace of all,
he's the one who must decide,
who's to live and who's to die,
and he never sees the writing on the wall.

And without him, how would Hitler
kill the people at Dachau,
without him Cesar would have stood alone,
he's the one, who gives his body
as a weapon of the war,
and without him always killing cant gho on.

He's the universal soldier,
and he really is to blame,
his orders came from far away, no more,
they came from here and there,
and you and me ain't brothers,
can't you see,
this is not the way we put an end to war.