May 25, 2012
[I originally published this essay on May 22, 2007. I offer it once again in its entirety because of its ongoing relevance. The journalistic details of day-to-day events have never been of great interest to me. Such details are largely meaningless; for a long time, it has been almost impossible to remember them from one screaming, mindless news cycle to the next. Tragically, this particular essay passes one of my tests for my own work with terrible, bleeding colors: the inexorable, increasing brutalization of our culture renders these issues more significant with each passing year.
In the opening section, I pay tribute to Paddy Chayefsky's The Americanization of Emily. If you have never seen this remarkable film, you have missed what may be Chayefsky's finest work. His best-known film is probably the brilliant Network. But The Americanization of Emily cuts still more deeply, and goes directly to the heart of particularly cherished, particularly American myths. I have long thought that it is because Emily is so disturbing and unsettling that it has never been as popular. Many Americans, at least those who prefer to think of themselves as intelligent and well-informed, are willing to laugh at their own idiocies. They are not so ready to admit that their desperately loved self-conception, an idealized view of themselves and their country that they cling to with the neurotic terror of the criminal who fears exposure at any moment, disguises a fact that has assumed awful, overwhelming clarity to much of the rest of the world: that Americans are among the most vicious killers who have ever lived.]
Gentle readers, to provide a proper acknowledgment of the upcoming Memorial Day, I give you Charlie Madison:
War isnít hell at all. Itís man at his best; the highest morality he's capable of Ö itís not war thatís insane, you see. Itís the morality of it. Itís not greed or ambition that makes war: itís goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, weíve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems weíll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. Itís not war thatís unnatural to us Ė itís virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved.Charlie Madison is the protagonist of an extraordinary film, The Americanization of Emily. The astonishing screenplay is by Paddy Chayefsky.
I donít trust people who make bitter reflections about war. ... Itís always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a Hell it is. And itís always the widows who lead the Memorial Day parades Ö we shall never end wars ... by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. Itís the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widowsí weeds like nuns and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio Ė an everyday soldierís death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud.
[Y]ou see, now my other brother canít wait to reach enlistment age. Thatíll be in September. May be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? Sheís under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave.
If we were genuinely concerned with honoring those who have died in war, we would make it our sacred task to eradicate the causes of war. Of course, many Americans -- including most notably our leading politicians -- couldn't care less about truly honoring those whose guts have been ripped out, whose limbs have been bloodily and painfully mutilated, whose minds have been destroyed. For the state and its enablers, the war dead are props used to purify and sanctify the ongoing and future campaigns of slaughter, in an endless procession of slaughters throughout history. The war dead are especially useful, since they have been rendered forever mute; they are unable to tell us the truth of what they endured, or about the lies for which they died.
In February 2006, I offered an appreciation of Chayefsky's notable achievement in The Americanization of Emily, in "Against Sentimentality, and In Praise of Cowardice." In part, I wrote:
Chayefsky's target is the one identified by Charlie: it is the glorification of war, and the countless ways in which all of us "honor the institution." We build statues of our war heroes and name streets after them; we erect shrines to the dead. We insist on the "ideals" for which we fought, and the "goodness" of our intentions. Many of us do this in the misdirected and destructive search for "meaning" in our lives: our own stunted souls prevent us from finding fulfillment and happiness in our individual lives, so we look for "glory" by climbing over endless piles of corpses.Almost every war in every era could have been avoided, if the majority of men were not motivated by the basest, most repellent and petty of factors: the lust for power, greed, and the pathetic search for "meaning" and "glory" in one's life by killing the designated "other" of a brief historical moment. I recall that, several months ago, there was some discussion on various blogs about a particularly awful aspect of the obvious propaganda campaign leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and the public's eager willingness to believe all of it, or at least their notable failure to resist it. It was suggested that we had lost our "horror" of war, on the assumption that we had in some other time appreciated the monstrousness of the slaughter of human beings. This is an utterly naive and grossly mistaken rewriting of American history, one that proceeds directly from critical aspects of the mythology we tell ourselves about ourselves: that we are unique in all of history, that our form of government is the greatest and best possible to mankind, toward which all others should and must strive, and that our national character is predisposed toward compassion and peace.
And what is lost in all of this is the unbearable horror and pain inflicted on individual human beings, and the particularized, specific costs of our quest for glory, or meaning, or "national greatness," or honor.
Lies on top of lies, on top of still more lies, all of it. As Robert Higgs notes in the passages excerpted here:
No one should be surprised by the cultural proclivity for violence, of course, because Americans have always been a violent people in a violent land. Once the Europeans had committed themselves to reside on this continent, they undertook to slaughter the Indians and steal their land, and to bullwhip African slaves into submission and live off their laboróendeavors they pursued with considerable success over the next two and a half centuries. Absent other convenient victims, they have battered and killed one another on the slightest pretext, or for the simple pleasure of doing so, with guns, knives, and bare hands. If you take them to be a "peace-loving people," you havenít been paying attention. Such violent people are easily led to war.While Americans have always had a thoroughly sickening love of violence and cruelty, there is one kind of horror that they have never understood: the absolute, mind-obliterating insanity of war in the modern era. The explanation for this failure is obvious: the wars of the last hundred years have always been fought "over there," never here. As long as our noble warriors were dismembering the Evil Hun or disemboweling the Yellow Jap "over there," which geographic displacement conveniently allowed us to avoid contemplation of the details smeared with entrails, our complacency continued undisturbed. But then came 9/11. We reacted as any deeply neurotic narcissist bent on world domination would, in the manner of a violent nation suffering from "superpower syndrome" as described by Robert Jay Lifton: "You can't do this to us! You can't attack us here! We kill you bastards there, and we love it, but you can't come here!"
Today, rather than seeking justice, many Americans still want revenge for this challenge to their delusions of invincibility, to their belief that we are entitled to inflict violence on anyone else at all, even if they do not threaten us in the least, but that no one else may dare do the same to us. In our endless quest to sate our national rage, any target will do. Why not Iraq? Why not, indeed, as soulless monsters like Jonah Goldberg maintained.
In an essay written some time ago, I quoted Paul Fussell at length, on "The Culture of War, and the Culture of Chickenshit." Fussell has written at least two indispensable books: The Great War and Modern Memory, about World War I, and Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. In Wartime, at the opening of the chapter, "'The Real War Will Never Get in the Books,'" Fussell writes (highlights added and footnotes omitted in all the following excerpts):
What was it about the war that moved the troops to constant verbal subversion and contempt? It was not just the danger and fear, the boredom and uncertainty and loneliness and deprivation. It was rather the conviction that optimistic publicity and euphemism had rendered their experience so falsely that it would never be readily communicable. They knew that in its representation to the laity what was happening to them was systematically sanitized and Norman Rockwellized, not to mention Disneyfied. They knew that despite the advertising and publicity, where it counted their arms and equipment were worse than the Germans'. They knew that their automatic rifles (World War One vintage) were slower and clumsier, and they knew that the Germans had a much better light machine gun. ... And they knew that the greatest single weapon of the war, the atomic bomb excepted, was the German 88-mm flat-trajectory gun, which brought down thousands of bombers and tens of thousands of soldiers. The Allies had nothing as good, despite one of them designating itself The World's Greatest Industrial Power. The troops' disillusion and their ironic response, in song and satire and sullen contempt, came from knowing that the home front then (and very likely historiography later) could be aware of none of these things.The truth today is still worse, for we have significantly regressed. Even as our governing class remains absolute in its determination to avoid the central and most fundamental lessons from Vietnam, it has remembered and applied certain lessons very well indeed. The horrors of Iraq, including the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent Iraqis, never even enter the consciousness of most Americans. The dead and horrifically injured Americans are shuffled offstage without ceremony. The great majority of Americans continue in their preferred mode of existence: intellectually ignorant and lazy, spiritually fat and self-satisfied, and completely oblivious to the unimaginable suffering their government inflicts in other parts of the world.
The Great War brought forth the stark, depressing Journey's End; the Second, as John Ellis notes, the tuneful South Pacific. The real war was tragic and ironic, beyond the power of any literary or philosophic analysis to suggest, but in unbombed America especially, the meaning of the war seemed inaccessible. As experience, thus, the suffering was wasted. The same tricks of publicity and advertising might have succeeded in sweetening the actualities of Vietnam if television and a vigorous uncensored moral journalism hadn't been brought to bear. America has not yet understood what the Second World War was like and has thus been unable to use such understanding to re-interpret and re-define the national reality to arrive at something like public maturity.
Our national media remain cowed and intimidated, and they refuse, a few honorable exceptions aside, to provide details of the daily and hourly horrors in Iraq to the public. A single major newspaper could provide a noble and invaluable service: if they gave a damn at all about unnecessary death and suffering, they would select the most awful and horrifying picture they could find -- a body with its guts falling out, a bloody corpse shorn of arms and legs, a mutilated face made unrecognizable -- and fill up their entire front page with it, a new one every day. Perhaps after a month or two, enough Americans would demand that their government stop butchering people who never harmed us. [To achieve the sought-for effect, the pictures obviously should be of Iraqis, and only Iraqis. The Iraqis had no choice about our criminal war of aggression, and the endless destruction we have unleashed; the United States did -- and does, even today. We could leave, as we quickly would if we had any remaining decency and humanity, but we won't.]
Most Americans have no idea at all what happens in war. I certainly don't pretend that I do, either -- but I read a great deal on the subject, and I try to learn. From Fussell's Wartime again:
What annoyed the troops and augmented their sardonic, contemptuous attitude toward those who viewed them from afar was in large part this public innocence about the bizarre damage suffered by the human body in modern war. The troops could not contemplate without anger the lack of public knowledge of the Graves Registration form used by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps with its space for indicating: "Members Missing." You would expect front-line soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt, sometimes killed, by being struck by parts of their friends' bodies violently detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or marine what hit him, you'd hardly be ready for the answer, "My buddy's head," or his sergeant's heel or his hand, or a Japanese leg, complete with shoe and puttees, or the West Point ring on his captain's severed hand. What drove the troops to fury was the complacent, unimaginative innocence of their home fronts and rear echelons about such experiences as the following, repeated in essence tens of thousands of times. Captain Peter Royle, a British artillery forward observer, was moving up a hill in a night attack in North Africa. "I was following about twenty paces behind," he says, Toward the end of the same chapter, Fussell writes about "Eugene B. Sledge's memoir of a boy's experience with 'the old breed,' the United States Marines," which Fussell describes as "one of the finest memoirs to emerge from any war." Fussell says the tone of Sledge's book is "unpretentious, unsophisticated, modest, and decent." Fussell continues:
when there was a blinding flash a few yards in front of me. I had no idea what it was and fell flat on my face. I found out soon enough: a number of infantry were carrying mines strapped to the small of their backs, and either a rifle or machine gun bullet had struck one, which had exploded, blowing the man into three pieces -- two legs and head and chest. His inside was strewn on the hillside and I crawled into it in the darkness....
Sometimes damage to the body was well beyond endurance, for those perceiving as well as those damaged. Once in the Normandy battles a British major accompanied a stretcher party searching for a wounded man earlier parties had missed. "Sure enough," he says,
we found a poor little chap with both legs blown off above the knees, moaning softly and, I remember, he was saying, "Oh dear! Oh dear!" The stretcher-bearer shook his head and, I thought, looked pointedly at my revolver.And there's an indication of what can be found on the ground after an air crash in one soldier's memories of a morning after an artillery exchange in North Africa. Neil McCallum and his friend "S." come upon the body of a man who had been lying on his back when a shell, landing at his feet, eviscerated him.
"Good God," said S., shocked, "here's one of his fingers." S. stubbed with his toe on the ground some feet from the corpse. There is more horror in a severed digit than in a man dying: it savors of mutilation. "Christ," went on S. in a very low voice, "look, it's not his finger."
But for Sledge the worst of all was a week-long stay in rain-soaked foxholes on a muddy ridge facing the Japanese, a site strewn with decomposing corpses turning various colors, nauseating with the stench of death, "an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool." Because there were no latrines and because there was no moving in daylight, the men relieved themselves in their holes and flung the excrement out into the already foul mud. It was a latter-day Verdun, the Marine occupation of that ridge, where the artillery shellings uncovered scores of half-buried Marine and Japanese bodies, making the position "a stinking compost pile":Accounts of this kind are unknown to the American public. Most Americans are unaware of any and all such details; most Americans do not want to know them and will stop you, should you try to tell them. To the extent our political leaders are cognizant of such facts, they do everything in their power to prevent them from reaching the public. After all, our governing class might undertake the next campaign of slaughter any day now; if Americans knew what that slaughter actually entailed, they might not go along with the smug complacence they have exhibited on all such previous occasions. In an identical manner, if the ignorance of the American public were penetrated to any significant degree, they might demand an immediate end to the pointless murder in Iraq. But our governing class must maintain its prerogatives; as Higgs notes, it would not do to let the inmates run the asylum.
If a Marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like. . . .And from the other side of the world the young British officer Neil McCallum issues a similar implicit warning against the self-delusive attempt to confer high moral meaning on these grievous struggles for survival. Far from rationalizing their actions as elements of a crusade, McCallum and his men, he says, "have ceased largely to think or believe at all":
We didn't talk about such things. They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans. . . . It is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane. . . . To me the war was insanity.
Annihilation of the spirit. The game does not appear to be worth the candle. What is seen through the explosions is that this, no less than any other war, is not a moral war. Greek against Greek, against Persian, Roman against the world, cowboys against Indians, Catholics against Protestants, black men against white -- this is merely the current phase of an historical story. It is war, and to believe it is anything but a lot of people killing each other is to pretend it is something else, and to misread man's instinct to commit murder.
So the myths prevail. Our wars are always noble, fought for the purest of motives. Our warriors are similarly noble, engaged in a high-minded crusade. They butcher and slaughter, and are butchered and slaughtered themselves, so that "civilization" might be preserved. Never mind that many of the warriors themselves would not agree. Never mind that the front-line soldiers know that war is insanity, and only insanity. Never mind the overwhelming, senseless, futile, endless horror of what actually happens in combat, and the details that never reach the public.
Chayefsky rejects the myths in their totality. He implores us to embrace cowardice. I beg you to follow his advice. You can be certain the cries for war will rise again, if not against Iran, then against North Korea, or in ten years' time against China, or against a country not now in the news, but which will fill the role required by the vast machinery of war. And when those cries overwhelm all facts and make reasonable argument impossible, and when they are amplified once again by an ever-compliant, always docile and obedient media, plead cowardice. If you value the sanctity of a single life, it is the only sane course to take, and the bravest.