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October 24, 2009

Wars of Words and Worlds

I’ve been getting a lot of flak (military term) lately about a war song on my myspace page Marching Through Georgia by Henry Clay Work, celebrating Sherman’s destructive March To The Sea during the Civil War. Defined by Wikipedia as the first example of Total War (I doubt that) where an army destroys enemy soldiers, civilians, homes, crops, and burns everything down to the dirt, Sherman’s March might be a turning point, an up-grade. We now talk about “wiping that place off the face of the earth,” “blowing them to kingdom come,” “scorched-earth policy.” It didn’t start with Sherman (a long-time banker in San Francisco), maybe Attila the Hun or some other famous brute, but the genocide against the Native Americans, the fire-bombing of Dresden, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and our other atrocities indicate that it’s a characteristic American sentiment. “Let’s blow the bastards to hell” seems like a national slogan (second only to “We’re Number One!”). I hear women reporters using the expression “take out,” a dangerous euphemism for killing, as in “let’s just take out Bin Laden.” Women! Reporters! Americans!

In the early sixties the U.S. was just getting into the Vietnam quicksand, and TV shows were produced like COMBAT! to glorify war, something Hollywood has never shied away from. (see also Twelve O'Clock High, The Rat Patrol, Garrison's Gorillas, The Lieutenant, Convoy, Mr. Roberts, Hogan’s Heroes, and Gomer Pyle) So we kids, tired of cowboys and Indians, started playing WWII soldiers killing Krauts and Japs. My friend John’s father still had his Army gear so we could put on real helmets when we shot water pistols and tossed plastic grenades. Then we got tired of that and started playing spies like The Man from Uncle and Get Smart (right, get smart kid).

It was confusing around 1966 when the news from Vietnam started showing soldiers on stretchers, many with sheets over their faces. What were our heroes dying for? Something called the Domino Theory? Something called The Draft was taking away the big kids and not sending them back. Hey, stop that.

My father was a draft counselor, and I told him I thought that killing was wrong (where did I get that crazy idea?), so from the age of 15 he helped me prepare for my draft board hearings that would probably land me in prison for a couple years. By then (early 70’s) I was involved in the anti-war protest movement so fiercely that I would have done time. Now I see that Canada was a smarter option. As I got closer to becoming eligible for the draft the war was winding down and a lottery system was established, choosing unlucky draftees born in 1954, but then not calling anyone born in 1955 (so my destiny changed by being born 3 weeks late).

By 1973 there was less fighting, less news from Indochina, fewer protests, and I was relieved and reprieved and well into higher education. Then in the spring of 1975 I remember a retreat in the Sierras in which we all went outside, about a hundred people, and we stood in the patchy snow in a large circle and held hands--we didn’t know why yet--and the leader said: "Today we can finally say, The Vietnam War is over!” The Vietnam War? It sunk in. We hugged and kissed and wept for a mixture of joy and sadness and nostalgia for our lost youth. War over, begin normal life.

Can I describe the feeling of growing up during a war, an abstract war far away, a TV war, that becomes more real as your turn to participate comes closer? No. Maybe I don’t need to because the U.S. is fighting two wars right now (Nobel prize notwithstanding). Because there are 44 wars going on in the world right now. Because it seems like there’s no end in sight, no relief, that children will never again have a childhood without the Specter.

Of course we can tolerate almost anything. We can laugh and sing and be merry (although I wish our political leaders would keep a straight face until it’s over). The children can play (yeah, video war games). Because the war’s not right here at home this year but overseas somewheres. Americans are lucky to have two coasts so everything ‘overseas’ is unreal, on another planet. And not worth a headline. Critical war reporting from Iraq? Uh, don’t remember very much. Reporters in Afghanistan like Morley Safer in Vietnam? Uh, nope, too dangerous. We have a very vague idea of what’s going on there. We don’t even see the coffins coming back. Do we want to?

We turn away, but everyone is affected by a world constantly at war. War means lives destroyed. How to measure the pain? 4,351 U.S. soldiers killed in action in Iraq (31,536 wounded), or should we include all the Coalition forces (4,669) or include the Iraqi Security Forces post-Saddam (11,525), or do we want to go with the total deaths on all sides including civilians, which just for Iraq is reported in May 2009 to be 1,339,711? And, remind me again, over a million people died for what?

Add that to the total number of deaths since 2001 in Afghanistan (55,931) and you get 1,395,642. Hmmm, that number sounds familiar. Total dead in Vietnam: 1,396,357. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a match. And it's not nearly over. So don't let them tell you that this is not another Vietnam.

Lastly, from the Wikipedia page on Orwell's 1984:
“In the end, Goldstein implies that "the war" might not exist; the Oceanian populace know the external world solely via the Party's propaganda, and that the rocket bombings, ostensibly by "the enemy", might be self-inflicted (as Julia suggests), therefore, "the war" is a lie. Moreover, it might possibly be that Eurasia and Eastasia are fabrications, and that Oceania is the sole world power. In such ambiguity is the meaning of perpetual war: internal subjugation disguised as defence against foreign subjugation, the theory and practice of oligarchical collectivism.”

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Can you believe this guy?
Jeff: Well, he has to get it off his chest.
Mutt: Un-American, I say.
Jeff: Good question, is he still American? He's lived abroad so long I bet he's gone over to the enemy.
Mutt: Gone native, I knew it. The traitor.
Jeff: Guilty of thoughtcrime. Should have the Ministry of Truth look into it.
Mutt: You mean the Ministry of Love.
Jeff: Good thing BB is watching our every move to eliminate subversives from our midst.
Mutt: Like those who desecrate a great patriotic song like Marching Through Georgia.
Jeff: Yep. I wouldn't mind marching through Georgia's bedroom though.
Mutt: Rape and pillage? Oh, is it football season already?
Jeff: We're number one! We're number one!