I can't pretend to be a pacifist. I liked it when we bombed the bejesus out of the Taliban on the trail of Osama. I saw the newsreel footage of Hitler and Tojo and was led to believe that we had good reason to fight those tyrants too. When I was a kid I fancied myself Vic Morrow in Combat as we clambered up the dirt hills on a construction site one block over, playing war with our toy guns and bayonets, our plastic grenades and helmets. At some point the toys weren't enough so we started throwing rocks at each other. Somewhere on my head I've got a scar where the doc had to sew me up after one of our escapades. I missed Vietnam by a month after Nixon killed the draft lottery but that war was clearly discredited long before him: big white people killing little yellow people on their own turf, supposedly at the service of ideology and geopolitics. Imagine killing someone for something called the Domino Theory? Effin mental illness.
Most war is like that, a working out of the atavistic violent strain in the human animal, having nothing to do with Big Ideas like freedom, religion, or socio-political systems. Turf wars, gang wars, kids on a dirt pile. What's mine is mine. You want it, come get it. You try and I'll kill you. Kill me and my kin will seek revenge. And on and on, as one of the great war chroniclers would have it. War is not extraordinary, it's the common condition of competing animals, humans included. If somebody came and invaded Highland Lakes, I'd fight back to protect my own, snarling like an alley cat.
The extraordinary thing is the sentiment we attach to the killing business, the fife-and-drum glory of it, the inscriptions on stone, the eternal flames, the bagpipes across the valley, the lone bugler playing taps, the immortal poetry lying between leather covers. The books, whole libraries filled with books, right from the beginning, Homer and the Bible, up to the enshrinement of foolhardy bravery at Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, and Pork Chop Hill. Into the valley of death rode the six hundred and all that crap. Even in church, where a crucified Christ hung over the altar, we would sing, "Onward, Christian Soldiers, marching as to war..." Makes you wanna re-read your New Testament, poot, doesn't it?
It used to be just men, now it's women too. Volunteers. Guess that's progress. Give the boys or girls uniforms and some live ammunition and you'll get to find out what they're made of, whether their flesh and blood harbors cowardice or courage. Who cares if you destroy them in the process? We've got plenty of room underground for more bodies. And for the broken ones we've got wheelchairs and nurses, hospitals and rehab centers. We'll even give 'em handicap placards they can hang from their rear view mirrors. The subjection of the conscious self to the conscience-less mentality of the well-drilled mob. All for one and one for all. Hip hip hooray. Makes you wanna shite on the general's tomb as you walk among this field of plain white stones.
Quist would counsel me when I was considering running away from the Army. He said, "If life is gonna have meaning, then death has to have meaning. You can't have one without the other. The sacrificial life is the only life worth living, no matter where the sacrifice is made. You run away, you're only gonna find the struggle in front of you again. No way to escape the fact that you're a fallen human being." I believed him and stayed, only to have fate deal me another hand. You look at the parades, the medals, the photos on the mantel, the tears born of real grief, and you think to yourself, of course we will have these things with us always, for we the living are duty-bound too. We're the ones who need to create some meaning in our lives.