Wednesday, August 18, 2010

war, heroism, and human beings

i've been watching msmbc on the departure of the troops from iraq.  touching, frustrating.  [there will still be 50,000 troops still there, so how final the war will be is questionable].  the program is 'countdown,' and keith olberman, god bless him, is pointing out and highlighting the length of the war, the lies that our president used to get us into the war, the deaths of american soldiers, iraqui troops, iraqui civilians.   olberman has been a constant truthteller in this and other situations of american policy that has been based on lies and deaths and government cynicism.

and yet--like his brilliant colleague rachel maddow--olberman has adopted the universal euphemism about the american troops.  they are all categorically 'brave' and 'heroic.' they have risked and often lost their lives in the service of our country.  they are all noble and wonderful human beings.

okay, we learned from the errors of the antiwar movements in the vietnam era; too often and too publicly, the troops were categorized toward the end as vicious murderers of innocent civilians, and when that image spread to the public, the soldiers who returned were greeted with sneers and hate.  so we have gone back to older images of soldiers--plaster saints.

in my last post i quarrelled with one sentimental synonym-- the site of the world trade center bombings was 'hallowed ground.' now i am quarrelling with another one.  it is also one i find ultimately unfair to the people described.  soldiers are not devils or angels.  they are young people trained to kill, to hate, to view the enemies as monsters to be destroyed.  it's probably a wise way to train them; if you're going to be in combat, with people aiming guns at you, you'll need instincts that tell you to shoot first. you need to be brave, yes. noble and heroic? no.  whatever decent, compassionate elements are in your personality, you must have the ability to keep them locked up a lot of the time.

so that the original training teaches hardness, cruelty.  what must the battles themselves do? to be thrown into daily horrors most of us can't even fathom, you need that training to guide you.  and you can't always drop the training when you're not in immediate danger.

and who are 'you'?  you are a lot of different young people from a lot of different families and different life experiences. you are not a legion of cookie-cutter figures.  you have been formed until now by a lot of different forces, and you are now formed by one major force.  if you are decent, with luck that decency will play out where it can.  if you are sadistic, that sadism  will have a freer range than it ever had.  if you're like most of us, you are some  combination of wise and stupid, loving and hating, compassionate and mean-spirited....all sorts of things.  and your new experiences will change you in all sorts of ways.

heroism?  that's there for you to exercise.  remember a few years ago, that guy in the NY subway who jumped onto the tracks of an oncoming train to save the life of a stranger who had fallen there? he became, at least for awhile, a folk hero, and deservedly so. few of us are put in the face of potential heroism.  he was, and we celebrate his response to it.  i love to imagine that in his place i'd do what he did.  but i doubt it.

soldiers face situations as  profound as that one, daily.  many of them respond as that man did, risking their lives to save civilians, or their own comrades.  it's heartwarming to see the features on tv showing american soldiers in afghanistan providing food and medicine to local children--good human beings, acting nobly when the opportunity presents itself.

but equally, soldiers face more opportunity than the rest of us to act with impunity on their uglier instincts. they are allowed to kill, and to survive they sometimes must kill. will they all restrict their killing to the times when it's absolutely essential? not always.  who knows what extremes of both heroism and sadism go on in battles, unmarked, unacknowledged?  sometimes the sadism spreads out of the battlefield; we see small reports of this occasionally. sometimes the rest of the world finds out about a particularly awful example. mi lai. abu graib. how many such events don't get reported or even witnessed?  people who work with soldiers in hospitals sometimes hear terrible confessions from men now dying, who have lived with the horrors of what they did to others in war.   again, the rest of us must ask ourselves whether, given free range, we would kill and maim innocent people. and again, i want to believe that i would be incapable of such brutality: i want to believe that of myself even more than i want to believe in my innate heroism. but it too is unlikely to open itself to the test, and i have no way of knowing if my  pretty self-portrait is real.

it sickened me in the 1970s to see what happened to returning soldiers when americans found out about atrocities.  to come home from war as damaged as anyone must be who has been through all that, and be greeted with scorn and anger from civilians---the very people they have been told they suffered for--is horrible.  equally horrible is the subtler abuse they go through from the the government that sent them there: refusal to pay for medical and psychological care for these people?  or only so much care, and then  it's your own problem?  soldiers are by definition in the dual position of  victims and victimizers.

perhaps it is the realization of how much they have suffered that causes us to give them blanket adulation.  but it's phony, as phony as blanket blame.  what is real is to allow for the human complexity that follows them through all the experiences they have been through, and to make certain they get what they need to heal, and get it from the government that has  caused their  conditions in the first place.

so i watch on tv, those huge tanks going back across the border to kuwait, on their way home.  i hope they are greeted with welcome and compassion. i hope they have families and friends who love them and will support them as they try to make new lives, even to help them through whatever guilt they  carry over things they have done.  but i don't thank them for what they did; i don't know what they did. each of them has done some different combinations of things, and each will deal with it based on who they are. there are surely some heroes among them. there are surely some sadists. very surely, there are some who are complicated mixtures of both.

they should be greeted kindly; they should be helped when they need help.  but they shouldn't be canonized by mass sentimentality.  let them be saints in heaven.  as long as they're here, they're people.  there are reasons popes create their saints only from the dead, who have lost the opportunity to sin.

in my most hopeful moments, i believe that rational humanity is something we are capable of.  i believe in those moments even more--that we are capable of expanding this humanity to all soldiers, including the "enemy" soldiers, who have believed their governments as much as american soldiers have believed theirs.  we all respond in some ways to the truths and lies our governments and our societies have told us.
we all are capable of trying  to face our responsibilities to humanity.

1 comment:

Ken G. said...

The great generalities become truths with enough repetition. All soldiers are villains. All soldiers are heroes. Those are easy. But ask people to hold the conflicting notion that both statements are true? That kind of data gets kicked out of the survey results.