Roll Out the Drums of War

I had the chance to speak to a young man – let’s not be coy, my daughter’s new boyfriend – whose hair was cropped to the stubble of basic training, as he has joined the National Guard, and could be sent to Afghanistan any time in the next few years.

In an ironic reversal of ancient conversations I had with dads of my own girlfriends, when I was a conscientious objector in the Vietnam era, we sat across from each other  in the breakfast nook, eye to eye, intensity matched with willingness to examine his actions and motivations.

First off, he’s getting good money to pay off his student loans.  A graduate of BU who wants to go to law school, but coming from a family of limited means, joining the Guard is a gamble to get the benefits afforded by whatever serves these days as the GI Bill.  I have no problem with this; I take calculated risks with my business bets every year, and I can understand the financial motive even if the risk seems greater to me than to him.

But he’s also gung ho about the mission, and here I balk and we go at it hammer and tongs.  “Sure, you get the goodies, and good on you – but do you really think there’s an endgame in Afghanistan that justifies the cost in terms of either young people or treasure?”

Julian is no ignorant right-winger – he plays on a gay rugby team (how does that work? his girlfriend Misty is now the VP for public relations for the team), is knowledgeable on international issues of human rights, and, being of Lebanese descent, particularly conversant with the history of Afghanistan.

He knows we trained the mujahadeen how to fight a large army when the Russians were in Kabul.  He knows we abandoned them after the Russians went home (Charlie Wilson’s War) and they became the Taliban, and now use the same tactics on our large army. He is clearly on ‘our’ side – against the rough justice and the women’s rights abuse they represent.

“C’mon, women lose their rights all over the world, and none of us likes it, but we don’t send troops and a world of hurt to the leaders of Darfur, Rwanda, India, or Indonesia. The Taliban – with whom Karzai is doing a deal as we speak, you know that? – are for sure unpleasant extremists, but they have been demonized by the American press.  If you go, you are a tool of the corporations who want the oil and mineral wealth, the sharp edge of the spear of greed, not of human rights.  Look at how well it worked to ‘export democracy’ to Iraq.  The people guiding these wars do not share your interest in human rights.”

His reply: “If they locked me in a room with Saddam Hussein, only one of us would come out.  But if they locked me in a room with Dick Cheney, likewise only one of us would come out.  Other people set these huge historical forces in motion, and I may or may not agree with their motivations or their tactics.”

And then he got even more interesting:

“I am going in as an officer, which means I can question my orders.  From a sergeant on down, they have to obey orders, but as an officer I have the right to refuse.  I might end up going to jail for that refusal, but I would have the chance to defend myself in a court martial if it comes to that.  So it is my job to interpose myself between those who would do useless violence on either side.  The Taliban are coming across the border and killing Afghanis – I would interpose myself between those who come to do the killing and their victims.  But I consider it my job to do the same in the other direction – to interpose myself between orders from my superior to destroy an innocent village.”

Julian is heavily into the cameraderie  that prompts us to kill or be killed for our band of brothers, very proud that he would not leave one of his men behind, not even a corpse.  I also understand that bonding, even though I have never been through basic training, from, of all things, theater improv troupes I have been a part of where you would cheerfully ‘die’ for another member.  It all sounds very positive, and I have to concede the moral absolutism of youth.

“How will you know who is innocent in the smoky hell of war?  If the line between good an evil ran between men, it would be easy to know what to do – but that moral line runs right through the middle of each human heart.  Once you are part of that machine, you do its bidding, and your own moral compass gets lost in a welter of confusion, militarism, and – ultimately – a hate that mirrors your own love for your comrades.”

Julian and I disagree mightily on ‘Saving Private Ryan’.  He sees it is a noble set of acts where one man gives of himself to get another out.  To me, Ryan crying at the graves of his comrades some 50 years later is a testament to the moral relativism of even that ‘good’ war – the impossibility of answering his plea: “tell me I was good man.”  Was Ryan worth the life of the Tom Hanks character?  Will your death, o intelligent, ardent, and upright young man, mean anything but cannon fodder if you meet it in the dusty hills of Helman Province?  Any more than Pat Tilman’s – glorified yet falsified in the first casualty of war – truth?

Of course I respect Julian’s choice, and he got my personal respect as well – he met me point for point, and who am I – fat, complacently out of danger – to question his patriotic fervor?  He is no tea-bagging drum-beater who has drunk the Kool-Aid, but a cool calculator who sees the opportunity to do some good in a bad situation.

I still think the whole situation is bad, and I would call him away from it: What if they gave a war and nobody came?  What if none of the young signed up?  But they do – for the opportunities both financial and for the glory that so attracts the young.  My own glory was on the barricades of the anti-war movement; how can I gainsay his different choice made for the same reasons?

But the US is ancient Rome and Mussolini’s Rome rolled into one.  We spend countless sums of blood and treasure in faraway wars that make us no safer, make us no lasting friends, and just drag us closer to our empire’s end.  All the soldiers, and most of the rest of us as well, are mere vassals and serfs to the huge corporations that really set the priorities and run our lives, not the governments that we supposedly ‘elect’.

If this were 1936 in Germany, Julian, would you set yourself to oppose the useless violence of the Nazis even as you set out to quell those violent Jews (or French, or Dutch, or Poles)?  Would your act of defiance against your superiors in the SS, which would get you shot or deported to a death camp – would that be worth it?  Do you really want to stake your all on being part of the American war machine bringing bombs and drones and death and easy money to that ancient country that just wants to be left alone?  Are your ideas of women’s rights (which I share) goin be set into the landscape in any lasting way?  Isn’t diplomacy and social action more effective than war in these maters?

I wish it all comes out well for you:  your body intact, your mind intact, your passion intact, your kindly affection for my daughter intact.  Intact = in touch.  I fear you are in touch with the passion of youth, and my aged cynicism is no match for it.

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?

One Response to “Roll Out the Drums of War”

  1. Joe Lubow Says:

    Thank you Tom. I’m posting this on my FaceBook wall.

    Your respect and concern for your daughter’s suitor juxtaposed with your alarm about the pointless destruction he is enrolling in (with all the best intentions) is a great model for any would-be war resister.

    I remember being interviewed by the local news at an anti-war rally on the eve of the first Gulf War. I described my reasons for objecting to the war – it is in our vital national interest to free ourselves of the need to burn oil; it is contrary to those interests to seek to control the world’s supply of it. That will be as obvious one day as it now is that the domino theory was nonsense.

    The reporter asked “don’t you think your view undermines our boys over there?” This seemed preposterous. “Actually I think my view is all about our men and women over there. How on earth does it serve them to put them in harm’s way for nothing – or worse than nothing. It would support them to endorse putting them in harms way for a noble and necessary cause; it also supports them to call for their return when they are being put in harms way to satisfy the greed of others.”

    I woke up this morning after witnessing the most dramatic anti-war spectacle ever staged (Roger Waters’ The Wall). He filled an arena not only with crystal clear surround sound, but also with out-sized images of the human cost of war (The Wall served as a 9,000 square foot super hi-def screen designed to make you cry – and cry it made many of us).

    That your piece was waiting for me when I woke up was a perfect synchronicity. Thanks my friend.

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