Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Preliminaries

I imagine I will be saying a lot about the War in this space, and that is almost enough to keep me from starting. There is already so much talk--online, in print, on the air, in the streets and, from what I've seen, in shops and offices and bars and living rooms too. Before I add to the volume, I want to remind myself what it takes to keep the emptiness out of one's words, when the subject is war.

I have never been in combat, or even close to a war zone. So I try to listen to those who have, and who have struggled with the problem of how to bear witness to what they saw, what they felt. Hemingway is still one of the best of these teachers and this passage, from A Farewell to Arms, though itself something of an old warhorse, still one of the best lessons:


I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.


And so, before I say anything else, here are some words, courtesy of the New York Times, that I am certain do mean something, whether you were for this war, or against it, or somewhere in between.

Jay Thomas Aubin, 36, Waterville, ME, Major, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing

Ryan Anthony Beaupre, 30, St. Anne, IL, Captain, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing

Brian Matthew Kennedy, 25, Houston, Corporal, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing

Kendall Damon Waters-Bey, 29, Baltimore, Staff Sergeant, 3rd Marin Aircraft Wing

Therrel S. Childers, 30, Harrison County, MS., 2nd Lieutenant, 1st Marine Division

Jose Gutierrez, 22, Los Angeles, Lance Corporal, 1st Marine Division

Christopher Scott Seifert, 27, Williams Township, PA., Captain, 101st Airborn

Thomas Mullen Adams, 27, La Mesa, CA, Lieutenant, exchange officer in 849 Squadron, Royal Navy

Eric J. Orlowski, 26, Buffalo, Lance Corporal, 2nd Marine Division

Brandon S. Tobler, 19, Army Reserve Specialist, 671st Engineer Brigade

Michael E. Bitz, 31, Ventura, CA, Sergeant, 2nd Marine Division

David K. Fribley, 26, Lee, FL, Lance Corporal, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade

Jose A. Garibay, 21, Orange, CA, Corporal, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade

Jorge A. Gonzalez, 20, Los Angeles, Corporal, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade

Phillip A. Jordan, 42, Brazoria, TX, Staff Sergeant, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade

Frederick E. Pokorney, Jr., 31, Nye, NV, 2nd Lieutenant, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade

Thomas J. Slocum, 22, Adams, CO, Lance Corporal, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade

Brian Rory Buesing, 20, Cedar Key, FL, Lance Corporal, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade

Randal Kent Rosacker, 21, San Diego, Corporal, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade

Jamall R. Addison, 22, Roswell, GA, Army Specialist, 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company

Howard Johnson II, 21, Mobile, AL, Army Private First Class, 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company

Nicolas M. Hodson, 22, Smithville, MO, Sergeant, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade

Gregory P. Sanders, 19, Hobart, IN, Army Specialist, 69th Armor

Evan James, 20, La Harpe, IL, Marine Corporal, 4th Force Service Support Group

Bradley S. Korthaus, 28, Scott, IA, Marine Sergeant, 4th Force Service Support Group

Gregory Stone, 40, Boise, ID, Major, Idaho Air National Guard

Michael Vann Johnson, Jr., 25, Little Rock, AR, Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class, 3rd Marine Divisoin Detachment

This list, I am sure, could already be made longer. It could be further expanded with the names of those who have died in "accidents" that would not have happened but for the war, and with the names of the British soldiers who have already fallen. It could also, of course, be expanded to many, many times its present length, were I to make room in it for the names of all the Iraqis, soldiers and civilians alike, who have perished so far. And it would gather force and meaning from each and every addition. These lists, as we all know, can get very long. The most powerful war memorial I have ever seen consists largely of such a list--over 2000 times longer than the one displayed here. And it too, of course, represents but a small fraction of the full human cost of that conflict whose American military dead it so movingly commemorates.

I find that I can not think of those words--the ones on that wall, I mean--without thinking of this obscure historical fact, which has haunted me since I first read it, in Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: In 1945 or '46, Ho Chi Minh appealed to the United States to defend his country against the French attempt, then just getting under way, at recolonization. Ho's forces and the Americans (specifically the OSS, wartime precursor of the CIA) had worked together to oppose the Japanese invaders, and this, combined with Roosevelt's (and later Truman's) bluntly expressed antipathy toward colonialism, must have convinced Ho that it was at least worth a try. He offered to make Vietnam a U.S. protectorate, and to open it to U.S. business investment. He sent many telegrams to Truman bearing this message. None was ever answered (unless our subsequent support for the French, followed by our full assumption of their role, is supposed to have been the answer).

I can help but wondering: What other messages of hope in America's wavering faithfulness to its own ideals are gathering dust in some world-historical dead letter office? Is there one there that might have helped to steer the Middle East away from its present swirl of statelessness, oligarchy, despotism, tyranny and terror--and, in so doing, avoided the necessity, or the pretended necessity (call it what you will) of the present war? Is there one being received even now, that might yet avert the need for another long, long list, to be drawn up ten or twenty years hence?

"War is a last resort" may well be one of those verbal coins that is so worn out from excessive handling as to be nearly worthless. Still, it was minted because it had a use. It was intended to call attention to the fact that war is the perfect inversion, or perversion, of every sane idea of social good. In war, all that is most perfectly destructive of human living together becomes the conscious goal of the participants: not to preserve the human-made world but to hasten its destruction, not to save lives but to snuff them out with maximum efficiency, not to avoid human suffering but to heighten it. The effort to hedge in the violence of war with various systems of rules (theories of just war, international laws and conventions for its conduct, unilateral rules of engagement such as those in use today by U.S. and British troops to lessen civilian casualties) stems from the consciousness that, given the so to speak internal goals of warfare, those who wage it are kept from descent into sheer collective madness only by the persistent subordination of the logic of war to the ends of peace. "The end of war is peace" said Aristotle. You can think of this as irony, or hypocrisy--provided you can also recognize in it the thread a civilized mind lays down to try to find its way back from the underworld into which it is preparing to descend.

The problem is that the thread can get so played out, and twisted round, that it snaps. We know too well from the history not only of modern warfare but also of "rationalized" social organization of all kinds, that the more a given means diverges in spirit from its putative end, the more it tends to become its own master, an "end in itself." And war, in which means and end naturally diverge most sharply--in which the means employed are most completely emancipated from the spirit of the end at which they are supposed to aim--constitutes a kind of perfect standing temptation for letting the instrument give birth to the goal. Sooner or later, the temptation wins. This is the moment when when the target list is expanded to include civilian areas, when the village is destroyed in order to save it, when the bureaucrat presses home his case for taking up the "burden" of empire, and everyone round the table nods in solemn agreement.