Lessons on the Meaning(lessness) of War

Soldiers are imbued with war’s transcendent purpose, and despair when it is all for naught


In the 1960’s young American men were, once again, called to duty to protect their country from tyranny. In this case, the imminent threat was an innocuous rural nation called Vietnam. Many Americans had never heard of this place, but they were informed that Vietnam was under threat from evil communism. If the rice paddies of the Mekong were to fall to the Reds, it would not be long before Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia were receiving orders from Moscow and Beijing. Then Japan would fall. Soon, America would be alone, surrounded by the Red menace, until the hammer and sickle flew over the White House and democracy was lost forever. The danger was clear, and the only course of action was for brave men to fight and kill and possibly die for democracy. Over 2.7 million men answered the call to protect their country. According to the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation, three quarters of these were volunteers (as opposed to World War II in which two thirds of those serving were drafted).

In April of 1975, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam fell to the People’s Army. Vietnam was unified under a communist regime despite almost 60,000 American deaths. More ordinance was dropped on Vietnam than in both theaters of World War II, yet communism prevailed. I’m sure that the thousands of veterans who put their lives on the line to save Vietnam from communism, who lost cherished friends in battle, whose lives had been scarred by the horrors of war, felt the pang of defeat to the bottom of their souls.

Vietnam has been a communist nation for almost thirty years now. Yet Japan remains free, the Stars and Stripes still fly over the White House and life has gone on as it would have regardless of American involvement in one of its most destructive wars. Indeed, the only dictatorships to rise in the region were hardly communist dominoes. They were largely brutal American puppet states, divorced from concepts of human rights and freedom, but committed to anti-communism.

Time has a way of lifting the fog of rhetoric and propaganda, revealing the truth. In this case, the truth is obvious. The American war in Vietnam and Indo-China was a colossal and bloody waste of time, money, and most crucially, precious lives. No one feels the sting of that revelation like the Vietnam veteran. Something precious, something beyond measure was stolen from him. Something precious, something beyond measure was stolen from his entire generation. Righteous anger is the only reasonable response. The reality revealed by the Fall of Saigon is that war is always a lie; in the words of General Smedley Butler in reference to much earlier wars, “war is a racket.”

Few wars are as blatantly racketish as the Iraq War. That Americans were lied to by an Administration determined to go into Iraq for its own reasons, oil, revenge, to finish “the job” of the first Gulf War, is beyond contention. Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. Iraq did not have connections to al-Qaeda. Iraq was not a threat, and not involved in 9/11. Iraqis would not view American soldiers as liberators and throw roses at their feet. Instead, despite the fall of Saddam Hussein, American soldiers found themselves serving double and triple tours in unrelentingly hostile territory as competing factions vied to fill the power vacuum left by a fallen dictator. America, on the other hand, is no more free, and perhaps even less safe, as a result.

The epitome of the American soldier’s service and sacrifice in Iraq were the Battles for Fallujah in 2004. Despite initial setbacks, US forces faught bravely through the city streets in brutal, urban combat. Marines were tasked with nullifying the threat of insurgents, often engaging the enemy door to door. At the cost of almost a hundred American lives and as many as 1500 insurgents, the city was secured. Most of the city itself was damaged, with about twenty percent of its structures destroyed.

This last month, however, Fallujah fell to al Qaeda backed insurgents, many of whom were those the Marines drove out ten years earlier. The fall of Fallujah came as a shock and an emotional slap in the face to soldiers who had risked their lives, and seen the lives of their friends and comrads sacrificed. According to Adam Banotai, quoted in the Washington Post, “None of us thought it was going to fall back to a jihadist insurgency… It made me sick to my stomach to have that thrown in our face, everything we fought for so blatantly taken away.” It sure seemed that everything they had faught for was a waste.

It was also a lie. As with the Fall of Saigon, the Fall of Fallujah is certainly of no more than emotional and symbolic consequence to the United States. Americans will be no less free, nor any less safe than they were before the Fall of Fallujah. Iraq has, for the most part, become a second tier news story. Soldiers must now face the bleak revelation that their mission, and the rational behind their actions does not jive with historical reality. We must all realize that these fine soldiers, often referred to as “treasure” by shifty elected officials, were victims of a racket. In this, they are not alone.

This statement should not be seen as a criticism of our soldiers. Rather, it is an attempt to illuminate the nature of state sanctioned violence and the inherent contradictions of a system that is at once a practical tool for advancing power interests, and at the same time a system made functional by rational and emotional agents…human beings with human drives, strengths and frailties. It’s in these moments, the Fall of Saigon, or Fallujah, when the contradictory nature of our so called national “defense” comes to light. Here we have an inherently violent institution, the functions of which are satisfied by human beings who are not, in and of themselves, violent. How can such a system function, and what are the human costs in perpetuating this system?

The truth is that militarism can only be perpetuated by lies.

The sociologist, Lewis Coser posited that there were two factors necessary to perpetuate group violence, of which war is the ultimate testament: emotional involvement and the formation of transcendant goals. As offered above, the reasons offered for going to war with Iraq were clearly not true, but they were emotional, that initial emotion being fear. The Bush Administration cynically played against Americans’ understandable sense vulnerability after 9/11 to push a long-standing agenda. It is clear that the Bush Administration was intent on a war with Iraq long before there was even a Bush Administration. This was clear from the revelations that the Bush Administration drew heavily from the adherents of the Project for a New American Century, whose primary goal was the unseating of Saddam Hussein. After 9/11, administration officials pushed the notion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and scared us with a nightmare fable of a mushroom cloud rising over an American city.

Meanwhile, the hair-trigger of the American military is greased with a sense of transcendance. It’s our soldiers who are credited for our freedoms, our rights. Every celebration of and reference to Americanism, including most notably Independence Day, has become an homage to militarism. It is, therefore, understood that our fighting men and women are dedicated to the task of democracy, of freedom, of human rights. The Battle of Fallujah was not just another tactic in a larger political game; it was the key to extending freedom to the Iraqi people. One marine said, “I hoped that the people of Fallujah could finally live in peace.” It was not about oil, or revenge or any such mundane political gambit. Equally, Vietnam was about saving a nation from the ravages of communism, not about the expansion of geopolitical power. More often than not, however, the veil of transcendence is nothing more than the smoke and mirrors supporting an elaborate lie. Upon the Fall of Fallujah, the same marine above opined, “It’s a low blow. We fought long and hard to take that city. It’s as if they didn’t care about the freedom we wanted to give them.”

Hence we end up tongue tied in our attempts to understand the scope of human loss experienced by soldiers who are also loved ones, friends, fellow workers. We are struck by the disillusionment expressed by Kael Weston’s observation of the Fall of Fallujah, “This has been a gut punch to the morale of the Marine Corps and painful for a lot of families who are saying, ‘I thought my son died for a reason.’ ” How do we, when faced with these families, say it was a lie? It is easier to offer consolation by reciting the transcendant virtues we have been taught to uphold, yet can’t possibly accept as true. It becomes necessary to delude ourselves.

Yet the truth is more complex, more contradictory. Yes, your son’s did die for a reason. They were imbued with perfectly noble goals for which the agrieved should be proud. The loss, however, is on the heads of politicians who use these transcendant goals for cynical purpose. They are the ones who should be held to account, to explain the deaths and debilitations resulting from their policies.

This is what makes war the most vile of all rackets. In order to perpetrate the con on millions of people, our politicians play on our most noble virtues, our quest for freedom and our desire to protect our loved ones from danger. These virtues are true and honest representations of human nature. It’s the nature of politics and state power that proves to be dishonest and disreputable.


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