Seven years ago this March a lawyer in this office was arrested for uttering the word “why.”
He had just returned from court, then walked a block to join the rest of the staff, gathered on a street corner supporting several dozen people sitting in our small burg’s main street, protesting George II’s lighting the fuse on Operation Iraqi Fiefdom. Shortly before his arrival, state agents had announced that those on the sidewalks needed to leave. Unbeknownst to us then, even officers in our little town had received the memo: the new tactic was to dissolve such assemblies by first dispersing and, if necessary, arresting the observers, rather than the observed.
The lawyer had not been present for that announcement. When he reached the corner, and asked us what was going on, before we could reply a gendarme brusquely informed him that he needed to leave the sidewalk. He then asked, as would any reasonable American, “why?” His arms were immediately pulled behind his back, he was cuffed, arrested, and frog-marched to a waiting bus.
I recall this event often. For the word “why” is the one word that those who promote and pursue war never want uttered. Because following that word to its inevitable conclusion always exposes the Potemkin facade erected to excuse senseless slaughter.
From time to time appear approving citations to the 2000-year-old recruiting poster from Horace: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Translated as: “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
It is a lie. A foul, suppurating lie. Wilfred Owen, a man who actually did die for his country, machine-gunned to death a week before the end of WWI, knew it to be a lie, and exposed it as such in his poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est.”
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Every human being who ever died in any war died in vain. WWII South Pacific combat veteran James Jones knew this. Transported by his friend William Styron to the Lincoln Memorial, Jones had this reaction:
Jim’s face was set like a slab, his expression murky and aggrieved, as we stood on the marble reading the Gettysburg Address engraved against one lofty wall, slowly scanning those words of supreme magnanimity and conciliation and brotherhood dreamed by the fellow Illinoisan whom Jim had venerated, as almost everyone does, for tran-scendental reasons that needed not to be analyzed or explained in such a sacred hall. I suppose I was expecting the conventional response from Jim, the pious hum. But his reaction, soft-spoken, was loaded with savage bitterness, and for an instant it was hard to absorb. “It’s just beautiful bullshit,” he blurted. “They all died in vain. They all died in vain. And they always will!”
Jones knew these dead. He had communed with them, often, as he labored to complete The Thin Red Line, that occasionally fictionalized account of his sentence to Guadalcanal. He had come to understand that:
The dead, frozen like flies in plastic, realized—at the moment of death when of course they stopped—that humanity must grow to feeling, to empathy, or become extinct. But the dead cannot speak.
Jones sought to speak for them. Just as songster Ray Davies spoke for all those who had died, over all those centuries, “for England”:
all the stories have been told
of kings and days of old
but there’s no England now
all the wars that were won and lost
somehow don’t seem to matter very much anymore
All the wars, all the bloodshed, all the deaths, all the lies, perpetrated in the name of “England,” were all a waste, every one, for “there’s no England now.” All that’s left today of “England,” what all that fighting and dying was for, comes down to an aged, tiny woman, fond of sherry and surrounded by corgis, tippling in a high-backed chair, her dogs at her feet, an I-pod bud impacted in the wax of her ear.
The various events that seek to solemnize and sanctify the endless senseless slaughters that have occurred across this globe, throughout the millennia, are frauds. Every one. Their purpose is but to console the commemorators, reassure them that they are not complicit in constructing and condoning charnel houses. At such events people confront an abattoir, and pronounce it a perfumed garden. They are poisonous rituals of dark magic.
Willi Heinrich served four years as a combat infantryman in the German army during WWII. He tramped over 8000 miles of Russian territory, to the suburbs of Moscow and back again. Over the course of his service in it, his division lost 12 times its original strength. He was severely wounded on five separate occasions. He knew how service such as his should rightly be commemorated. He set it forth in his novel The Crumbling Fortress, speaking through a hunted German Jew:
For the French Verdun is something like a national shrine, but in the wrong sense, it seems to me. Instead of pointing a warning the military achievement is glorified. But that is not the way to speak for those who paved the road to Verdun with their bones. When we sing the national anthem in a military cemetery it is, of course, a very moving event, but it distorts the true nature of the matter. We should rig up giant loudspeakers and relay recordings of the screams of the wounded and dying and then no one would ever forget that cemetery[.]
We ought not to play anthems over their graves or make solemn speeches in remembrance of them. A people which is proud of its war dead has learned nothing from the war. This is only my personal opinion, but as long as we have no stronger feelings than a bad conscience about our dead when we talk of them, then there will always be other wars. It all began with falsehood and it will one day finish with falsehood: that is what I mean by inevitability. Lies breed death, death breeds lies and so it goes on. By distorting the meaning of our existence we have legitimized mass murder.
What is to be done?
First, it is time to gently lay to rest the “warrior” ethos, in all its permutations. This world doesn’t need any more warriors. What it needs are healers.
Second, honor should flow more towards those who do not serve, rather than those who do. To those who choose a prison uniform, rather than sing the executioner’s song. To those who elect to opt out of the contract, when they would be deployed as exterminators.
As Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien concludes in “On The Rainy River,” a piece in which he describes deciding not to slip over the border into Canada: “I was a coward. I went to the war.”
Third, heed the wisdom of Harry Behret. Who brought back from his service in Vietnam this conviction:
The only thing I got out of it is that I have a five-year-old son, and he ain’t gonna do what I did. My experience will help in that respect. I think there’s been a Behret in every fucking war in this country’s history, but there ain’t gonna be no more Behrets in no more wars.
It should not be possible to enter a military recruiting station in this country without first passing through people committed to counter-recruiting. As tiggers thotful spot first proposed on the Great Pumpkin more than three years ago, a new sort of “Operation Rescue” should be inaugurated and vigorously pursued, one which strives to prevent any more sausage from walking eyes wide shut into the sausage-grinder.
People gifted with money, such as George Soros, should be prevailed upon to divert the resources that, say, they currently devote to ballot initiatives seeking the decriminalization of marijuana—particularly as it opium cultivation which should be decriminalized, as opium has a demonstrated 30,000-year medical history, and one of relieving pains that marijuana cannot hope to touch—and instead deposit those monies into a fund that can be drawn upon by those who would otherwise succumb to the lure of the recruiter for economic reasons. Anyone considering slipping inside a uniform should instead be enabled to receive an equivalent amount of money to remain free of such clothes.
Military recruiters should be absolutely forbidden from dragging their dark arts into the nation’s schools. Until they are so prohibited, they must be countered with equal time devoted to people like Harry Behret, arriving with visual and aural aids like Heinrich’s “recordings of the screams of the wounded and dying.”
This would serve too as an excellent opportunity to impress upon young people that there is not a single reason on earth why the United States needs a military. The Founders did not intend this country to maintain a standing army, which is why the Constitution specifically prohibits army appropriations of more than two years. The US is at peace with its neighbors, Canada and Mexico; therefore, it does not need an army. So the army should be eliminated. As the only legitimate use for an air force is in support of ground troops, it should be eliminated as well. The Marines need to be folded back into the Navy, from whence they sprang; they are support troops for ships, that’s all they are; that they are sent to fight in landlocked countries like Afghanistan is madness. Of course, since we already possess a Coast Guard, perfectly capable of patrolling the waters of the continental United States (Alaska and Hawaii are imperial possessions, and should be permitted to break free, as should all overseas territories, possessions, protectorates, and the like), we can go ahead and get rid of the Navy, too—Marines and all. Make a clean sweep.
Young people can and should also be told what we older people so often forget: that when they start lining up the meat wagons, they always have good “reasons.” Though those “reasons” are always lies.
As George Orwell observed:
Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defence against a homicidal maniac.
The truth is that any real advance, let alone any genuinely revolutionary change, can only begin when the mass of the people definitely refuse  war and thus make it clear to their rulers that a war policy is not practicable. So long as they show themselves willing to fight “in defence of democracy,” or “against Fascism,” or for any other flyblown slogan, the same trick will be played upon them again and again[.]
When invited to become a corpse in order to prevent The Latest Outrage, it is well, as Lenny Bruce suggested, to first consult the corpses whose lives ended combatting The Previous Outrage:
I was at Anzio. I lived in a continual state of ambivalence: guilty but glad. Glad I wasn’t the GI enjoying that final ‘no-wake-up-call’ sleep on his blood-padded mud mattress. It would be interesting to hear his comment if we could grab a handful of his hair, drag his head out of the dirt and ask his opinion on the questions that are posed every decade, the contemporary shouts of: “How long are we going to put up with Cuba’s nonsense?” “Just how many insults can we take from Russia?”
I was at Salerno. I can take a lot of insults.
Finally, it is important to remain awake and alive to the fact that the culture is permeated with invocations of the will to slaughter.
In early 1977 two films were in post-production at a film studio in England. The first was Cross of Iron, which Orson Welles later pronounced, correctly, the finest anti-war film ever made. But when it was released, no one wanted to go see it—except in Germany, where it was perceived, wrongly, as a vindication of soldiers such as Heinrich. Director Sam Peckinpah threw up his hands, went back to the States, dived back into the coke bindle, and signed on to direct the execrable Convoy, which became his only unqualified commercial success, based as it was on a kitschy C&W song celebrating truckers and CB radios.
Down the hall from the Cross of Iron editing crew labored the Mordorites who inflicted upon the world Star Wars. A film that ebulliently spread mass sunny slaughter into outer space. That offered a penultimate sequence which, as German director Wim Wenders noted with no little outrage, aped frame-for-frame a celebrated portion of Triumph of the Will. That opened with the obliteration of an entire world, and all the creatures on it, an event which the filmmakers asked the audience to accept with less emotion than the later Perils-of-Pauline tribulations of a pair of bumbling robots. Nick an R2, and the heartstrings are tugged. Exterminate a planet, and the billions of people upon it, and blithely chew the snack-bar cud. So you’ll be ready, the day that they come for you, to tell you that it’s time to drag or be dragged, out on the killing floor.