By Peter P. Mahoney
Ok, let me get my reservations out up front. I am someone whose self-identification is based on a period in my life of two years ten months and twenty-two days duration that ended some forty-two years ago. So, yes, I have used the fact of being a Vietnam veteran to give myself some small amount of status in the world. Perhaps what I like most is that what I have to say often presents a contrast to what most people expect to hear from veterans. Veterans in American society, after all, have traditionally played the role of cheerleaders for the next war. I, for one, have always refused to pick up the pompoms.
Make no mistake. It’s a fuckin hard balancing act, trying to maintain some sort of pride in your military service, even as you are criticizing the institution in which your service was rendered. And the fact is, on some level, I have NO real pride in having been a soldier – and all that it entailed. Being a soldier SUCKS. You give up your freedom, your individuality. You check your rights as an American citizen at the recruiter’s door. There is no place for softness, for sensitivity, for empathy. You are taught – some would say brainwashed – to be hard, cold, unfeeling — an unthinking, uncritical automaton who will do things without question that you would never think of doing as a civilian. You are taught to kill other human beings. You are given a whole science of murder and mayhem and violence, and you are rewarded – indeed HONORED – for being a skillful practitioner.
“What is the spirit of the Bayonet? To KILL.”
Yes, there is another side of being in the military, of being in war. Let’s be honest, it’s a fuckin rush, Jack. There is no feeling that I have ever experienced that comes close to being in combat. You are utterly terrified, each second that passes can perhaps be your last, you watch in horror as some around you experience that last second, and you feel so utterly, incredibly ALIVE as each of those potential last seconds passes. And you look down at your best friend, his brains splattered all over the ground (Scaramouche, Scaramouche, can you do the fandango?), and in that brief moment as his life terminates, you are glad – fuckin THRILLED – that it was him instead of you. Yeah, war is a rush, man, a great, guilty pleasure, the triumph of the id over the super-ego. It is the ultimate test of manhood. I stood (or laid) across from another man who tried to kill me, and I am here and he is not. I am a man. I killed, therefore I AM. The second thoughts come later, sometimes, or sometimes they do not come at all.
The pride I may feel now does not come from what I did, or had to do. It is bestowed on me by others, who somehow look up to me, think maybe I’m something special, because I was a soldier in war once upon a time. It comes from the fact that, as terrible and difficult and traumatic as that experience in war was, the person I am today – the person I am proud of being today – was formed by that experience. It comes from the fact that I have tried to use that experience as a tool to teach others, particularly youngsters, the things I learned the hard way. Not an easy lesson, always. I used to speak in high school classes as what we called a “counter-recruiter”. I thought I would just go in there, and tell them of the horrors of being in war, and that would convince them. Then I saw those eager young faces, lapping up everything I could dredge up from the depths of my soul, images of glory and honor and manhood dancing in their eyes, and I knew that “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” would probably win the day.
So where am I going with all this, beyond the jaded rantings of a faded warrior? It is this.
I have a bumper sticker on the back of my car “Honor the Warrior, not the War”. It’s produced by the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and I pasted it on my car because it identifies me as an anti-war veteran. But now I have a question:
Why do we honor warriors?
What is it about warriors or ex-warriors that deserves such unquestioning adulation? Why do we not honor teachers, or doctors, or EMTs, or research scientists, or musicians, or poets in the same way? Why warriors?
Certainly, having served in the military gives no one a monopoly on “The Truth”. On the contrary. Where do the right-wing politicians go for a friendly audience for their latest militaristic adventure stories? Why, military and veteran audiences, of course. Actually, my stance as an anti-war veteran is made more special precisely because there are so few military or ex-military who would stand for the same things. I admit, a few times when arguing a point on a blog, I have tried to silence an adversary with the line, essentially “I am right because I was in the military, and you were not!” It is, of course, a bullshit argument. My point should always stand or fall on its own, and not be given any additional credibility based on how I spent three years of my youth. So, there it is. Even as I question the status my service has given me, I use it when it suits my purposes.
Yes, there are some outstanding individuals in the military. Sure, the ranks are filled with misguided patriotic youth, “ardent for some desperate glory” (hey, I was one, once), and economic draftees looking to learn a trade and escape the `hood. Sure, the Guard is packed with ordinary Joes and Janes, trying to make a few bucks to support that mortgage, or make that car payment, or save for that kid’s college. But there is also a plethora of careerists, boot-lickers, sadists, thugs, crooks, and mediocrities who populate this most reactionary of our national institutions. When I was in the Army, the highest praise – praise which was rather uncommon – heard for a “lifer” was “He could have made it on the outside.”
So why do we honor warriors? Is it not a reflection of the militaristic sub-text that has pervaded American life since WWII? Economic fortunes and political careers have been built on the myth of the great external threat. First communism, now terrorism. These “threats” keep us living in fear, unable to question, unable to offer an alternative point of view. If we are so “threatened”, of course, then we need protectors. The glorification of the military and the adulation of the warrior are part and parcel of the myth used to keep us in our place.
But wait; it gets better. Here it is: the Royal Scam. Create the climate of fear, foster adulation for the warriors who “protect” us, then use them to rape the rest of the world, while we sit by and applaud their efforts.
Rape? Yes, does anyone question the connection between the macho, militaristic glorification of “The Warrior”, and the treatment of women in our society? Do the two not flow from the same source? Rape is a crime of violence, of power, of subjugation. Is it any wonder that a society that so celebrates the cult of the warrior would not also be so tolerant of the rapists who walk among us?
And what of so-called progressives? How many of us feel compelled to preface any anti-war remarks with “Of course, I support the troops, but …”? Why? Because we have bought into the myth – the right-wing meme – that supporting the troops, honoring the warriors, is a fundamental component of patriotism, and one cannot “patriotically” oppose the war unless one also supports the troops. But how do you support the troops without supporting the mission they are undertaking? How do you honor the warriors, but not the war? And if, indeed, these cannot be separated – the troops from the mission, the warrior from the war – then why are we supporting and honoring those who are the instruments of the policies we oppose?
Well, I don’t really know the answer to that question, not, at least, in the frame in which it is asked. I frame it differently.
Is not the education of our children a matter of national security? Is not the health of our citizens a matter of national security? Is not the financial well-being of our nation a matter of national security? Which is the better expenditure of funds for national security, funds for education, health, and economic well-being, or funds for military hardware? Which is the better way to deal with national security issues, military force to bend other nations to our will, or diplomacy to solve issues cooperatively? Is national security only about guns and bombs and soldiers, or is it something more?
So what of “the troops”? Do we call them baby-killers and spit on them when they come home? Do we blame them for the failed policies of the government that sent them, as many did to the returning troops from Vietnam (I remember well the insinuation of the WWII vet at the VFW bar, “Well, we won OUR war.”)? Do we forget about them, and leave them to suffer in private with the physical and spiritual wounds they will come back with?
Of course we don’t. We show respect for the individuals who have earned it. We give assistance to those who need it. We work our butts off to get them out of harm’s way quickly, and we resolve that we will never sit by and allow them to be put in such a situation again.
A soldier’s job is tough, it’s brutal, it’s sometimes necessary.
Honorable? Frankly, I’m not so sure.