Last September, I visited the US World War I museum in Kansas City. It's a fine museum, state-of-the-art with clever wall displays, interactive sections, large, graphically sophisticated posters. A full-scale trench wraps around half of the museum space. In some sections, when you poke your head in to get a better look at an overturned cart or whatever, you'll hear a voice reading a text from a soldier's diary, describing life in the trenches. It's brilliant, even if the ultimate emotional effect is one of dread, depression, and sorrow.
|Kaiser Willhem II|
For all their artfulness and with all their considerable skills, the museum creators were stumped by one, very important issue: how to present the cause of the war. They couldn't. They, no more than any other historian I've read, could not point out a single moment when the dogs of war had to be let loose. They, like the other historians, cite a list of conditions. Social unrest. Colonial empires brushing up against each other, and setting off sparks. German nationalism. British suspicion. French resentment of the 1870 defeat.
This is nothing new. I recently finished Livy's histories of the Second Punic War. He couldn't really point to a good cause for the start of that one, either. Some dispute over a town in Spain nearly wiped out Roman control of Italy and Rome itself. Later, it essentially destroyed Carthage.
I admire bravery and courage. Courage, in particular, is the virtue that makes all other virtues possible. (If you're well behaved because you're afraid, that doesn't matter -- you're not being good at all.) If a horde were to crest the hill overlooking my town, I would fight them with whatever I had -- gun, knife, tooth, fingernail. I am as certain of this as I am of anything in my life. I would gladly die to protect my wife, my children and my home.
But being in a modern army? Who was braver that the Polish cavalry in 1939? Who is braver that a Pashtun horseman, the descendant of generations of warriors that defeated Alexander the Great, the British, and the Soviets? And yet, for all his courage, all a guy sitting at a computer monitor in Arizona has to do is target a drone and shoot a missile up the ass of that Pashtun's noble steed and it's all . . . vapor.
Soldiers, and I hate to say this, you're tools. Even with your training, your bravery, your brotherhood and your cruelty you're pieces of a machine. Why you'd take that decision to risk your life for a strategic theory put out by some neocon wonk is beyond me. You're not helping anyone at home. Maybe you're working out your shitty life or getting away from the assholes at home or proving something to someone. Maybe you're an idealist who really thinks that something called a country cares about you.
Well, it doesn't. We've been at war for nearly 10 years now, and the deaths of your comrades are relegated to small type. Journalists and politicians exploit you when they think it will do their careers any good. That's not very often, by the way. Out here, most people are more worried about their bank accounts than some blood soaked alley in Kunduz. Few people are even taking the time to check out the movies or the documentaries or the books being written about you.
I don't know much directly. I haven't been in a battle. I myself thought about joining up, once. I went as far as to chat with a recruiter. He was so plainly stupid that I suddenly remembered that yes, that's what the army is. Taking orders from idiots. You have to take orders from brilliant people, too. I know there are men much smarter and much braver than I am in the service. Back then, though, I decided that I'd like to choose which orders I obey.
But I read history. I admire the exploits of Fabius Maximus and Robert E. Lee. But you need to wake up. To paraphrase, you're not warriors. You're not soldiers. You're errand boys sent by clerks to collect a bill.