February 19, 2006

Against Sentimentality, and In Praise of Cowardice

War isn’t hell at all. It’s man at his best; the highest morality he's capable of … it’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes war: it’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us – it’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved.


I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war. ... It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a Hell it is. And it’s always the widows who lead the Memorial Day parades … we shall never end wars ... by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widows’ weeds like nuns and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio – an everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud.


[Y]ou see, now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September. May be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave.
-- Charlie Madison, in The Americanization of Emily
If I believed in such mandatory programs, I would say that The Americanization of Emily should be required viewing for every American over the age of ten. Such a requirement might prove especially salutary today, when we remain in the grip of war fever to a profoundly disturbing degree. This remains true even as the pointlessness of the Iraq catastrophe slowly seeps into the American consciousness.

Chris Hedges writes about the "mythic reality" of war. This mythic view of war -- which is to say, this fictitious and utterly false view of war -- suffuses our culture. Even though the invasion and occupation of Iraq have led to nothing but results that undercut the alleged goals of the Bush administration in every single respect, war as myth still exerts its hold over us. As Hedges describes it:
We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects--eventually in the form of corpses.
The myth prevails for us in large part because it ties into another myth, the one that most Americans believe to one degree or another about our country and its special role in the world. I've described that myth and its consequences in some detail in a recent installment of my Iran series, as well as in an earlier essay, Myths of New Orleans. And as I discussed in another recent essay, our national myth is a narrower version of a more general Western myth, one founded on a particular conception of "Western superiority."

Paddy Chayefsky is undoubtedly best-known for his brilliant screenplay for Network. (By the way, I see that a special two-disc edition of that film is about to be released in a few weeks. I shamelessly note that I've already added it to my Wishlist.) As remarkable an achievement as Network is (and I would rank it very high on a list of best films), I think The Americanization of Emily is more deeply courageous in several important ways. When Network was released in 1976, many media-watchers readily conceded the innocuousness and outright stupidity of much of the fare on television -- although we can still despair at the breakneck speed with which the networks have exceeded even the most outlandish and outrageous of Chayefsky's imaginings.

But The Americanization of Emily attacks myths that are more fundamental to our view of ourselves and of our nation. It is even more remarkable when you consider that the film debuted in 1964, barely one generation after the conclusion of the last "good war." And the events in Emily center around one of the "noblest" episodes of World War II: the D-Day invasion. The above excerpts from Chayefsky's screenplay capture the essence of his approach to this material: it is infinitely more than merely unsentimental, it is relentlessly and mercilessly anti-sentimental. As Charlie says: "I'm not sentimental about war. I see nothing noble in widows."

Many of the propagandists for war, 40 years ago and ever since -- and up to and most definitely including today -- consider Emily to be "anti-American" and "anti-war." It certainly is all that and more -- if your view of war is the mythic one. But Chayefsky rejects the myth and all its various aspects totally and across the board. It is unjustified to conclude that Chayefsky is "anti-war" in the sense of advocating pacifism: such a view finds no support in the film. But what Chayefsky does convey is just as threatening to the war lovers: while he may view some wars as absolutely necessary and required, that still does not make any war a "good" one, in the affirmative sense. Any war, even one dictated by the demands of self-defense, is immensely destructive and causes untold suffering. Much of that suffering is endured by people who are entirely innocent.

Chayefsky's target is the one identified by Charlie: it is the glorification of war, and the countless ways in which all of us "honor the institution." We build statues of our war heroes and name streets after them; we erect shrines to the dead. We insist on the "ideals" for which we fought, and the "goodness" of our intentions. Many of us do this in the misdirected and destructive search for "meaning" in our lives: our own stunted souls prevent us from finding fulfillment and happiness in our individual lives, so we look for "glory" by climbing over endless piles of corpses.

And what is lost in all of this is the unbearable horror and pain inflicted on individual human beings, and the particularized, specific costs of our quest for glory, or meaning, or "national greatness," or honor.

I watched The Americanization of Emily again this weekend. I hadn't seen it for some years. In the midst of our mawkish, militantly anti-intellectual and cheaply sentimentalized culture, it is like having frigid water thrown in your face. It is exhilarating, and I strongly recommend the experience to you. I very much doubt that anyone would dare to make such a film today, and offer it to the American public. Given the viciousness of the war propagandists' media machine, I cannot say that I would blame filmmakers for being enormously reluctant to run this gauntlet. We live in a culture where serious criticism of the Bush administration's foreign policy is eagerly construed as tantamount to treason, and where pointed questions are taken as an admission that you are "on the other side," cheering for the triumph of our nation's enemies.

This is the very mentality that Chayefsky attacks at every point. In principle, his rejection of the terms of debate is not unlike Patrick Henry's approach: "If this be treason, make the most of it." In the same way, Charlie rejects the mindless glorification of war, together with its necessary denial of the incomprehensible pain that war always causes. Charlie refuses to argue or fight on those terms. Thus, he says: "I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved." That is how you reject the propagandists' approach: you accept what they offer as damnation, and proudly and unapologetically throw it back in their faces.

The most dishonest and contemptible of the war propagandists' techniques is their insistence that an attack on our foreign policy is a failure to "support the troops." One might observe that, if one were dedicated to "supporting the troops," one would not send them into battle with less than the best equipment and protection, or that one would ensure that injured soldiers receive only the very best of care -- all of which this administration has failed to provide. Most importantly, one would not send soldiers into battle unless it were unquestionably and irrefutably required for our nation's self-defense.

The war in Iraq completely fails this most important test of all. So much for the willingness of the administration and its defenders to "support the troops": they have condemned our military to death and horrific injury for much less than nothing. They have condemned many of the survivors of this conflict to lifelong physical and psychological torment because the instigators of this war choose to inflict their own agonies and failings on others -- and they insist that others pay the costs they refuse to endure themselves.

And a still worse lie is the one repeatedly told by our president: that if we were to "cut and run," that would transform the loss of life and suffering already borne into a "meaningless" sacrifice. But admitting a catastrophic mistake and correcting one's course does not make such pain "meaningless": that unforgivable aim was accomplished by the policy itself and all those who support it.

The defenders of our disastrous policy still insist on their terms of debate, and they refuse to give up their necessary myths. In such a setting, cowardice becomes the most valiant of choices. And remember this: if you encourage still more death and further destruction on a still wider scale, you do so for the cheapest and most sentimental of reasons -- and because you will not relinquish the delusions that permit you to believe your life has "meaning," only because you know no other way to achieve your own happiness.

Paddy Chayefsky died far too young, at the age of 58. I wish he were still with us for many reasons, and we can only imagine the wondrous creations he might have given us since he died in 1981. And I would dearly love to see how he might have treated the war lovers and propagandists who have so successfully overwhelmed our culture today. I strongly suspect that the fully deserved shame Chayefsky might have caused them finally to experience would slow them down to an extent that could prevent the next war.

If cowardice won't save us, a few writers of Chayefsky's stature and genuinely great talent just might.