June 15, 2008

Searching for Order, Meaning and Miracles, as the World Cracks Apart

Earlier, there had occurred in F Company the event known as the Great Turkey Shoot. In a deep crater in a forest, someone had come upon a squad or two of Germans, perhaps fifteen or twenty in all. Their visible wish to surrender -- most were in tears of terror and despair -- was ignored by our men lining the rim. Perhaps some of our prisoners had recently been shot by the Germans. Perhaps some Germans hadn't surrendered fast enough and with suitable signs of contrition. (We were very hard on snotty Nazi adolescents.) Whatever the reason, the Great Turkey Shoot resulted. Laughing and howling, hoo-ha-ing and cowboy and good-old-boy yelling, our men exultantly shot into the crater until every single man down there was dead. A few tried to scale the sides, but there was no escape. If a body twitched or moved at all, it was shot again. The result was deep satisfaction, and the event was transformed into amusing narrative, told and retold over campfires all that winter. If it made you sick, you were not supposed to indicate. I was beginning to understand what a marine sergeant told Philip Caputo during the Vietnam War: "Before you leave here, Sir, you're going to learn that one of the most brutal things in the world is your average nineteen-year-old American boy."
I was in an officers' ward holding about a dozen damaged lieutenants and captains. ... [T]he worst my nurse had to bear was dealing with the colostomy of the man in the bed next to mine. He was a distinctly unpleasant second lieutenant who had been machine-gunned in the stomach. The surgeons had given him a temporary colostomy to serve until his intestines were up to their job again. ...

By misfortune, the side of his belly containing the little pink artificial anus faced my bed, and we were only inches apart. Frequently and regularly, this little opening would announce with a lifelike gurgle that it was going into action, and before help could arrive, horrible dark brown matter would flow out around the edge of the small bandage. This effluent was the foulest I ever smelled. During the whole war I actually prayed to God only two or three times, but once was after one of my neighbor's most hellish eruptions: "Please God, make it stop." ...

Into this little closed-off world of pain, futility, disgust, and tidied-up horror -- the next ward contained thirty soldiers, all with their feet uniformly blown off by Schu-mines -- now and then filtered news of other sufferings and sadnesses. We received the Stars and Stripes daily, and we had a small radio, tuned to the Armed Forces Network. Normally it brought us continuous popular music, but one day it interrupted that to tell us of the death of Roosevelt. I liked and admired FDR, and enjoyed disagreeing with my father about him, that is, after my pacifist period had been brought to a close by Pearl Harbor. I was sorry the president was gone, but after such deaths as I had seen, and caused, another death, even of so elevated a character, seemed not especially significant. I did feel sad that he'd not lived to see the total victory he'd devoted his last years to. If I'd not been a soldier whose powers of sympathy had already been virtually exhausted, I might have been more moved. In Wilfred Owen's poem "Insensibility," which I came upon much later, I found an understanding of the way combat dulls one's sensitivity to the deaths of others. Speaking of experienced soldiers, he writes:

Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the color of blood for ever.
And terror's first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.

Infantry soldiers don't make your best sympathizers.

The little radio also brought us news of the German surrender. To the infantry, that meant not the end of their travail, but merely a shift of venue from Germany to the mainland of Japan, and more of the same, but this time with an enemy even more resolute than the one we knew, who should have quit but chose to tear up our bodies instead. As little joyous celebration now as profound grief at the death of the president. When V-E Day was announced, I did celebrate by consuming a can of warm beer I'd been saving. But there was no pleasure in it. The reason is suggested by Kay Summersby, Eisenhower's British girlfriend. She said of the end of the German war: "No one laughed. No one smiled. It was all over. We had won, but victory was not anything like what I had thought it would be. There was a dull bitterness about it. So many deaths. So much destruction. And everybody was very, very tired." One should notice there the absolute absence of anything like the ideological satisfaction noncombatants and promoters of the notion of "the Good War" would expect. No expression of righteous joy that Nazism had been destroyed or that the United States had been glorified in victory, our dead avenged. When the German war ended, a moment one might think an appropriate occasion for wild celebrations, the troops and those intimate with the mess that was now Europe seemed to agree with the British poet John Pudney that "less said the better." The night before V-E Day was proclaimed, another British poet, Patric Dickinson, wondered what the war, after all, had meant, and came up with the lines,

There are no words to be said. . .
Tomorrow night a war will end.
-- Paul Fussell, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic
Paul Fussell has said, "The truth is that very few people know anything about war." Fussell is among the "very few" who do know; he describes himself as "a superannuated, badly wounded, former infantry lieutenant, a one-time rifle platoon leader who fought in World War II in Europe, and commanded 40 terrified young Americans, many of whom were killed or cruelly wounded."

Anyone who genuinely values human life and who therefore abhors war should read at least three of Fussell's books: Doing Battle, excerpted above; The Great War and Modern Memory, about World War I; and Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War.

In "The Culture of War, and the Culture of Chicken Shit," I excerpted a speech given by Fussell. In that essay, I discussed certain aspects of the causes and operation of our deep-seated, widespread cultural denial, and of the resulting "emotional stupor and dullness that permits the great majority of Americans, including our elected leaders, to avoid the horrifying deaths and injuries that occur daily, if not hourly, in the carnage of Iraq."

Among others, I highlighted these passages from Fussell's speech:
The culture of war, in short, is not like the culture of ordinary peace-time life. It is a culture dominated by fear, blood, and sadism, by irrational actions and preposterous (and often ironic) results. It has more relation to science fiction or to absurdist theater than to actual life, and that makes it hard to describe.


[The culture of war] has other regrettable aspects, one of which is censorship. War kills people; the culture of war does not, but the culture of war kills something precious and indispensable in a civilized society: freedom of utterance, freedom of curiosity, freedom of knowledge. Recently, an official of the Pentagon explained why the military had censored some TV footage depicting Iraqi soldiers cut in half by automatic fire from U.S. helicopters. He explained, "If we let people see that kind of thing there would never again be any war." ... It is obvious that censorship of that type is a necessity in any modern war. It is usually rationalized by the need to keep the enemy in the dark about our plans; it is also valuable to conceal military blunders and war crimes from a public that, in the absence of censorship, might learn to be critical of the military's actions.

Now my point is simple: if you are trained to be uncritical of the military, you can easily go a little further and learn to be uncritical of government and authority, and even to be uncritical of all established and received institutions. The ultimate result is the death of the mind, the transformation of the higher learning and independent scholarship into a cheering section for whatever popular notions and superstitions prevail at the moment. ... I wonder if the habit of unthinking obedience is a good one to instill in young Americans. For one thing, what is clear about the culture of war is that it is necessarily an obedience culture. In armies, as one critic has noticed, where there must be unquestioning obedience, there must necessarily be passive injustice. And not just that--the obedience culture is certain over the long-run to shrivel originality and to constrict thought, to encourage witless adaptation and social dishonesty.
I relied on Fussell to provide desperately needed perspective in still another of my essays, "Against Annihilation of the Spirit: Let Us All Become Cowards." In that article, I discussed Paddy Chayefsky's remarkable and great achievement in the film, The Americanization of Emily, and I particularly focused on Chayefsky's relentless, unforgiving assault on our culture's despicable, life-destroying glorification of war.

Among other themes, Fussell's Wartime details the endless, body-, mind- and soul-shattering horrors of World War II. My earlier essay contains more details; because American culture and almost all Americans absolutely refuse to acknowledge what actually happens in war, I repeat one passage here. Fussell writes about Eugene Sledge's memoir of his experiences in the Marines:
But for Sledge the worst of all was a week-long stay in rain-soaked foxholes on a muddy ridge facing the Japanese, a site strewn with decomposing corpses turning various colors, nauseating with the stench of death, "an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool." Because there were no latrines and because there was no moving in daylight, the men relieved themselves in their holes and flung the excrement out into the already foul mud. It was a latter-day Verdun, the Marine occupation of that ridge, where the artillery shellings uncovered scores of half-buried Marine and Japanese bodies, making the position "a stinking compost pile":
If a Marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like. . . .

We didn't talk about such things. They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans. . . . It is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane. . . . To me the war was insanity.
And from the other side of the world the young British officer Neil McCallum issues a similar implicit warning against the self-delusive attempt to confer high moral meaning on these grievous struggles for survival. Far from rationalizing their actions as elements of a crusade, McCallum and his men, he says, "have ceased largely to think or believe at all":
Annihilation of the spirit. The game does not appear to be worth the candle. What is seen through the explosions is that this, no less than any other war, is not a moral war. Greek against Greek, against Persian, Roman against the world, cowboys against Indians, Catholics against Protestants, black men against white -- this is merely the current phase of an historical story. It is war, and to believe it is anything but a lot of people killing each other is to pretend it is something else, and to misread man's instinct to commit murder.
Earlier in "Let Us All Become Cowards," I wrote:
While Americans have always had a thoroughly sickening love of violence and cruelty, there is one kind of horror that they have never understood: the absolute, mind-obliterating insanity of war in the modern era. The explanation for this failure is obvious: the wars of the last hundred years have always been fought "over there," never here. As long as our noble warriors were dismembering the Evil Hun or disemboweling the Yellow Jap "over there," which geographic displacement conveniently allowed us to avoid contemplation of the details smeared with entrails, our complacency continued undisturbed. But then came 9/11. We reacted as any deeply neurotic narcissist bent on world domination would, in the manner of a violent nation suffering from "superpower syndrome" as described by Robert Jay Lifton: "You can't do this to us! You can't attack us here! We kill you bastards there, and we love it, but you can't come here!"
I then offered this passage from Fussell's Wartime:
What was it about the war that moved the troops to constant verbal subversion and contempt? It was not just the danger and fear, the boredom and uncertainty and loneliness and deprivation. It was rather the conviction that optimistic publicity and euphemism had rendered their experience so falsely that it would never be readily communicable. They knew that in its representation to the laity what was happening to them was systematically sanitized and Norman Rockwellized, not to mention Disneyfied. They knew that despite the advertising and publicity, where it counted their arms and equipment were worse than the Germans'. They knew that their automatic rifles (World War One vintage) were slower and clumsier, and they knew that the Germans had a much better light machine gun. ... And they knew that the greatest single weapon of the war, the atomic bomb excepted, was the German 88-mm flat-trajectory gun, which brought down thousands of bombers and tens of thousands of soldiers. The Allies had nothing as good, despite one of them designating itself The World's Greatest Industrial Power. The troops' disillusion and their ironic response, in song and satire and sullen contempt, came from knowing that the home front then (and very likely historiography later) could be aware of none of these things.

The Great War brought forth the stark, depressing Journey's End; the Second, as John Ellis notes, the tuneful South Pacific. The real war was tragic and ironic, beyond the power of any literary or philosophic analysis to suggest, but in unbombed America especially, the meaning of the war seemed inaccessible. As experience, thus, the suffering was wasted. The same tricks of publicity and advertising might have succeeded in sweetening the actualities of Vietnam if television and a vigorous uncensored moral journalism hadn't been brought to bear. America has not yet understood what the Second World War was like and has thus been unable to use such understanding to re-interpret and re-define the national reality to arrive at something like public maturity.
I went on to note that in the decades since the end of World War II, the denial which is fundamental to American culture and to the American perspective has become even more deeply entrenched, and it now appears to be indestructible: "The great majority of Americans continue in their preferred mode of existence: intellectually ignorant and lazy, spiritually fat and self-satisfied, and completely oblivious to the unimaginable suffering their government inflicts in other parts of the world."

We now have an unusually horrifying and revealing example of the truth of these observations (primarily Fussell's, but also my own), in connection with the widely praised revival of Rodgers' and Hammerstein's South Pacific. My major exhibit, the only exhibit I require, is this column by Frank Rich of The New York Times. I have written about Rich's significant failures of analysis before, in "Trapped in the Wrong Paradigm." I discussed how Rich adopts every crucial element of the prevailing analytic framework for the catastrophe of Iraq, without offering even a glimmer of understanding that it was precisely that framework that led to catastrophe in the first place. Just as privilege is blind to its own advantages, so ignorance is unaware of its failure to grasp the obvious. Rich is Exhibit A for both propositions, and for the self-created, impregnable stupidity of our ruling class. As described in the earlier piece, Rich endlessly talks of a "bungled" war (which he continues to do in the South Pacific column), for he refuses to acknowledge the criminal nature of the U.S. drive to global hegemony, including wars of aggression as required. Rich speaks of war waged on the basis of "mistaken intelligence" -- implicitly conceding that major policy decisions are in fact based on intelligence to a significant degree. But this is not at all the role of so-called "intelligence" and this notion is entirely false, as I have discussed repeatedly and in great detail (and still, only eight people begin to understand the argument).

And Rich worries about a press that "muzzles itself" and that engages in "under-the-radar self-censorship." He frets about "journalists [who] will pull punches in an election year" -- absent even a microscopic sliver of awareness that he himself does this repeatedly, on each and every issue of moment. Does Rich use his widely-read and influential platform to excoriate the Democrats for their complete failure to end the criminal occupation of Iraq when it is in their power to do so? No. Does Rich point out that Obama's plan to "end" this war crime and occupation "carefully" and "responsibly" means that U.S. troops will remain in Iraq for years and possibly decades to come? No. Does Rich ever mention the gross immorality of a government that launches a genocidal war of aggression proposing the terms on which that same government will perhaps, maybe, someday "end" its occupation, if only the captive, colonized nation does everything the criminal government demands on every question of importance to the criminal government itself? Of course not.

I'll turn shortly to Rich's comments about South Pacific in particular, but let me first mention one of Rich's other points in his recent column, which will explain my now bottomless contempt for Rich and the sickening perfection with which he captures our culture's endlessly ignorant, duplicitous, smug self-satisfaction, together with a condescension and an arrogance that casually skitter past events such as unprovoked genocidal murder -- while the writer remains oblivious to the screaming, mangled corpses lying directly in front of him and feels absolutely nothing. Rich dares to write:
Watching "South Pacific" now, we’re forced to contemplate Iraq, which we’re otherwise pretty skilled at avoiding. Most of us don’t have family over there. Most of us long ago decided the war was a mistake and tuned out.
I say that Rich "dares to write" this, but I should more accurately say: "Rich, you miserable piece of crap, you pathetic excuse for a human being, you have some goddamned nerve, you despicable asshole."

For here is Norman Solomon, writing with barely suppressed rage about a Frank Rich column from almost three years ago. From "Someone Tell Frank Rich the War Is Not Over":
On Sunday, the New York Times published a piece by Frank Rich under the headline "Someone Tell the President the War Is Over." The article was a flurry of well-placed jabs about the Bush administration’s lies and miscalculations for the Iraq war. But the essay was also a big straw in liberal wind now blowing toward dangerous conclusions.

Comparing today’s war-related poll numbers for George W. Bush with those for President Lyndon B. Johnson, the columnist writes: "On March 31, 1968, as L.B.J.’s ratings plummeted further, he announced he wouldn't seek re-election, commencing our long extrication from that quagmire." And Rich extends his Vietnam analogy: "What lies ahead now in Iraq instead is not victory, which Mr. Bush has never clearly defined anyway, but an exit (or triage) strategy that may echo Johnson’s March 1968 plan for retreat from Vietnam."

But Rich does not linger over the actual meaning of the "plan for retreat" and the "long extrication" -- which meant five more years of massive U.S. military assaults in Vietnam, followed by two more years of military aid to the Saigon government while fighting continued. The death toll during that period in Vietnam? Tens of thousands of Americans, perhaps a million Vietnamese people. That "extrication" was more than merely "long."

Rich’s narrative does not just skitter past five years of horrific carnage inflicted by the U.S. government in Vietnam -- and elsewhere in Indochina -- after the spring of 1968. His storyline is also, in its own way, a complacent message that stands in sharp contrast to the real situation we now face: a U.S. war on Iraq that may persist for a terribly long time. For the Americans still in Iraq, and for the Iraqis still caught in the crossfire of the occupation, the experiences ahead will hardly be compatible with reassuring forecasts made by pundits in the summer of 2005.

Mocking President Bush’s assertion on Aug. 11 that "no decision has been made yet" about withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Rich concludes: "The country has already made the decision for Mr. Bush. We’re outta there."
Solomon concludes:
Today, while the U.S. warfare in Iraq continues unabated, the message that "we’re outta there" is pernicious. It looks past the ongoing need to demand complete U.S. withdrawal (if "we’re outta there," why bother to protest?) and stands aloof from the very real political battles that will be fought to determine just how long or short the bloody "extrication" process will last.

We’re not "outta there" -- until an antiwar movement in the United States can grow strong enough to make the demand stick. And we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot.
Just three years later, assuming his readers are too stupid, ignorant and/or cowardly to connect his past pronouncements to his current mewlings, Rich is so unassailably comfortable in his protected perch at the lofty, oh-so-noble New York Times that he scrawls with his precious little crayons: "Most of us long ago decided the war was a mistake and tuned out." Together with almost all his fellow writers and pundits, it has been Rich himself who lead the overwhelming, relentless campaign that has allowed Americans to "tune out," and to ensure that Americans never began to grasp the brutal, murderous, profoundly criminal nature of what the United States government has done. Remember the genocide, Rich? No, he doesn't. Infinitely worse, he never understood it in the first place -- and he has done everything in his considerable power to make absolutely certain that no one else ever understood it.

Solomon's argument underscores the complete bankruptcy of the Democratic party, and of almost all of today's liberals and progressives: their bankruptcy intellectually, morally and in every other significant way. The Democrats won the elections of 2006 primarily because of their promise to end, or at the very least to begin to end, the carnage in Iraq. Some of us were well aware this was a lie even before the 2006 elections; now, no one can honestly doubt that it was a lie told for the most disgusting and deadly of reasons: for momentary, transitory political advantage. Although they do everything in their power to make you forget it ("But we have to be realistic! We have to be practical!"), the Democrats could have cut off funding for this genocidal and criminal war of aggression and occupation beginning in early 2007. They have not, and they will not. So much for their concern about the mangled bodies, the destroyed minds, and the huge number of lives ended for no reason at all. The Democrats want power, and they will undoubtedly acquire still more in the elections this fall. Even then, they will not end the criminal U.S. occupation of Iraq.

And when, in the third or fourth year of Obama's first term, 50,000 or more U.S. troops remain in Iraq, do you imagine for one moment that Rich will write outraged columns about the unforgivable betrayal by Obama and the Democrats -- or that he will begin to entertain the idea that, in fact, Obama and the Democrats are acting precisely as they wish to act, since American hegemony is their goal as much as it is the goal of the Republicans? If you do, you're entirely delusional or you're lying. And don't worry: except for possibly one or two exceptions, no other liberal or progressive commentators or bloggers will mention any of these issues, either. Once the Democrats enjoy full power over the executive and legislative branches, they'll be home free. It is only vast numbers of other people who will continue to be brutalized, tortured and murdered.

For like every other member of the ruling class and of the media which so dutifully serve its needs, Rich has absorbed every element of the mythology and the bloody, murderous lies that support the deadly notion of America the Good, an America which may make "blunders" and terrible "mistakes," but which generally means well and which will find redemption in time. We are, now and forever, America the Good -- and you must never fear, never be too worried, and never, ever get too upset or too angry, for we will be even Better.

Nowhere is Rich's eager subservience to the demands of this mythology clearer than in his discussion of South Pacific, which I will turn to in my next article.