Monday, June 18, 2007

A Dying Way of War

"It's a new kind of war, George. It's a new war for a new century."
--Breaker Morant*

A week ago today, my sister-in-law's stepfather was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Ralph, her step-father, explained to me years ago at a family gather that he had grown up the child of immigrants in a German neighborhood of St. Louis, where he rarely spoke English until he entered school. In his teens - in the 1930s - he both played minor league baseball and acquired a pilot's license. How, during the Depression, he had access to an airplane for training, I have no idea. Like many Americans of German ancestry, Ralph was deeply troubled by the rise of the Nazis, and felt a particular need to demonstrate that his first loyalty lay with the powers of the "free world." As a trained pilot,and while still a teenager, he volunteered first with the RAF, for which he flew bombing missions, and then later with the US Army Air Force, once America had entered the war.

Given the length of his service to both Britain and the US, I realized that he must've flown a remarkable number of missions. As you may know, the US Air Force mandated that anyone in a bomber crew would be required to fly no more than sixty some-odd missions before being guaranteed a stateside posting. This guarantee was meant to boost crew morale, and sacrificed little in the way of manpower, since (as Air Force statisticians knew) most fliers would be killed in combat long before they ever made the allotted number of missions. So, when I asked Ralph how many missions he had flown, you can imagine my reaction when he answered something along the lines of "two hundred and thirty four."

"Were you ever shot down?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, five times."

My sister-in-law later confirmed that not only had Ralph been shot down five times, but he'd also been awarded six purple hearts, and in fact upon his return to St. Louis at the war's end, he was celebrated as the most highly decorated veteran from the state of Missouri. After the war, Ralph's connection with flying was maintained through service in the Air Force Reserve, from which he eventually retired with the rank of Colonel. In the civilian world, he spent the bulk of his career working for Ralston-Purina, the pet food company, which must have offered quite a "tranquil" contrast to his wartime experiences, if you know what I mean.

In my conversation with Ralph, he did mention something particularly memorable: on more than one occasion, he had bombed towns in Germany where he knew cousins of his were living.

"Wow," I said stupidly, "that must've provoked some strange emotions." (I didn't really know what to say). But it hardly mattered.

"Oh no," Ralph replied with a beaming enthusiasm, "you never see the damage you've done from the air."

Did I mention that Ralph was of German ancestry?

Anyhow, my larger point here is that not so long ago (historically speaking) it was taken for granted that when the US found itself at war, ordinary citizens, ordinary men, actually, would risk their lives to defend their country.

I realize that ethos on which the assumption is based has its dangers, which I will deal with presently. Nevertheless, a tradition of widespread military service in time of national crisis has its virtues, not least of which is that the general populace sees itself as necessarily implicated in the nation's military commitments, and is therefore that much more likely to scrutinize military undertakings.

By way of contrast to the above ethos, I find myself compelled to make reference to Jonah Goldberg, whom you may have read at the National Review, and who - after several seasons of pom pom waving for the war in Iraq - finally faced the obvious question as to why someone so ardent in his support of Operation Iraqi Freedom hadn't gotten around to actually enlisting. Goldberg, still in his thirties, was certainly young enough, was presumably bright enough, and his invaluable insights into matters of tactical if not strategic significance could certainly have proven useful on Fallujah's mean streets.

Sensing the closing of a trap, Goldberg rather ineffectually pleaded that he had a wife and two two children upon whom military service would impose severe financial hardship. He then attempted some self-deprecating joke, the punch line of which I don't remember, though I am confident that it revealed neither wit nor insight, but only a juvenile clownishness masking a well-earned sense of shame.

If I can bang the family drum a bit more, and at the same time rub Jonah's nose a little deeper in the dirt, let me briefly cite the example of my maternal grandfather, who during World War Two abandoned a fairly comfortable position with the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington D.C. in order to cold-heartedly impose financial hardship upon his own wife and two children. My grandfather's enlistment in the US Navy led him to the Pacific, where he saw considerable action, and attained to the rank of Commander. He was at the time of this impulsive folly (i.e. his enlistment) in his mid-forties, and if one were to attempt the same today one would likely be diagnosed with a mid-life crisis, prescribed Zoloft, and presented with a mountain bike. Though I never had the chance to ask him why he left a family and a desk job to go to war, I guess he believed that this was his duty. And I think that my sister-in-law's stepfather, Ralph, and my own father, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and a lot of other people were, by mass indoctrination or by simple tradition, inclined to feel that way as well.

But, understandably, people don't so much these days. For one thing, our wars don't really smack of do-or-die national survival (see one of Jonah Goldberg's defenses of the war). It takes an awful lot of propagandizing to convince the comfortable American public of the gravity of whatever the current crisis is (Tonkin Gulf, Gulf War Two, World War Four, or is it Five, whatever) and then as the news reports and the soldier's angry letters (well, emails and blog posts these days) begin to filter back, those who can read are thankful they didn't totally give in to war fever. Not to the point of actually, you know, joining. And so life goes on.

Yes, I realize a well-placed nuclear device may someday make the words I've just written look more than a tad smug and complacent, and I guess I'll be guilty (if I'm still around) of not taking the current threat seriously enough, but it seems that everything we do in the Middle East only enhances the prospect of such a scenario someday becoming a reality.

One young American who did feel the call to service in the wake of 9/11, was of course Pat Tillman, the professional football player who passed up a multi-million dollar renewal contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army. He and his brother Kevin, a minor league baseball player, both made their way into the Rangers, where (oddly, I think) they served in the same unit in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the aftermath of Pat Tillman's death, there was a certain amount of chatter as to whether he was a hero, or a sucker, or a hyper-aggressive jerk who'd more or less gotten what he deserved. For whatever it's worth, I believe there was something admirable in Tillman's readiness to sacrifice enormous economic gain, personal comfort, and physical safety for his country's defense, and I believe it to be not only tragic but criminal that his willingness to do so was shamelessly manipulated, exploited, and ultimately betrayed by the same Army in which he served. The Tillman brothers' enlistment was excellent PR for the military, until it turned out that Pat Tillman had soured on the war in Iraq, which he condemned as "brutal, immoral, illegal, and unjust." According to the website Weazl's Revenge, "The Tillman brothers were due for a furlough, and Kevin stated in interviews that Pat had arranged to meet with an anti-war journalist while at home." Evidently, he wished to go public with his criticisms and reservations about the Iraq invasion, though I have read that he remained more committed to the Army's mission in Afghanistan.

Before Tillman's furlough date arrived, he was killed in combat. Though the military tried to soak this incident for all the PR hero-potential it was worth, eventually it became evident that Tillman's death had actually been a case of "friendly-fire," which the government had done everything in its power to conceal from both journalists and the Tillman family. This revelation went on to serve as one of the hundreds - if not thousands - of military-related scandals associated with Iraq that erupt and disappear with such somnolent regularity that we barely notice them anymore. They're simply the background noise to our abysmal national drama.

At this sad point in our Iraq saga, some bloggers are now alluding to an assassination of Tillman by the US military in order to prevent him from going public with his condemnation of the Iraq war, and while I'm not prepared to go that far (see the previous post on my aversion to conspiracy mania) I suppose it says a lot about the state of our republic that this sort of rumor so readily has its adherents, and besides, given what we already know, can we rule out anything?

I'm not sure if I would be comfortable living in a world full of Pat Tillmans (during his regular interviews a decade ago on the Jim Rome sports radio show, his overuse -by which I mean, his use - of the word "dude" quickly tried my patience) but he was young then, and he was from "So Cal," as the saying goes, and the question hardly matters, since I long ago accepted that it is my fate, as it is our common fate, to live, not in a world of Pat Tillmans, but in a world of Jonah Goldbergs. The powers-that-be wouldn't have it any other way.

*Fans of the film (based upon a true incident) will know that its eponymous Australian hero, Breaker Morant, while being marched to his execution for the commission of war crimes during the Boer War, turns to his fellow condemned solider, and says simply, "Well Peter, this is what comes of empire building."

You may be interested in this letter, written by Pat Tillman's brother and fellow Ranger, Kevin, regarding Pat's death. It's anger and sense of betrayal ring sadly true.


Anonymous said...

I read Kevin Tillman's letter and -at the risk of hi-jacking his anger or, perhaps, turning an American nightmare into something more parochial, should say that these are feelings strongly shared by many Brits. Even though I am not an American citizen, I understand Tillman's sense of anger at having been the victim of lying and cheating politicians who cynically manipulated young people just like the Tillmans into believing that they were - somehow - fighting for their country, for democracy; for a principle.
What disheartens me about the Tilman link is that, in reading the letters in support of Kevin's stance, one rapidly becomes aware that many 'supporters' are still using the language that they have been brainwashed into considering appropriate. One sympathetic respondent for example writes of, "Your...sacrifice for Our Country.", thus demonstrating a fine misunderstanding of Kevin's basic complaint that, although they were TOLD that they would be fighting for their country, they soon discovered how far this was from the reality.
Another blames all the problems created by the White House on, "...the other half of this country that isn't American anymore." While a third, clearly representing a deeper, more intellectual school of thought,states, "...I TWO WONDER HOW MUCH YOU WERE PAID TO WRITETHIS AT ELECTION TIME." Ostensibly, even this cretin is offering some kind of support for Kevin.
So far as both the US and Britain are concerned, the hatred and mistrust which their governments' actions have engendered have become seen as characteristic of the people themselves. The greater sadness is in the fact that Pat Tillman and hundreds of Young American and British soldiers - prepared, if necessary, to lay down their lives in defence of their countries - should have been cheated into sacrificing themselves for nothing.
9/11 was a traumatic time for the USA, to have seen it used as justification for a wholly illegal, bloody and unnecessary invasion of a sovereign state is shameful. To have seen the principles on which the American Constitution is based subverted by self-serving politicians (of all nations) is a disgrace. To see that subversion resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocents (in the widest sense) is both shameful and disgraceful.

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