Military Reflections: Why We Fight, and Why We Lie to Ourselves

A few thoughts on things military, roused by hype about our recent access of patriotism for the War on Terrorism, and maybe by one too many war documentaries on late-night television.

(1) Men seldom enlist from patriotism. They enlist in time of peace because they are bored, need a job, dream of travel, don’t know what else to do with themselves, want to prove their manhood, or have heard lurid tales about the women in Hong Kong. Patriotism is at best an afterthought.

In time of war, reasons again vary. Some enlist to get the service least likely to see combat. During Viet Nam, the National Guard was popular for just this reason. Gutsier men will join because they want to see combat. They simply like the action. Some of these later become correspondents, and go from war to war. A few men, the ones who adhere to the elite commando outfits, carry with them an intense and angry aggressiveness for which they seek a acceptable outlet. They want to kill people.

None of this is patriotism. Nor is it a desire to save the world from communism, national socialism, slavery, or the misbehavior of the Japanese. The truth is that people do not care greatly about unpleasant political systems in places they have never seen. Truth, virtue, and morality are add-ons convenient for explaining things done for less noble reasons.

(2) Most men actively do not want to fight for their country, and will go to great lengths to avoid it. That is why in serious wars we need a draft. After the war, draftees may find it socially useful to discover that they were inspired by patriotism.

(3) Soldiers often have not the slightest idea why they are fighting. Oddly, they don’t seem to care.

I doubt that one enlisted man in fifty could have found Viet Nam on a map. Nor could have much of the public on whose behalf they were said to be fighting. Few soldiers knew what communism was, other than a darkly threatening Very Bad Thing. Few could spell it, nor did they care. Books were available. They didn’t read them. Nor, usually, did the public. Soldiers didn’t care in the least whether the Vietnamese, whom they generally hated, lived under communism.

(4) Draftees go to war not because they are brave, but because they are not brave enough. It takes courage to volunteer for war. It takes courage, or at least decisiveness, to hide in Mexico. It does not take courage to be drafted. This is why it works. The draft relies on the principle that at each step, from reporting for training to getting irrevocably on the troop ship, it is easier to cooperate than to resist. A draftee may fight bravely. Yet he wouldn’t have gone unless compelled.

(5) Much of America does not like its soldiers, or its military. The upper classes hold servicemen in contempt. The Ivy Leagues for example provide almost no volunteers. Parents near bases often forbid their daughters to date servicemen. Our grade schools expel boys for drawing soldiers. At the end of a successful war a maimed GI may get a week of drinks bought for him, but after that he just makes people uncomfortable. Veterans of Korea were ignored. Those from Vietnam were often despised.

(6) In democracies, prosecution of war depends on hiding the nature of war. On the History Channel we endlessly see the bombers of WWII flying over Europe, to stirring music, amid clouds pocked with flak, turrets blazing at incoming Messerschmitts. Bombs fall, flash-flash-flash, across the remote city below. It’s an adrenal rush, exciting, and calls to something deep in the audience.

You don’t see little Hans, far below and four years old, screaming because something wet and messy is oozing from Mommy’s head and her eyes are funny and the fire is getting closer and why doesn’t someone help him? Nor do you see the turret gunner with his intestines hanging out like greasy rope and blood pooling in low spots.

The anger such observations arouse in many military men is a dead giveaway of their discomfort. Governments know that if people saw much of this, they might not fight.

(7) American wars often begin, through unprepared ness and simple stupidity, with the pointless sacrifice of countless troops, which is usually explained as springing from the perfidy of the enemy. In WWI, WWII, and Korea we were utterly unready. Pearl Harbor occurred because we didn’t bother to track the Japanese fleet.

Having bled our soldiers profusely because of inattention, we congratulate ourselves on winning in the long run. Stirring music again accompanies the congratulation.

(8) Officers, characterized by physical rather than moral courage, usually seem more interested in protecting their careers than the lives of their men. They will assault a beach, but won’t open their mouths. The higher the rank, the more they behave like cheap politicians. I saw this many times when I covered the military.

For example, a pilot once wrote me saying that certain social policies were gravely damaging the capacity of his service to fight and would lead, in a serious war, to substantial military incapacity and loss of life. He then said for God’s sake not to use his name or identify his unit. CYA. The same pilot flew many missions over Baghdad.

(9) After a war, veterans often dislike their own country more intensely than they do the enemy. A soldier goes to war, perhaps encouraged by martial bands and splendid uniforms, to fight someone he is told is the enemy. He returns missing a leg, wearing a colostomy bag, or remembering things that it is better not to remember.

He then finds that people at home have been partying and living the good life while he was bleeding, that they don’t really care about him, that some laugh at him for having been stupid enough to go. And he no longer has anything in common with them. An impassable gulf separates him from the country.

Year by year as the war recedes, its apparent importance diminishes. The enemy, like as not, suddenly becomes an ally. Yet the soldier still has the colostomy bag, still sits in the wheelchair. He feels used by the happy people who stayed at home, decides that he was had, that somebody, he’s not sure just who, maybe the whole country, played him for a sucker.

And he hates them for it.

Comments are closed.