Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Okinawa Dreams #7: Fights Not Worth Fighting

Veteran’s Day passed recently, and that is always a frustrating time of the year for people interested in peace. Veteran’s Day as it is celebrated nowadays in the US and its empire is a blind sort of celebration of militarization. Through the auras of the troops, we are expected to support whatever the military means or is or represents. We are supposed to be teary-eyed and all choked full of emotion at the sacrifice of so many, that we should suddenly forget everything else and just pick up a flag, wave it, and give the screaming eagles of militarization soaring above, a hearty thumbs up!

It is easy to forget that Veteran’s Day began as Armistice Day. It was not a celebration of living troops or military might, but a holiday meant to provide the country a time to reflect on how terrible war was, through the lives lost and how it should not happen again. Over time, it has moved to becoming the exact opposite, becoming a place where you should support any and every way the US enters into, simply because proud, fine, young men and women are fighting in it!

Almost completely lost is the argument that the best way to support troops is to not send them into war blindly, not to crassly take for granted their willingness to sacrifice their lives, and to actively work to lessen the threat of war in the world, not increase it. The best way to support troops might be to argue against war, to argue against the system that treats them like cogs in a machine and actively seeks to expand its grasp around the world, and uses them as the pawns to secure it. How pathetic a country is the United States, that it would treat its veteran’s so terribly, that on a day when you should really reflect on what it would mean to take care of them, you insist that half of the conversation be ignored or remain unspoken?
For me, the lost spirit of Veteran’s Day is captured well in the song “The General” by the band Dispatch. For those unfamiliar with the song, it talks about a ancient hold military general, who is scarred and decorated from a life of war. One night before a big battle, he has as dream that shakes him to his core. The next morning before his troops, he shocks them by ordering them all to go home.

He says that in his dream he saw the spirits of those who have already died in battle, and even seen specters of their grieving mother, and that they reveal to him that the fight is not worth fighting. He says that he will continue the fight, but that everyone else should go home. At first the men stand fast, unsure of what they are supposed to do, but eventually, one by one, they melt away. The General, left alone prepares to fight the battle alone.

Some of the most hardened and firmest proponents of peace and opponents of war, are former veterans. They are people like the General of this song, who have fought enough war, and maybe they excelled at it, maybe they were terrible at it. But the life and death struggle, the pointless loss and suffering made clear to them, that the point of war should always be to end wars. That the points of war should never be to create more conflict or to cause more problems, but that war, because it is such a failure of human reason, a failure of everything that is good in humans, is not something that should be treated like it is normal. In the context of the song, the General tells the boys to go home and not die on this battlefield because they are young and they must be living.

War sucks away life. It sucks it away in the actual destruction of lands, lives, bodies etc. War kills life in a very literally and visceral sense. It also sucks it away in a more indirect sense. The US war budget sucks resources away from everything else that is meant to keep people alive, healthy, educated and safe. By pooling too much of your resources into machines and means of war, you not alone cannibalize yourself and your society, but you also run of risk of simply exporting violence and waging war simply because you have the means to do so. Part of the causes of World War I was that the dominant European nations had built up their armies and had modernized them until the point that they were glorious, shiny and deadly, and that they itched to use them. Un nota na tentashon, nahong na rason, as they say in Chamorro. In the time since, while it is rarely ever publicly spoken, most of the US large wars against puny opponents are far more public relations stunts as opposed to strategically important battles. The post-Cold War and post-Vietnam battles of the US are all to be just as much about showing off, testing out your expensive gadgets as they are about defeating avowed enemies.

World War II for Japan and Vietnam for the United States both produced a large number of peaceful veterans. These were people who had fought in wars, but come back convinced that it was not the right way to live, that it was in so many ways the opposite of how life should be. In the minds of many of these veterans, while their rhetoric is “no war” or that they are “against war,” this does not mean that war is never necessary. There are wars of liberation, there are actual wars of national defense, in which you could argue fighting is justified. The problem though is that every country who wants a war, always says it is justified. They always say it is in some national defense, that it is not some callous aggressive act, but rather something that is sadly necessary because of the circumstances. Afghanistan and Iraq were both nations that the US invaded with incredible force, on some flimsy logic of defending itself, when neither nation held any actual military threat to the US.

What is important about peace activists and especially former veterans is that they are determined to not allow their country to war and by doing so, make it more difficult for wars of convenience or wars based on lies to take place. Most people will say that war is terrible and that it should always be the last resort, but then simply follow whatever they hear from the government or the media. They may not instinctively like way since it is tragic and violent, but they have no critique, don’t really think about it, and simply accept very easily the idea of war through a narrow self-serving and absolving nationalistic framework. They accept the war since it is my country doing it, and my proud and women serving in it, so it must be ok, since it is ours and not someone else’s.

In Japan, I met several veterans from World War II who argued the same position as the General in the song mentioned above. One elderly man protesting in Henoko had fought in Japan’s imperial wars, and said that he was fighting against the expanding of the base in Henoko since it would help lead to more wars. He argued that since he was old and crippled and couldn’t fight, no one, especially a young person with their life ahead of them should have to fight for him. Instead, we should build the world through peace so that no one has to leave their families to fight against their neighbors. It is an idealistic position, but a beautiful and ethical one nonetheless. It is a one that I wish more veteran’s had, after seeing how terrible war can be, they not then celebrate the signing up of more bodies to fight and kill or oppress more people, but rather make it so that less and less people have to experience what they went through. The true message of Veteran’s Day should not be that we should unconditionally support the troops, because that makes them the perfect pawns, the perfect tools for perpetual war. You should instead support them in terms of peace, and in terms of opposing wars and keeping them from being forced to give up their lives, or take the lives of others in fights that are most likely not worth fighting.

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