Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Human Experience of War

Many insights into the nature of the human experience of war may be gained by the institution of cinema’s attempts to portray it. The film Gallipoli stands as a prime example of a quite accurate portrayal of a war, World War I, that exemplifies the phrase (I refuse to refer to it as a cliche for it should never lose its impact) “War is Hell.” The film shows the events leading up to the battle for Gallipoli in the (then) Ottoman Turkish Empire. The protagonists are two young men from Western Australia named Frank and Archibald. It is as much their experience of war as civilians rather than as soldiers that is important for the purposes of this paper. Indeed, the experience of war is often no less hellish for non-combatants as it is for the soldiers. But as it is so terrible, why is it that it is arguably the defining aspect of humanity (excepting language)? By way of analysis, I propose that war is the manifestation of the failures and failings, both active and passive, of language. Themes from J. Glenn Gray’s book The Warriors serve as an excellent vehicle for exposing the love/hate (two of the most important, and not coincidentally misused, words in human language) relationship that mankind has with warfare. Exhibit A is the link posted with this entry. Kudos to those who are able to delude themselves that the real "human" experience of war depicted at http://mindprod.com/politics/iraqwarpix.html have anything at all to do with honor, glory, or humanity. You have truly learned to pronounce an excrement sandwich delicious at Big Brother's encouragemnt. I digress, or do I?

This linguistic aspect is abundantly evident in the causes of many wars, and WWI is no exception. I am talking about the breakdown of diplomacy, which is tantamount to the discussion between representatives of nation states. While soldiers are, as is pointed out in Gallipoli, representatives of their nation the vast majority of them are not involved in the outbreak of war. But if this is the case, then why, and how, is it that millions of individuals become involved in a conflict that they had nothing to do with starting, much less an active interest in getting involved with? In Gallipoli, one of the characters has just this attitude towards the war halfway around the world in Europe. The theme of “what has it got to do with me” echoes through many war movies. Furthermore, it can be analyzed in two distinct directions.

First, it can be seen as a question of geography. As the war has no implicit effect on the day-to-day happenings of remote Western Australia, why should an Australian lad bother to go half way around the world? The answer is as multifaceted as it is potentially meaningless. On the one hand, as with Archibald in Gallipoli who is just brimming with the naivete of an 18-year-old boy, is the assertion that if the enemy is not stopped in (Europe/Asia/or whatever), “the next thing you know they’ll be knocking at our door.” While this may be a justification within the context of some conflicts as a practical matter, it is shallow if not utter nonsense in terms of WWI. The likelihood of the Triple Entente invading Australia was laughable. On the other hand, the portrayal of the Roman conquest of Germania in the film Gladiator is an instance in which a group was forced to fight in self-defense. However, this state of affairs as it affected Archie gives insight into how easily motivated some people are to go to war. Archie’s plans had included a bright future as a runner until his peers, as a result of the ‘cowardly’ nature of his pursuit, ridicule him.

The realization of the immaturity, stupidity, gullibility, and utter lack of reason inherent in many human beings is a stark one that is no less reprehensible for all that those reprehensible qualities are spent from us more by failure than success. Archie’s wizened uncle knows all too well the reality of that which his nephew hurls himself blindly into. On a personal note, to the best of my knowledge I am one in a line going back generations stretching at least to the American Civil War in my family to have performed military service. The interesting part is that I have been told that it has of late seldom been with the blessing of the father that the son has entered the military. In hindsight, I can frankly admit that I was almost tragically ignorant of the reality of military service even in peacetime, let alone wartime. The fact that boys and men often volunteer for an endeavor that they most times should avoid like a pro with an itch is no more mysterious than a child who burns itself repeatedly on the same hot stove. While not all children need be told twice not to touch, many more boys and men listen not at all when told not to go off to war, especially when it has nothing to do with their immediate interests.

The second way in which the question of pertinence to the soldier is less evident in Gallipoli as it is in other films of the genre such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Platoon. In a nutshell, the question comes to “What did these Germans/Turks/North Vietnamese/Iraqis ever do to me?” In many instances the answer amounts to “Not a damn thing,” which elicits the further question of “What in the Sam Hill am I doing risking my neck out here for!?” There are two likely responses and one less likely response that I think just as accurate as—and more legitimate than—the other two.

The less common of the first two is that the soldier who asks is that he is indeed nuts, crazy, bonkers, or otherwise mad for trying to kill his fellow man and vice versa over issues that are of little or no import to either of them. The harsh reality is that this state of affairs can often be inconsequential for a few stock reasons. Among these are that they were drafted (e.g., in Viet Nam) or they will be shot by their own side if they don’t fight (e.g., WWII Russians, Desert Storm Iraqis). Or perhaps they got more than they bargained for when they signed up to get money for college/three somewhat square meals and something other than the ground (most of the time) to sleep on/the means to support their family. It would be interesting to discover (if at all possible) how much, as my intuition tells me that it could not be unrelated, the domestic unemployment rate is correlated to filling the ranks of the military in a given country.

The more common response to a query about their current state of affairs involves many intangible words and a few tangible traits of human behavior. In the former case, words such as honor, duty, valor, discipline, and courage are bandied about like the fine china when Mom is out of the house. At the near certainty of offending some tough customers and some ignorant wretches, using these words in the past tense is often a salve for the emotional and physical wounds that war inflicts on people. They serve to preserve the fragile fantasy that as with men like Archie in World Ware I or Americans in Viet Nam, somehow their lives and efforts were not wasted. Used in the future tense, these types of words are despicable carrots/sticks that perpetuate what Gray would refer to as some of the secret attractions to war. For one cannot go buy these things. They are 'earned,' most significantly on the field of battle. Actually they are just words. Whether one calls it collateral damage or killing women and children, it is still an atrocity. Likewise, one man’s heroic deed to save his comrades can be tantamount to killing a son/father/brother/husband who was deeply loved, now dearly missed, and on whom many depended. Is that worth it? No. No. No.

To be sure, sometimes wars happen out of real necessity. But surely this is the exception and not the rule. The attractions to fight are many and the costs of fighting are sugarcoated or ignored or, most perversely, glorified. It is impossible not to use the language of war and not conjure up mental images that are part and parcel of human history. This attachment to history is another aspect that Gray discusses. In Gallipoli Archie, just before (in a show of great ‘discipline and courage’) runs into a hail of hot lead, writes a quick letter home. In it he is detailing to his mother how he and his ‘comrades in arms’ feel they are part of something larger than life, some sort of great human endeavor. I can only see the disgusting waste. To be sure, the post hoc justifications of war greatly outnumber the prejudiced attitudes of one non-combat veteran. In spite of this, the thin veil of linguistic rhetoric is to me as immaterial as a beautiful corona around the searing maelstrom of the Sun that would surely vaporize me were I able to embrace it. Just this way countless millions of people have been churned up in the shredder of war.

Doubtless, countless more millions will be swallowed up and digested in the gullet of the Dogs of War. I cannot help but quote from a song (“The Dogs of War,” from A Momentary Lapse of Reason by Pink Floyd) that succinctly describes in a somewhat more poetic fashion the causes of war.

Dogs of war and men of hate
With no cause, we don't discriminate
Discovery is to be disowned
Our currency is flesh and bone
Hell opened up and put on sale
Gather 'round and haggle
For hard cash, we will lie and deceive
Even our masters don't know the web we weave

One world, it's a battleground
One world, and we will smash it down
One world ... One world

Invisible transfers, long distance calls,
Hollow laughter in marble halls
Steps have been taken, a silent uproar
Has unleashed the dogs of war
You can't stop what has begun
Signed, sealed, they deliver oblivion
We all have a dark side, to say the least
And dealing in death is the nature of the beast

One world, it's a battleground
One world, and we will smash it down
One world ... One world

The dogs of war don't negotiate
The dogs of war won't capitulate,
They will take and you will give,
And you must die so that they may live
You can knock at any door,
But wherever you go, you know they've been there before
Well winners can lose and things can get strained
But whatever you change, you know the dogs remain.

One world, it's a battleground
One world, and we will smash it down
One world ... One world