Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sweet and Fitting

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori...

(Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country...)

Watching Lewis Milestone's towering film masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front a couple days ago, I was immediately struck by how little the methods of manipulating young and naive adolescent males into pouring out their blood and sacrificing their lives on the altars of false gods have changed over the last 100 years.

As a newly-formed regiment of fresh cannon fodder marches past their classroom window to the blare of martial music, a fresh crop of 17- and 18-year-old high school seniors is regaled on the virtues of war by their professor, who ritually washes and anoints them for the god Mars's chopping block:

It is not for me to suggest that any of you should stand up and offer to defend his country. But I wonder if such a thing is going through your heads. I know that in one of the schools, the boys have risen up in the classroom and enlisted in a mass. If such a thing should happen here, you would not blame me for a feeling of pride. Perhaps some will say that you should not be allowed to go yet - that you have homes, mothers, fathers, that you should not be torn away by your fathers so forgetful of their your mothers so weak that they cannot send a son to defend the land which gave them birth. And after all, is a little experience such a bad thing for a boy? Is the honor of wearing a uniform something from which we should run? And if our young ladies glory in those who wear it, is that anything to be ashamed of?...To be foremost in battle is a virtue not to be despised. I believe it will be a quick war. There will be few losses. But if losses there must be, then let us remember the Latin phrase which must have come to the lips of many a Roman when he stood in battle in a foreign land:...Sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland...

Look at present-day television commercials for our all-volunteer Army and Marine Corps and you'll see the same appeals to our current crop of young and defenseless American babies that German academics used in 1914 and 1915. Indeed, the pro-war propaganda manufactured by the current American regime is, if anything, cruder and more childish than what its predecessor war machines in 20th-century Germany used, and it's certainly not working as well. Recruitment numbers are down, and maybe the truth about modern warfare is finally starting to sink in.

When the protagonist veteran of "All Quiet," Paul Baumer (played by Lew Ayres) returns to his old classroom after a year of mud, blood, and terror in the Flemish trenches, the same professor who primed him for the killing fields asks him to deliver a few encouraging words to the new class of would-be victims, and is appalled by the truth he tells:

I heard you in here reciting that same old stuff, making more iron men, more young heroes. You still think it's beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don't you? We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It's dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their country, and what good is it?

Baumer might have added that it's also, by the same token, better not to kill at all. But in any modern society which finds itself in the grip of the spiritual and mental disease of war fever, such as Germany in 1914 and 1939, or the United States in 1964 and 2003, such talk inspires a degree of fear and hatred of which only the most profoundly blind, ignorant, and intensely overheated fanaticism is capable. Gunter Grass, the Nobel-winning German author who was drafted into the Waffen SS at 16 in 1944, describes how his unit dealt with a pacifist recruit in his recent memoir, "How I Spent the War:"

Every possible sort of punitive labor was imposed upon him, but nothing helped. He would work conscientiously for hours without a peep, emptying the latrine with a worm-infested bucket on a long stick—a punishment known as “honey-slinging” in soldiers’ slang—only to appear, freshly showered, at rifle drill shortly thereafter and refuse to wield the weapon once again. I can see it falling to the ground as if in slow motion...

Morning after morning, when we gathered for roll call and the drill instructor started passing out the weapons, the incorrigible insubordinate would let the one meant for him fall to the ground like the proverbial hot potato and immediately return to his ramrod position, hands pressed to trouser seams, eyes fixed on a distant point.

I cannot count the number of times he repeated his mantra, a catchphrase that has never left me: “We don’t do that.”

One day his locker was cleared out: private things, including religious pamphlets. Then he was gone—“transferred,” it was called. We did not ask where to. I did not ask. But we all knew. He had not been discharged as unfit for service; no, we whispered, “he has long been ripe for the concentration camp.”

And since we knew of the camp, Stutthof, only by hearsay, we thought Wedontdothat—which was what we called him in secret—was in good hands. “They’ll bring old Wedontdothat down a peg or two.”

Was it all as simple as that?

Did no one shed a tear?

Did everything go on as it had before?

I must say that I was, if not glad, then at least relieved when the boy disappeared. The storm of doubts about everything in which I’d had rock-solid faith died down, and the resulting calm in my head prevented any further thought from taking wing: mindlessness had filled the space.

Mindlessness certainly characterized American propaganda during the run up to the Iraq conflict, which trotted out the same sorts of lies and paranoid bluster Hitler used to justify going to war in 1939 to neutralize the Polish threat against Germany. But there are hopeful signs that the old war fever sales pitch isn't working like it used to. The majority of Americans has now turned against the war, which is encouraging, even though public opposition is apparently of no effect in altering the trajectory of our self-destruction. The supposed romance of dying gloriously and heroically for one's country may have finally worn thin, and the lesson of Wilfred Owen's poem -- the most famous of World War I -- may finally have taken root in our depraved and warsick modern world:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori

We need to note also that the rate of American deaths and total casualties in this war has been relatively low in comparison to earlier conflicts, but that the price paid by Iraqis for our insanity has been extremely high. And I shudder to think what the fate will be of a nation which murders innocent children in the most cowardly fashion, by dropping cluster bombs from 20,000 feet. If there is any justice in this universe, or anything approaching even a minimum balance, the price Americans will eventually pay for these crimes will be inconceivably high.

No comments: