Monday
May302005

« Making The World Safe For Democracy »

Numbers have dehumanized us. Over breakfast coffee we read of 40,000 American dead in Vietnam. Instead of vomiting, we reach for the toast. Our morning rush through crowded streets is not to cry murder but to hit that trough before somebody else gobbles our share.

An equation: 40,000 dead young men = 3,000 tons of bone and flesh, 124,000 pounds of brain matter, 50,000 gallons of blood, 1,840,000 years of life that will never be lived, 100,000 children who will never be born. —Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun (Introduction to 1970 edition)

dead heroes in a flag draped coffin, being flown in over night so no one knows

Well, it's Memorial day again. It's a day when in order to remember the fallen heroes, we drink and grill steaks. We shop. We drive huge gas guzzling SUVs to the national cemeteries. We watch sappy TV specials with hazy images of the brave men and women who fought for our fast food joints, big box retailers, and parking lots. The people doing the recollecting say what a good kid they had and how he loved his country and how they would do it a hundred times over, blah, blah, blah. I think the only thing we need to bother to remember on Memorial day is how wretched war is and how it should absolutely be the last resort.

One thing I want to make sure everyone remembers on Memorial day is a book and movie by Dalton Trumbo called Johnny Got His Gun. I read that about a year ago and it was stirring. Disturbing. Prophetic. The story, for those not in the know, is about a good ol' American boy from a farm who went off to war in WW I. ("The Great War" "the war to end all wars" "the war that would make the world safe for democracy" et cetera.) He was injured beyond belief, maimed in the battlefield in such a way to supposedly warrant the amputation of all his limbs, and a near total destruction of his head, leaving him with nothing more than a brain and torso, essentially. He had no eyes, ears, mouth, nose, or jaw. The entire book is about his thoughts running amok with memories and new sensations of being essentially a thinking stump, or as he eventually considers himself, a living dead man.

With no eyes or ears, he has no way to form an awareness of the world around him, which he finally establishes by fine tuning his sensitivity to vibrations of foot steps, and the nuances of sunlight on the little bit of skin that is exposed. But all of this takes years to develop. He wants to die but can't, and can not even communicate to his nurse except through the morse code he knows, which can only be tapped out by his head bobbing on his pillow, which his keepers interpret as a seizure which is put down with drugs. So his time is spent not even aware of if he is awake or asleep, or whether the sensations he has and the images in his mind are real or imagined, or memories. Memories are frequent and serve to ease him away from the anxiety and depression. His life is let to continue on despite being a living dead man. He sarcastically entertains the idea of being a circus freak taken on tours to show the wretchedness of war. His thoughts are a blur. He senses a rat crawling on him and doesn't know if it is real or a dream. If nothing else, it reminds him of a Prussian soldier he saw who had been dead for days and was having his face eaten off by rats.

The rats take on a metaphorical meaning; he finds his politics in instances like these when he realizes the loss to the soldiers on both side of the war is the real loss, and the real gain is being had by the men who use these soldiers as pawns in their games of power and prestige. Some years later, George Orwell would echo this notion that a war has to be waged against a population just to maintain the hierarchy of society. Joe, our living dead man realizes that the notions of liberty, democracy, and justice all have meanings that are vague and can be used by different people for different ends. He much prefers the concrete appeal of a house, or the sunlight, or his girlfriend, or anything that was his home life before the war. That was what men thought of and cherished, and could fight for, but not some abstraction that was sold them in order to go fight wars that they themselves would not benefit from.

He ruminates: there are a lot of laws on the books but none that say a man's life is his own. Dead men don't cherish the sunshine and the pastoral life. Dead men are not happy. Dead men can't enjoy liberty. Dead men can't reap the benefits of their war labor. Men are herded off to battle to work for others with plans for new social orders that don't include them. He realizes he can't even die as he would want to. He can't even commit suicide. He can't rail against his captors because none but his nurse can remotely understand him.

Finally he does get the morse code across, sending repeated SOS messages. The doctors don't know what to do. The military doesn't know what to do. So they let him live on. He wants to commit suicide, or to have them pull the plug on him, but he is told "what you ask is against regulations." He is kept alive to suit the egos of the medical and military establishments, to see how bad off a human can be and still be alive. Trapped in a body that isn't even nimble enough to roll off the bed and crash to the floor, he waits for years and years, not knowing what his fate will ever be, but knowing that death would have been better.

suv truck with the national cemetery in the backgroundSo on Memorial day, I think we have to remember that things are not all that different now in the wars we wage and the damage the men receive in doing work for other powers that really could not care in the least for them if it were up to them. As in Joe Bonham's case, he was kept alive when he should have been dead. He went from being a living breathing young man to being a science experiment with an existential crisis the size of Jupiter. But what of today's soldiers? Some are maimed pretty badly, losing a limb or two or perhaps like Max Cleland, three limbs. Or some are blinded. Some will be cut in two by hemicorporectomies to salvage their upper halves. Some are brain damaged. Some have nerve damage. If not from a terrible blast, now we have such wretched stuff like depleted uranium which is the gift that keeps on giving.

On one hand, we can praise modern medicine for allowing various parts of humans to carry on somewhat like regular humans. But what if these soldiers are living anything like Joe Bonham? I do not wish them dead; but let us just be reminded that even the silver lining of high tech medical care in the battle zones could be an oppressive thing because it allows people to endure things that would have killed them. It is another facet of the insanity of modern warfare that even those who are on the edge of death and facing a severe cut in the quality of life are kept around. I've heard it said that this Iraq war was even worse than Vietnam in that regard—men and women who "should be dead" from their massive injuries are still around, with the massive drain on resources, patience, and emotions. Is that more humane?

The overwhelmingly sick thing is not the matter of the tragically injured living or dying, but that the war itself is morally bankrupt and for the most part, none of these people should have been there in the first place! So I would think it a terrible case of literally adding insult to injury that these fighters are out there risking their lives and coming back with essentially fatal injuries for no reason but to help people live shallow lives devoid of conscience for the world or its inhabitants, or of a higher spiritual life that we have abandoned, if ever we had one. As Jim Kunstler says, when a soldier is laying there bleeding in the battlefield, is he thinking of what he is really fighting for? Parking lots, fast food, and big box shops? Would he think it was worth the sacrifice as his blood runs from his body into the street?

original poster with three images: 87 octane gas loses a soldier an arm; 89 loses a leg, and 91 loses a lifeThe miracle of modern medicine should not be coupled with the savagery of war to add up to maimed and permanently injured men and women who went to war in good faith that they were preserving something great. How would they feel if their real mission was billed as "fight for the right to use natural resources in a careless and shortsighted fashion so that men of power can be made richer than sin, and the earth can be left a poisoned cesspool for your children." If that was up on the recruitment commercials and posters, would we still have our ostensibly "all volunteer" army? Of course not! But if you say that liberty, democracy, truth, justice, and the American Way are at stake, then people will line up to defend all those things even though they are all vague abstractions that mean one thing for a captain of industry or a room of stockholders, and something wildly different for the poor schmucks who have to do the grunt work to make that possible.

I am done with soft focus television features about our fallen men and women. It is insulting. It's propaganda. It's fascismo—glorifying the war machine. Last year I rode my bike around Fort Rosecrans National Cemetary to see where my grandfather was buried, and to pay my respects to his sacrifice. Sadly, I had to avoid being run over by the others there who drove SUVs, seemingly in direct contradiction to our present war effort. Cluelessly, they pay tribute to their war dead while driving at least one example of the very things that made our Iraq war "necessary": conspicuous consumption. Make that "crassly conspicuous consumption."

I would like to also say that I have no enemies in Iraq, and neither do any of you. Our enemy is our way of life, and the powers that have sold it to us, and have provided us with little or no option but to buy this one package they have been selling for a couple generations now. If you want to launch a "war on XXXX" then launch a war on capitalism, corporate dominance, fascism and the suburban way of life we all enjoy. Forget the war on drugs, or the war on terror. We need a war on perverse and pathological pursuits of power and profit. That is our enemy.

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