Sunday, September 08, 2013

Death and Dying, War and (no) Peace

Gandhi once said: “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?” 

Similarly, one might well ask, it seems to me, what difference does it make whether you die by poison gas or some other method of modern warfare.  I’m sure that dying from a gas attack must be a particularly horrible way to die, but is it really any different or worse that being blown to bits by a mortar, howitzer, bomb, white phosphorous, a cluster bomb, agent orange, or a sniper? How about the radiation left behind by other weapons that kill more slowly over longer periods of time as is apparently the case in Iraq and other places we have destroyed? What about the terrible birth defects caused by such residue? Now we are being told that the world cannot stand by while Assad (presumably) has used poison gas on his own people. The world has stood by while more than 100,000 Syrians have already been killed by other means, a number that dwarfs the thousand or so apparently killed by the gas. I apologize for being so dense but I fail to see the difference. Perhaps the phrase “on his own people” makes an important difference (that is, of course, an appalling thing to do), but why would killing anyone else be any different when it comes to dying? Furthermore, the world, and especially the United States, has stood idly by for years while Israel has committed one international crime after another. While I don’t know for certain, I believe the “rules” against poison gas most probably originated during or just after WW I when their use was totally unprecedented. Given the weapons that now exist the distinction between poison gas and other more (respectable?) ways to kill people might appear naïve, or at least outdated.  This seems to me to be hypocrisy on a world-wide scale.

 And how might it relate to this (perhaps puzzling) statement by  Sir Winston Churchill,  "War, which used to be cruel and magnificent has now become cruel and squalid." If Churchill did not have poison gas and other modern weapons in mind, what did he have in mind? My natural cynicism leads me to believe that when “Winnie” was first soldiering in the British colonial troops against more or less helpless, poorly armed, and essentially defenseless “ethnics” around the world, and was involved in nobly expanding the Britiish Empire, he may well have thought it was all “magnificent,” but now, of course, they can often successfully fight back, a truly “squalid” situation that brings about very different results.

It is interesting, at least to me, that there are still individuals who seem to believe there is something “magnificent” or “romantic” about soldiering. I actually know, or at least have known individuals who think this and were (or are) eager to join up to “prove themselves” in battle. While this cannot be the only reason why so many individuals rushed to sign up to fight Hitler or Tojo, or Sadam or Osama, I am certain it was an attitude often related to their behavior. I had at least one uncle who was so eager to fight in World War I he rushed to join the Canadian army (and ended up being gassed and with no further illusions about the grandeur of war). I wonder how many of our young people who join our volunteer army might share this illusion only to be quickly disabused of such nonsense? Given the extraordinarily high rate of suicides among our returning troops it would seem the reality of war easily overcomes such expectations, if indeed they have them.

Perhaps now that we are involved in permanent wars, with no ends in sight, and more and more thousands come home in body bags or hopelessly crippled and suicidal, there will no longer be any illusions about the magnificence of war. This won’t keep some young people from enlisting as they have little choice with our surplus labor force, starvation wages, and enticing enlistment bonuses. Unfortunately there will always be a need for cannon fodder. “Join the Army, be as good as you can be!”

     He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice.

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