Summer 2004


Troops Build Pyramids in Sandbox

Heel the World with Short Leash


by Alexander Swartwout

I would not blame the reader if by now he ran for the door every time he saw the words ‘prisoner abuse’ in newsprint.  How many more opinions must we suffer upon a topic that is so universally atrocious as this?  Who has devised a phrase more superlatively denunciatory than all the rest that have been thrown around?  In fact, the whole subject of torture is one which this editor finds tiresome; we have known for months, even years, that the United States has been engaged in the torture of wrongly-imprisoned human beings.  We have known that the inmates at Guantánamo Bay are regularly abused; we have known that the POWs in Afghanistan were grilled in most unsavory and inhumane ways; we have even known that American citizens, held in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, have been battered as badly as if they were Iraqi muhajedeen.  It has openly been a matter of our personal preference, whether we believe it, or acknowledge it, or just feel so impotent against our own authorities that we cannot bring ourselves to do anything about it.  We have been barbarians for as long as we have been crusading against Terror.  That we have caught a few of our soldiers in the act is just a natural progression – one which, if we might serve ourselves a tiny portion of the credit we have earned, was foreseen in these pages while the war was still young and vigorous.  The corporate press may feign restraint around the issue of whether they may ever say We Told You So, but we are not so robotic; we did tell you so, and if you were incredulous then or if you are surprised now, take a good look in the mirror and realize you have been an ingrate.

     No, torture is of little interest here.  The morality of war is of scant concern; the passage of blame from rank to rank is only an embarrassment to everyone involved, and is not worth our column-space; and even the fate of Mr. Rumsfeld and President “The Buck Goes That-a-Way” Bush is moot here (they haven’t understood, from day one, what it is to represent a nation, or a people, or an idea – and they certainly won’t learn selflessness now).  I intend to examine our forgiveness, its extent and its degree, and how it may signify the condition of our society.


The political traction the liberals have been gaining in their argument against perpetual war is due in large part to a new tack for the Left: to praise the military before every insult against the politicians.  No contemporary peacenik has uttered a complete thought until he has made it first and foremostly clear that he is supporting the troops, by pleading for their return home.  In a flailing world where everybody seems to be doing something wrong according to somebody else, the only innocent remaining is the brave American soldier – that one can do no wrong in anyone’s eyes.  This dismal result only proves how far we have retreated from common sense, and how thoroughly militarized our society has allowed itself to become.  The great cry which has been raised, seeking to exonerate the torturers at Abu Ghraib – they were just following orders, or war does things to people, or even, repellently enough, an eye for an eye – is ultimately the shameful reflex of a society that cannot bring itself to criticize the military it supports, the institutionalized murder, the regimental brain-wash, that is soldiery.

     For, if we were to snap our reluctant brains into action, we would see plainly that it is, after all, the American soldier who is most immediately at hand to the continued destruction and endless violence at every flashpoint of George Bush’s imperial aspiration.  Without the willingness of the American soldier, there is no argument for or against the fight; there is simply no fight.  The more outrageous this assertion sounds to you, the further from your right mind you have been led by decades of military culture.  If the American soldier retained any of that humanity and decency that we so often attribute to him, then he would not be capable of what he is capable of – torture, certainly, but even further, the shooting of civilians, the bombing of buildings.  Half of them wouldn’t even be in Iraq, if they had the cojones to act according to their convictions.

     It has become common courtesy amongst both hawks and doves to forgive the soldiers their sins on the grounds that they are just following orders.  Blameless are they who are not expected to think for themselves.  Whether we are poised to denounce belligerence or pacifism, we have all agreed that the military is a kind of family, a holy brotherhood, a great mill for secular martyrdom.  What goes on within the military, for some reason, is sacred and above reproach.  Yet this is hardly a standard by which to measure human beings.  Even laboratory animals are expected to demonstrate independent thinking above rote mimicry and unquestioning obedience.

     This automatic militarism has become the very basis of the Democratic challenge to the presidency; Senator Kerry is tiresomely lauded for all the courage and viciousness he demonstrated in Vietnam, and not until this is established is he allowed to make a stand against the present violence.  We often hear about how Senator Kerry has earned the right to speak out against war.  Are only those who have committed violence qualified to condemn it?.  Such a pact falls well short of the Jeffersonian Enlightenment; indeed, it is hardly even medieval.

     It ought to be immediately absurd to speak of any citizen having to earn the right to do anything.  Our rights are earned by birth, and if one of those is to exercise a humane disgust for violence, then let that right be well exercised in the face of the Attilas in suits among us, and not merely by those who have shed blood and found it not to their liking.  Or else we should be at least consistent, and employ all our serial-killers to write our church-sermons, and make known to the innocent the error of their ways. 

     We ought to hold our soldiers to a higher standard – and not merely a higher standard than that we have for zoo animals, but a higher standard than we have even for ourselves.  We ought to demand that they retain their conscience through basic training, and if they are asked to do something as blatantly debased as fire a missile through the minaret of a mosque, then we ought to be absolutely unforgiving unless they do nothing short of refuse.  There are an awful lot of ‘hero’s welcomes’ making the news these days, but if our happiness at the soldier’s safe return seems uncomfortably mixed with some confusion as to what exactly we are celebrating, consider that the returning soldier has done nothing to question the inhumanity of his orders, and he has taken the mutual defense of his buddies to an unacceptable extreme at the cost of others' lives.  He killed, rather than be killed.

The American soldier of the modern era is a volunteer to his circumstances, though more likely than not, on the grounds of receiving an affordable college education and not on the prospect of receiving a lifetime of trauma and an eternity of fatal karma at the hands of an unwilling enemy.  Because he is a volunteer, we know that he remains, in concept at least, of a free will.  If George W. Bush jumped off a bridge, should our soldiers do it, too?  Were our fighting forces Roman conscripts, mere Myrmidons to the cult of war, we ought to be proud of their guile and their mindlessness.  But if we truly want to be proud of our services, as the paragons of the modern citizen, dedicated to the integrity of the nation, then we must demand that they act to a higher standard than our politicians.  We should celebrate nothing less than mass-objection, the slow reverberation of 100,000 brave voices who have decided that they are no longer certain about the validity of their mission.  It is a monumental risk, in the close-knit society of soldiers, to speak out and question the wisdom of the authorities; but it is a shame to one’s own human dignity to commit acts against one’s own conscience.

     In the political climate of the moment, where the Left is ready to compromise anything to unseat the Right-wing radicals in office, to barely suggest that the military is complicit in anything but sunshine and rainbows is sheer blasphemy.  But it is the gradual acceptance of militarism and regimented thought that has got us this far in a muddle to being with, and we would do well to remember our human principles even as we jockey for momentary political advantage.  Our Christian President loves violence and honors those who commit it; the rest of us, if we are self-respecting Homo sapiens at all, must loathe violence and have hard standards of forgiveness for those whose minds are too clouded or indoctrinated to realize that they are its agents.


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