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Monday, November 26, 2012

Veteran's Day (Remembrance Day) of the Future

Like nearly every one of you reading this, I have no first-hand experience of warfare. Thank God (or what you will). No member of my immediate family, nor anyone I ever knew personally, was among those fallen in battle. Also, like you, I do know what I’m supposed to feel on Remembrance day (they call it Veteran’s Day in the states)—that I am meant to feel sad about the fallen and acknowledge a debt to them for sacrificing their lives for my personal salvation from a promised evil. Remembrance Day thus contains and replays the powerful Christian redemption myth: that we owe love and worship to a historical figure (Jesus) because he died to save us from eternal damnation. In that myth, WE are the ones who are fallen, who fell from an Edenic state of grace, but through Christ and like Christ we will rise up again from death and corruption, made whole again and glorious, or so that grim theology goes. Remembrance Day thus taps into a powerful myth of glorious redemptive sacrifice at the very heart of Western culture. It thus rings all sorts of bells deep in us.

Like most of you, most of what I know of warfare and the story of this day is by report, reports that tend to get into us while we’re young and impressionable, through the tales of our elders. My father and brother both served: my father in the Pacific in WW2, and Walt in ‘Nam. But I used to feel ashamed growing up because my father did not behave like your typical veteran. Unlike nearly all other fathers I knew, my father never joined the VFW lodge (like the RSL), never went to ship reunions, never marched in Veteran's Day parades, never wore medals, and was an elder who never told war stories. Except this one time. But more on that in a second...

Also again unlike many other working class veteran dads, my father was not a big drinker either, except for one day of the year: the annual Westinghouse Bull and Oyster Roast. It was an end of the year thing, held around Veterans day, about now. (His plant was part of the defence industry, made guided missiles, better bombs, radar systems, but also stuff for NASA’s Apollo, space shuttle, and Voyager programs.) This one day of the year, he’d come home late, swaying, suit pockets full of rare roast beef wrapped in paper plates (our sandwiches for the next week). He’d clump up the stairs to the room my kid brother and I shared, wake us up from childhood dreams, to kiss our foreheads, give us each a quarter, and croon in low, sad tones, sweetly reeking of hi-balls, how much he loved us, how proud he was that we were good Catholic boys.

One such time, while Walt was on his second tour in ‘Nam, he added to his usual pie-eyed schtick, in a strange, choked voice, that we needed to pray hard and everyday for Walt. Because, as he said, “War is all hell boys.”

We had asked him before about his war experience, but he always deflected it with a joke and a ‘McHale’s Navy’ confabulation about fishing, coconuts and shore-leave hijinks on tropical islands. But this night, sensing his vulnerability perhaps, I ventured one more time that God-awful question: “What did you do in the war, daddy?”

And that one night, he sat at the foot of the bed and told us the straight goods, all of it:
He was a radio man on an LST, a ship that drives right up onto beaches to unload men, tanks, jeeps, equipment. With gallows humour the sailors dubbed the LST the “Large Standing Target”. Steaming into Iwo Jimo landing, next to another LST carrying fuel, a kamikazee skipped across his ship’s deck and straight into the fuel ship. It vaporized instantly. The force of the concussion blew him off his sea-legs. When he rose, looked down on the shallow water of the bay around his boat and... “you know what Manhattan clam chowder is boys?” (it's a tomato-based, chunky fish soup). Only the tomato soup was a bay of blood, and the chowder chunks were human body parts. Screams down the radio headset from other ships taking similar hits, not like you hear in movies, he said, higher-pitched like the screams of girls. Hammer-blow whunks of 50 caliber rounds hitting the metal of his shack, only one of which could rip your arm clean off with the shoulder like a chicken Maryland.
Like this, but in pieces...
Below him on deck, grown men were freaking out in the heavy strafing, and a junior officer fresh from the naval academy (a so-called '90-day wonder'), was standing tall on the deck in the hail of hot lead, was shrieking commands and calling them cowards, putting them on report for taking cover. In the madness of the action, Dad saw the foregunner swivel his 50 caliber around and cut this zealous 2nd lieutenant in half. He simply fell apart, dad said. And there was more, but by that time our eyes were the size of dinner plates. Finally, my mother came and got him, and took him gently downstairs.

I didn’t sleep much that night. I didn’t understand why he let his war story all out at once, and couldn’t seem to stop, nor why the one day of the year he drank it was with workmates (most of them ex-servicemen too) at this event. He was as sober as Mother Theresa the other 364 days. He was no drinker, but he DID have an 80-a-day cigarette habit.
The boom the post-war tobacco industry enjoyed owed much to servicemen who had been hooked on cigs during the war; cigs were normal rations and were given for the same reason that the AmerIndians originally smoked tobacco in the ‘peace pipe’—nicotine suppresses anger like alcohol suppresses fear, and cigs calmed them in the after-battle come-downs. Cigs were cheap and even ‘healthful’ and everyone smoked post-war. Such luxuries of the post-war boom were part of an entire generation’s rightful reward for summoning up the killer in them, and for the terror that prompts murderous rage.
One of the many rewards for being turned into a killer
A man therefore who smokes 80 a day must be suppressing lot of anger, and it is, pure and simple, a serious narcotic addiction--his drug of choice--which he did not kick until a near-fatal heart attack at age 61. But anger is a secondary emotion; it is prompted by fear. And of course, I get it now. If he were a soldier today, he would be diagnosed as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

And why wouldn't he? Take a kid from a peaceful suburb, stick him in a pitching bucket, half a world away from all he’s known, where rolling waves dwarf the ship like liquid mountains. Then send him into the battle he described where the whole, perfect human form can be made to disintegrate in a pink mist, where the ocean become a bloody human chowder, like a medieval painting of the lake of Hell. Who wouldn’t be traumatized? He was in no way unique, either: there was a whole generation of men who came home traumatized, and had to figure out, before self-help books or fashionable therapy, how to deal with it on their own. These casualties of war are often overlooked, or looked at askance, like it’s not a real sacrifice. But as someone said “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers”. Dad’s trauma was not as physically obvious as a crutch; his crutch was of a different sort, the kind that made you look like Bogart—cool on the outside, and with the fear and anger cooled on the inside.

When we think of the fallen today, we might also remember there are many ways to fall, many ways to be a casualty. It’s easier to sentimentalise the dead who cannot speak, transformed into glorious but silent white stone. What would they say if they could speak, I have often wondered? Would they want to be remembered for the gruesome circumstances of their death? Would they want to be immortalised in those clean, posed photos of them in uniform which adorn many a village hall, or would they show you instead their fallen, shattered, scattered, remains, the better to remember them? It is harder to sentimentalize about those who survive physically or psychically shattered. The dead don’t have to find a way to live a life having witnessed things too horrible to bear, unable to un-see them, unable to forget. Lest we forget; lest they remember. On remembrance day, we remember, we look back; but perhaps letting survivors forget, and look forward rather than back, is a more fruitful way to honour scarred survivors.

Sentimentalizing warfare makes it more permissible, and fortifies and maintains the powerful myth of sacrifice. You know you’re in the sphere of sentiment and myth when euphemisms abound. For example the word “fallen” gets used over and over as I’ve used it today. Fallen…like they tripped. It’s easier to hear that than the obscenity war really is: the dis-assembly, the dis-memberment, of human beings by machinery, on an industrial scale. And ‘remembering’? Ironically, they cannot be re-membered, they cannot be re-assembled ever again, except of course if you believe we rise again in glory at the last judgement, that grim Christian theology that sounds more and more like a zombie film. But all the kings horses and all the kinds men cannot put the dead—or traumatized survivors--back together again.

All holidays are cultural products, born of a particular place and time. Remembrance Day was a product of the last century, and looking back on those wars warps the picture a bit—think of Australia’s tragically disproportionate losses in WW1--to confront the utter futility this turned out to be is almost unberable: all those lovely boys and girls for a fading imperial Britain that no longer rules the waves. And WW2, the last ‘just’ war, warps the picture even more, since it was as clearly just as a war can be—it opposed by force the brutal world domination of a dehumanising ideology.
 But looking forward in the 21st century, that idea of a just war seems positively nostalgic, so morally ambiguous have all military conflicts been since then—Vietnam, the Balkans, the war on terror. Wars are different now. Warfare is different now. And so, perforce, warriors themselves are different now. But the mechanics of human dis-assembly remain much the same, though through our technological ingenuity, ever more distanced from the real…distanced rather like memory, rather like stories.

The technological ingenuity that distances us from killing developed in a clear trajectory, like this: from hands, to rock, club, edged weapon, arrow, gun, ordnance, missiles. And today? The distancing is almost complete enough to render killing an abstraction, a video game. The Israelis have invented a gun that bends in the middle so you can shoot Palestinians around corners, aiming via a camera, and in the last few years, of course the piece de resistance—the drones, or more accurately, “flying killer robots”—for that is what they are. Yes that day has come.

This drone is over Pakistan; the pilot is bravely in Phoenix
Picture this 21st century warrior: a man in a shirt and slacks drives to an air-conditioned office in a building in a large city. He sits at a computer console, dons headphones, picks up a joy stick. On the screen he sees satellite vision of a target and the drones POV. Meanwhile half a world away, the flying killer robot takes off at his command, flies silently to a village in Pakistan. The man presses the joystick’s button and the robot dispenses an anti-personnel missile that wipes out an entire city block. At the end of the day, this new warrior leaves and within a half hour, he’s helping his kids with their homework. This happens literally every day now.
Am I the only person who finds the video-game warrior morally troubling? It is the final frontier of distancing oneself from the gruesomely mangled consequences of one’s actions. So I very much doubt if he will ever suffer PTSD, much less physical injury, RSI perhaps. He will probably sleep like a child, and never require a narcotic addiction to cope. My question is: in Veteran's Days of the future, what stories will he tell? Will we honour him? Will he be invited to the VFW/RSL? Will he receive medals? If so, for what? If not, why on earth not?

If you think drones are an exception, in the sci-fi experimental stage, you should know that this is what we’re moving toward. During the last ten-years’-wars, the USA alone went from 10 drones in 2002 to 445 in 2012, and soon to 685. By 2050, their numbers will enable them to replace most conventional military deployments. And if you think they’re smart and surgical, civilian casualty rates peak at 60% of the total kill. The flying killer robot models have cool names like “The Reaper” and “The Predator”. A current military employment ad seeks 600 new drone pilots. Each can do the work of an entire company of troops. None will be shot at. I guess this is good. For some.
But who now, I wonder, threatens brutal world domination with a dehumanising ideology? In trying relentlessly to vanquish evil through force, have we become what we feared? Does our technological ingenuity, further enable our genius for moral evasion, denial, and myth-making? Will Remembrance/Veteran's Day forever be a nostalgic, sepia-tinged newsreel story on the History channel? Or will we one day, need just to move on from war stories, and deal with the world that is to come.

Remembrance/Veteran's Day has a history of being a tricky one for Unitarians, a source of anxiety and divisiveness. Along with the Christian holidays, Remembrance Day is renown among Unitarian ministers as a tough day to write worship for. This tension is because of our traditional streak of pacifism. That traditional pacifist streak sits in tension with our perfectly natural inclination to show respect to the dead, and to be thankful for the freedoms we are told and believe we owe to them. Think of it—someone who would never know you, putting their one life in the midst of the machinery of war, to protect you.

I know myself too well to claim to be a pacifist. I know in my heart there are people for whom I would kill to protect. Even if I had to use my bare hands, or a drone. And I probably would’ve supported the war against the Axis powers if I were living in Australia in 1940, to halt the brutal world domination of a dehumanising imperialist ideology, against a nation that would certainly have invaded and made Australia a resource-rich colony. (Thank God that nothing like that has happened, if you don't count that fact that we have become China's mining operation!) In 21st century, conquest and domination between developed nation states is achieved by softer, cultural and economic means.

Wise folk say we know too much now, we are too globally interdependent, to enter into anything like the conflicts of the 20th century that shaped Remembrance Day. So clinging to the wars of the 20th century as a defining image of war is indeed an exercise in nostalgia, a looking back to when the moral stories were more clear-cut. And we are too well-armed, in the new world of flying killer robots, to do anything other than butcher those who don’t have the same technological tools, like the Afghanis and Pakistanis. I am no pacifist, but I am anti-war because I fear our power and our weaponry and our ability to kid and excuse ourselves. I fear our unequivocal, unhesitating adulation for militarism, since the political costs of saying anything else are just too high. I fear our love of the myth of the glory of sacrifice. Perhaps you recall the two Australian men who were recently found to be impersonating returned soldiers, faking their veteran status, wearing stolen medals, marching? Why would anyone do that, but for the glorious status military service automatically accords in this culture? I am anti-war because I fear those dark lusts of our fallen, bestial nature. My father’s great strength was to shun the blandishments accorded to returned soldiers.
Why would you fake service, except for the unquestioned status
 But fallen and violent and vain and self-deluded is not, of course, the whole story of our nature, our ingenuity, or our future, despite the coming drone wars. Why? Because by sheer coincidence—or maybe not— another, altogether different flying robot excited comment this week. Do you know what it is? About now, the second Voyager spacecraft, first launched 35 years ago, is leaving the heliosphere-- the absolute limit of our solar system, heading for the deep dark mystery of interstellar space.
Flying peace-envoy robot.
In a stroke of utter genius, project consultant the late Dr. Carl Sagan, requested that NASA swing the camera to look back at, to remember, Earth, and it took this picture of us from 4billion miles away, before it became unseeable (see below). This view of earth inspired Dr. Sagan to thoughts relevant for Remembrance Day, in a piece that has become well-known, called the Pale Blue Dot. He says:

"Consider… that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it all of human history has happened…The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Well, Carl, when you put it like that....

Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance…are challenged by this point of pale light… There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another…"

Human ingenuity, eh?  McLuhan’s truism has become trite, but holds true: We shape our tools, and our tools shape us. How we will be shaped depends on which flying robot we choose. Reaper or Voyager? In which does true valour lie?

My father received a commendation for valour in WW2, something he also never talked about in his life. But when I think of his “service” to which we might owe a debt, I remind myself that he also helped build, in the Westinghouse prototype lab under contract to NASA, some of the parts, yes, that just left our solar system on Voyager. He never spoke of the combat honour, but if he were to seek for honour, I’m certain this is what he’d want to be remembered for—a tiny role in a grand campaign, a joyous hopeful shot at how things can yet be, into the outer reaches of the cosmos with the best we had.

The perspective his flying robot counsels is this: if you want to honour truly the fallen in war, work for the day which MUST come, when children no longer ask “What did you do in the war daddy?”, but ask instead “What was war, daddy?” So let it be.