When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, . . .
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
The New York Times recently ran a five-page section of essays on the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated on June 28, 1914, causing Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia. Germany sided with Austria-Hungary and European allies sided with Serbia. Thus, one of the cruelest, bloodiest and most corrupt wars was let loose in the world. It did not end until November 1918 and included 17 million deaths, 10 million of them European young men in uniform.
A.O.Scott writes about the sense of innocence and expectant glory at the beginning of the war. Books like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front and Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That speak of the horrors of the everyman in the trenches. It was a war created by vainglorious, corrupt and short-sighted leadership. Beside bad leadership at the top, what stands out about World War One is how the war was fought by ordinary men who did the bleeding and the suffering, and how many of them came home to write eloquently about their disillusion.
“[A]s the war unfolded, a new attitude was taking shape that was rooted in the soldiers’ experiences,” writes Edward Rothstein. “It has had an enduring influence on how war itself is often thought about — with complicated consequences.” World War One seemed to generate poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Owen’s great poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” is about witnessing a young soldier without a mask dying from gas.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
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.
(The old lie: It is sweet and glorious
to die for your country.)
“[T]his is history written from ‘below’ — through the lens of ordinary participants, not political leaders or military strategists,” writes Rothstein.
World War Two, many argue, came about because the issues at play in World War One had never been resolved. Similarly, one can argue the Vietnam War evolved out of World War Two and the refusal of France and the US to accept Vietnamese independence and, of course, the rise of the Cold War between two WWII allies. In his 650-page epic The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, the historian Niall Ferguson sees a fifty-year war that began in 1904 with the Russo-Japanese War to 1953, the end of the Korean War. This was followed by what he calls The Third World War, involving wars of decolonization. Western imperial decline is part and parcel of this last 50 year arc.
As the Times essays emphasize, the disillusion at the bottom that sprang from the trenches of WWI was one of that war’s most important legacies to our day, a voice that appears and re-appears in subsequent wars and lives on in our post-9/11 world. It’s part of a human struggle between the top-down justification of decisions about going to war and the bottom-up questioning of basic notions like “Why am I here?” “What are we doing?” Of course, such questions are not acceptable in a military chain of command.
According to Scott, WWI writers like Hemingway rejected “the old, elevated language of honor and glory.” Some 90 years later, he points out, after September 11, 2001, there was “a rehabilitation of the abstract words that Hemingway and his lost generation had found so intolerable. Ordinary soldiers were routinely referred to as ‘heroes’ and ‘warriors,’ even as their deaths and injuries were kept from public view.” It was, he suggests, a reversion to pre-WWI language.
“But the Great War is not quite finished with us,” Scott concludes, referring to the disillusioned voices from below. He cites recent novels by Iraq veterans like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and Redeployment,, short stories by Phil Klay. I’d add The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. From Vietnam, there’s Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. These works deal with complicated human beings caught up in a confusing set of violent circumstances. Being a hero or a warrior is not the point.
I suspect the story of Bowe Bergdahl fits into this category. True, no one has written it as a novel, poem or non-fiction. So far, it’s a narrative of which we know only the basic highlights. Due to his traumatic five-year captivity, Bergdahl is now a virtual captive of the US military. He has not even been allowed to see his family. It’s clear the military feels proprietary about his story and sees a need to assure that that story does not become “history written from below.”
I want to understand Bergdahl’s story as that of a human being, specifically a young man from the mountains of Idaho who read widely and did things like try to learn the Pashto language and more than once to walk “outside the wire.” Is he a traitor or an independent-minded young man caught in the meat-grinder of a simplistic, violent US policy? Maybe it was foolish to wander over the wire, but was it the act of a person attempting to link with the enemy to harm his comrades or was it the act of a curious human being, maybe even a little bored, looking for something other than the madness of war? War zones are amazing places. I want his story to be told in all its human complexity and not as the latest installment in the stabbed-in-the-back myth.
The right tells us soldiers died looking for Bergdahl, which is a clear incitement of the stabbed-in-the-back myth, something that always arises at the end of a military debacle. If not for traitors we would have achieved the glory we deserve. But when you look into it you realize they’re talking about men killed during routine patrols that had nothing directly to do with Bergdahl. They were just supposed to keep their eyes peeled. The right also seems to be pillorying Bergdahl because they can’t exploit him positively for patriotic ends. Complexity and human nuance are not permitted here. If Sergeant Bergdahl is not a hero, then he must be a traitor. He can’t be just a young man caught up in a rotten war.
Strange things happen in war zones. I know a Vietnam combat veteran whose platoon made a separate peace with the Viet Cong unit in its area. It started with a note from the local VC delivered to the American soldiers by a little kid selling bottles of Coca-Cola. The deal was you stop attacking the VC or abusing the Vietnamese in and around the village and the VC would agree not to attack the US unit. The platoon leader gathered his men and they voted to go along with the arrangement. I’m not suggesting anything like this was at stake with Bergdahl — just that ordinary, young human beings on the ground in a confusing war controlled by politicians 12,000 miles away sometimes make their own peace and find their way to sanity.
Of course, this sort of discreet agreement would be considered subversive the more you go up the ranks. It’s like the famous Christmas truce between the trench lines in World War One. Once the brass learned of it, the peace sentiment was crushed so the killing could continue.
Thus war has been with us and will likely be with us for some time.
In his book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, Pankaj Mishra writes about “the revenge of the East.” This is what we’re living through right now. The rise of anti-US sentiment in elements like ISIS in Iraq is one extremely angry and violent instance of this. As Mishra puts it, “the spell of western power has finally been broken.” The aging Senator McCain, a man who suffered at the hands of the Vietnamese he bombed, may rattle his saber and decry the weakness of the current president, but what McCain is really upset about is that, after being squandered in Iraq and Afghanistan, the spell of US power has lost a lot of its shock and awe.
Fear is real in America; everyone feels it. They know, with the economy weak, the nation can’t afford to keep hosing out trillions (that’s with a T!) in resources to keep the image of the US strong and absolute in a military sense. People know in their hearts it can’t go on. What about the infrastructural, educational, environmental and economic crises all approaching disaster levels on the homefront? If you look at it from the correct angle, it’s a classic tragedy unfolding: A nation so full of its own top-down, narcissistic glory that it can’t find the humility to do what it must to re-structure itself as a modestly downsized, healthy nation facing the future and “the rise of the rest.” With more humility and more of a cooperative international spirit, the USA would become much less of an international target.
In one of his recorded messages, Osama bin Laden said his goal was to make the United States so crazy it would bankrupt itself chasing him around. This sounds like what Ronald Reagan is credited with doing vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Of course, the boogie-man bin Laden got his comeuppance from a seal team hit. But US war architects, state terrorists like Dick Cheney and his ilk, still walk among us and people listen to them. Nothing counters these warmakers like the voices of those who experienced disillusion serving “in the trenches” in our wars.
Two good examples: There’s a fine group of Iraq-era vets called Warrior Writers that works in this area of disillusioned voices of war. (They choose to use the post-9/11 term “warrior.”) They have published several worthy anthologies. The Yellow Birds was Philadelphia’s annual One Book, One Philadelphia entry this year. It was read all over the city and discussed in countless libraries and other venues.
Yellow Birds author Kevin Powers calls his novel “the cartography of one man’s consciousness.” It’s the story of two young soldiers in Iraq trying to make sense of the experience on the ground and later back home. One of them suffers a harsh disillusion, even loses his mental bearings to the point he crosses the wire to wander naked among mystified Iraqis. Power’s first-person narrator and the other characters are all complex human beings dealing with life; they are not reduced to heroes or warriors. We would benefit as a culture by hearing more complex voices like these. To counter all the pro-war madness, we need to hear men and women tell their stories of disillusion with war. It’s part of a long and honorable American tradition.
Here’s one of my favorite poems of disillusion from Vietnam by W.D. Ehrhart. It’s called “Making the Children Behave.”
Do they think of me now
in those strange Asian villages
where nothing ever seemed
and my few grim friends
moving through them
When they tell stories to their children
of the evil
that awaits misbehavior,
is it me they conjure?