Friday, August 29, 2008

Where Have All the Soldiers/Citizens Gone?

The loneliest job in the world these days has to be that of US Army or Marine infantrymen, and their close ground support comrades. One is hard pressed to find any historical examples of such inattention paid by any nation to the life of its defenders while they suffer and die in battle. It doesn’t stop when those of all services come home and need help.
Even during the Vietnam War, citizens were attentive, if disapproving. Today they are disengaged.
“Once again a generation of Americans is tempted to live undisturbed, buying tranquility on credit while hearts atrophy, quarantined from any great enthusiasm but private ambition.”
Bill Moyers

Sadly, even many of our fellow veterans pay little attention to the soldiers themselves, concentrating on the elusive goal of “winning” – without understanding in almost any sense what “winning” as a nation entails. They most often reduce it to the simple concept of “winning” as in a fistfight, or a bar brawl. They hoot and holler with ramped-up nationalistic vigor at the thought of our soldiers “winning”, meaning beating the daylights out of “them” – “the other guys”.
The picture many of us older, and dare I say more thoughtful veterans and citizens have of the American soldier is as the defender of a bright and clear vision of equality, freedom, democracy, and fairness. We see the soldier more like Gary Cooper in High Noon – quiet, reserved, fair, thoughtful, professional, hard to provoke, firm in his convictions, deadly in his execution, then benevolent in his victory.
The view of those who hold the ferocious warrior or even the berserker concept of the soldier, is as relentless, quick to anger, violent and bloody in execution, giving no quarter, and holding an eternal grudge against those who dare challenge him or his nation. The model is Mel Gibson as "Mad" Max in Beyond Thunderdome, or worse yet the Lord Humungous from the same film.
Don’t get me wrong. This latter view, I am sure, is not how most soldiers view themselves, rather it is how a disengaged and self-pampering public views them, when they bother to think of them at all. Unfortunately it comes close to how some of our fellow veterans view them as well. Just read some of the blogs and the websites if you don’t believe me. The blood-lust is palpable, and the language praising our soldiers sounds like an advertisement for a super-violent MA-rated video game. But ~
“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”
William Tecumseh Sherman
So one model is that of maturity, strength, wisdom. The other model is that of the comic book super-hero-turned-slayer.
Those other guys may be right, at least in part. We only need to look at some of today’s reality TV to find a metaphor. Take the Spike TV “Ultimate Fighter” cage-fighting series as a fair example.
It’s 2003 and two fighters are in the cage. One well-armed but not perfectly; a rested, strong, and fully supported heavyweight faces up against the other, a poorly trained poorly armed lightweight. The battle is over shortly, and the ring attendants slip the noose around the loser’s heels and drag him from the arena like a defeated bull at Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring. His leaders and supporters declare “Victory” but they are wrong.

Let’s extend the metaphor and make it more like 2003 – 2008’s real battle. We leave the winning fighter in the cage – the gate is locked. We improve his armor from time to time and give him a new weapon or two, but he cannot leave the cage. The cage is brilliantly lighted but the spectator area outside the cage is pitch black. He believes that his fellow citizens are still out there watching and rooting for him.

The lights outside the cage are flashed on for a moment and he sees the truth. His fellow citizens aren’t even there anymore. He has new opponents but they are outside the cage armed with sniper rifles and roadside bombs. He can’t see them but they can see him only too well. His leaders are only present in order to act or fail to act in a way to ensures that the supply of foes is steadily increased. After all, we need a continuing war to be able to claim war-leadership.
When our soldier asks for help, the handlers occasionally send in another soldier, but he or she too is locked in the bright cage in the dark stadium, and is subject to the same attacks from unseen foes.

When our soldier asks for more help, he is given some money and by pushing it through bars of the cage he is able to buy off a few, but not all of his foes, and the attacks continue with some relief from at least one quarter. When he runs out of money, or his leaders act to ramp up the rage of his foes, the bought-off ones resume their attacks.
The cage is impregnable from his side as it is made of political choices that cannot be retracted. His cage and his way out of it are based on a policy of “winning”, but no one can explain that policy to him – no one knows what the hell “winning” means! The key to the cage is hidden in the undefined goal.

The outer lights flash on now and then, briefly, and still there are none of his fellow citizens there to cheer him on, much less to aid him, and certainly not to involve themselves. The seats reserved for them remain empty – reserved, of course, in recognition of their importance, but empty nonetheless..
If he is killed he is sent home but hidden from view. When he is wounded he is replaced, and sent home to find yet another cage.
This time he is outside the cage and the cage door is locked, for inside it are those who make the money, have the power, and hand down the decisions that control his life. They post long lists on the outside of the cage of the benefits available to him, but the benefits are inside this home cage, and he has to fight to get inside.
He isn’t allowed to get any help in getting through this cage wall, while those inside stack up the regulations that reinforce those walls, and they line up the new foes – those who make him fight this new battle once again all alone – those who hand down the arbitrary decisions that govern his life for good, or more often for ill.

These are the keepers of the new cage who talk about “average wait times” and “budget limitations”, interspersed with “Support the Troops” and “Honor the Veteran” speeches. They will only listen to him long enough to tell him that the wound he suffered or those horrific dreams he is having are not combat-related unless he can provide proof that he was once in combat, and that that specific time resulted in his problem. Somehow he forgot to take notes.

Deep inside the home cage there is an inner ring of all those of his fellow citizens who were rooting for him in the first few weeks of the conflict, but who disappeared from the audience around the original battle cage. They are surrounded by all of the amenities of the self-indulgent life. They shop at stores with banners hawking their “Veterans Day Sale” and their “Memorial Day Sale”. They are surrounded by a soundproof wall that excludes his pleas for help. Their televisions don’t have a channel that shows the outside of the cage. The ads for their high-priced goodies and their fanciful vacations appear daily in the paper many pages before the occasional article about the soldier and his comrades.

Our veteran soldier tries to find a copy of the US Constitution – the document and the idea that he had sworn to defend, and which he believed also defended him. To no avail. Those in the inner circle had burnt every last copy back at the beginning to keep them from being uncomfortable on chilly and scary nights.
In the end, the soldier gives up and fades away. He walks away from the cage, looking back over his shoulder to read the inscription over the cage door:
America ~ Land of the Happy ~ Home of the Indulgent
No entry to veterans – closed for indifference

Sandy Cook

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