Saturday, October 2, 2010

Cannon Fodder and the Nature of War

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Today's Ramble is going to wade through the topic of war, modern warfare and the impact that it has on the young people who are called on to wage it.   There will be no flag waving, parades or ceremonies - if that's what you think war is about, go curl up in the Lazy Boy and watch some Fox News.  Modern war, like those that we have suffered through since the end of World War II, has absolutely nothing to do with glory.  Modern wars are waged by the wealthy and fought by the poor.   They are political and economic games played out in jungles, and deserts, and mountains - games that seldom have any semblance of a moral purpose.  

I just finished the book, Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson.   When I first picked it up a Powell's Books kiosk at the airport in Portland, OR, I briefly thumbed through the pages and made an assumption that it was a really well-written book on the subject of the Vietnam War, something similar to the works of Tim O'Brien.   But the Vietnam of Johnson's work was little more than a background fluttering in the breeze.  He did briefly touch on the fighting of the Tet Offensive, but primarily Johnson focused on how war destroys people, not from bombs and bullets, but from within.

To Denis Johnson, war is a disease that, if left unchecked, turns humans into craven monsters.  James "Cowboy" Houston, one of Johnson's central characters, was struggling through high school in Phoenix when the Vietnam war was just beginning to boil over.  His older brother, Bill, had joined the Navy a few years earlier and was wholly focused on screwing and drinking his way across the Pacific.  James wanted to get the hell  out of Phoenix and eventually convinced his Bible-thumping mother to allow him to enlist at the tender age of seventeen.

James crossed paths one evening with Bill in Japan, but it was obvious that the years apart made them strangers.  James' star was on the rise and Bill was gradually drifting back toward Phoenix - to a life of low-end jobs and time in jail.  James went on to Vietnam where he was consumed by the darkness of war.  He prayed at the altar of booze, and drugs, and sex.  He quickly learned to see the Vietnamese and objects for his personal pleasure - some for screwing, some for killing,  as he slowly descended into madness.

The Vietnam experience of James "Cowboy" Houston ended after he and his LURPS squad (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol)  gang-raped a Vietnamese prostitute,  an activity that James capped off by ritualistically and sadistically stabbing her to death.  He followed that high by trying to lob a grenade into a sleeping platoon of Special Forces troops.  The death of the prostitute was just some boys-will-be-boys stuff that the military could overlook, but the attempted fragging of fellow soldiers indicated that young James had fallen over the edge and had to be dealt with.

The sergeant who was in charge of James considered two options.  He could keep him in Vietnam and let him stumble through the war until he was killed, or he could get him back home.  (James was serving his second war tour and had not been home.)  The sergeant opted to recognize James' long service in Vietnam and get him back to Arizona.  James was home only a brief time before he found his way to prison.

James Houston was serving in Vietnam during the years that America's children of privilege, this writer included, were hunkered down in college using scholarship as a means to evade the draft.  George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Don Rumsfield all know what I'm talking about.  Dan Quayle and Mitt Romney know, too.  The men and women running corporate America today, they also know.

James Houston was a fictional character, an author's invention created to illustrate a point.  Johnson's point was that war is dehumanizing.  James Houston was fictional, but Lt. William Calley was real,  James Houston was made-up, but Steven Dale Green was a living, breathing horror story.  James Houston didn't exist, but Jeremy Morlock damned sure did!  And for every Calley, Green, and Morlock that we know about, how many more young people stuck in a lingering war that no one understands, pulling multiple tours of duty in harm's way, and slowly being desensitized to the gentle demands of humanity?  They will reveal themselves to us, one-by-one, for decades to come.

Give him a gun, stoke him up with blind righteousness, and drop him into a place where the rules of civilization no longer apply.  It is a long-term recipe for disaster.

But it won't happen to Mitt, or George, or Dick, or Don, or Dan, or me - and God willing, it won't happen to our kids and grandkids.  Wars are fought by the poor, the ones easily influenced by slogans and flag-waving, the ones who need a job and health insurance, the ones who desperately want to find a way out of Phoenix, Arizona.

I heard a military officer say recently that we took too many questionable individuals into the service during the buildup after 9/11, and it was now time to usher them out.  I've seen that cynical cycle of behavior three times now - Vietnam, the first Gulf War, and Bush's Glory and Oil War.  When times are tough our country goes begging up and down the breadlines trying to fill the ranks of the military, and when the crisis ends, the rabble who are left are the first to be jettisoned.  

The young people who fight our wars are cannon fodder, and what the cannons fail to claim can go back to living on the streets because rich, greedy, corporate America will have moved on and won't need them anymore.   That is the nature of war today - and it is shameless.

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