My daughter Sarah is home schooling both of her sons. The older boy, Zack, is 14 and quite mature intellectually because he is bright, a reader, and is immersed in input from the Internet. Having played serveral war Games, he asked his mom if he could study something called "American Military History Since 1945." She contacted me as an old and former history teacher to see if I could help, and I readily agreed to try to put together a "learning packet" on this topic for him. Doing this task has been the focus of my attention since August and has created an intense surge of excitement in my life that is hard to describe.
Why? Because I have always been an avid reader about war, about combat. When I read, I am there. Yet I am an equally avid pacifist who abhors violence in any form in the real world. I'm sure a psychologist could explain this contradiction. I was fortunate that the timing of my birth allowed me to arrive at draft age in between wars. I was on a career path leading through graduate school and fatherhood that furnished me deferments and cancelled any necessity of me actually having to be in the service and fight in actual combat.
My enchantment and involvement with war, therefore, were totally vicarious and removed from its reality--a viewpoint that I see now contained more than a hint of romance gleaned from the movies I watched and the paperbacks I devoured as I grew up. I responded viscerally to the excitement of second-hand combat and danger--on film or print--in spite of the fact that if I had been forced to live out those events, I would have perished with fright long before I was ever hit with by shell or shrapnel.
Interestingly, in putting together the learning packet for Zack, I have discovered that my ardor for the subject matter of war diminished as my reading and viewing moved from the 1940's toward the present. It was fairly easy, I found, to be a "hero-in-my-own-mind" while doing battle with the Krauts and Japs (as we depersonalized them), shooting down Kamakazis from a fast moving destroyer, sinking supply ships through the periscope of a sub and watching the torpedoes run true to their targets, or commanding a platoon of resourceful commandos wreaking havoc behind enemy lines in occupied France.
However, I discovered that the minute the action moved to the frigid hills of Korea, the hot and humid jungles of Vietnam, and the arid deserts and barren mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan, my interest and emotional involvement subsided, virtually disappeared. No longer was I able to be personally involved--that is, as myself, Mark from Kentucky, red headed and wearing glasses, often afraid of my own shadow in the real world.
The issue forced by the historical work I was doing on Zack's learning packet turned out to be centered right here--in me--at the place where my emotional involvement and support of the "hot" action of war faded away and became something more like disgust or nausea or revulsion. Perhaps the change began when I reviewed 1945 and Hiroshima, and first saw photographs and newsreels depicting horribly burned and mutilated Japanese citizens, not soldiers, lying blackened and maimed where they just happened to be, following their daily routines, that morning in August 1945 when an atomic bomb exploded over their hometown.
Perhaps my outlook also changed when I talked with college friends who had been in Korea and heard their horror stories about the inescapable freezing cold, their perpetual hunger, their fear, the mass nightly charges and bugle-blowing hordes of Chinese who just kept coming even when they were being slaughtered by our machine guns as fast as they appeared. Or maybe it was when I watched the brutality of the Vietnam War that I saw on each evening's TV news, military and civilians, adults and children burned by napalm or mowed down by shrapnel, automatic weapons, or exploding Claymore mines. Or it could have been when I was witnessing any one of the many military encounters in which my country has been involved, whether in Latin America, Africa, or the Asian sub-continent in the past 30 years.
It seems to me, in retrospect, that the rationale for war has become less and less obvious and apparent as the years of my life have passed. Acknowledging this, I searched deep into myself, exploring my soul as it were, for other sources of my decreasing enchantment with war, and I discovered several. First, as I had grown older, I began more fully to understand the meaning of pain, both physical and emotional, because I had experienced both in my life. I had to acknowledge that war is full of both. Moreover, as my age advanced, I had become increasingly sensitive to the finality of death, mine as well as others. People in the movies or news clips who got hit and went down and expired were "down for good"--no second chances or repeat performances. No longer could I take any comfort by making a charade of death.
I also began to question more deeply than ever before whether there were ever any good rationales for fighting a war, for deliberately devising strategies to kill as many or the "enemy" (other human beings) as possible. And this was particularly troublesome where it concerned fighting other people for reasons that were not directly involved with the defense of my nation, my people, my family, or myself.
All of these changes in me were only intensified as I searched through films and books to include in Zack's packet. Last night, for example, I accidentally happened on an older movie, not on my topic, starring Anthony Quinn, one of my favorites. He played Omar Mukhtar, a Bedouin tribal leader in Libya fighting on horseback against the colonizing Italians' artillery, tanks and aircraft. The Italians, like many of their European and American counterparts, were seeking to suppress/eliminate the natives who objected to the subjection of their country by the foreigners.
Here the full absurdity of war was presented boldly and graphically. I saw that the slaughter and death and tribal destruction had many causes, from the individual hubris of the commanders, to the generalized lust for control, the national and personal need to exert power over others, the urge to exact revenge, disputes about who owns the land, international competition and pride, the excitement of rape and pillage, etc., etc. In short, I saw war for what it was with no hint of romance or positive coloration by rose colored glasses. And it made me sick.
Following that, t didn't take much reflection to refocus my attention ahead a couple of years, on what's happening in Libya today. It's easy to see the results of those earlier colonial-tribal conflicts, of the later battles in North Africa during War II, of the appearance of a self-serving, autocratic government seeking some sort of order after World War II. Then there are the latest events of the Arab Spring, the overthrow of corrupt absolute power in favor of ....who knows what? And the "elephant in the room," of course, or under the sands, Libya's oil reserves, 8th largest in the world, a national asset that takes on new meaning in our petroleum-based world where crude oil resources are literally fought for because they inevitably dwindle and disappear.
While I am still excited about creating this learning package for Zack, my enthusiasm for the subject matter of war per se has diminished notably. I continue to try to hold my cynicism in check because I still love the country into which I was born and whose ideals, opportunities, standards. and virtues I have treasured ever since I was old enough to cry at a Fourth of July parade during World War II. I find small solace in knowing that aggression and war are part of human nature.
Naively, I guess, I aspire for more and better than that for our kind, and for our progeny. To do what I can, a step better than mere "hoping," I'll support those causes and people who seem to agree with this dream and objective, simplistic and child-like though it may be. And keep my gnarled old fingers crossed.
A welcome to readers
As a resident of this planet for more than four fifths of a century, I have enjoyed both successes and disappointments in a wide variety of vocations, avocations, and life experiences. This blog satisfies my desire to share some thoughts and observations--trenchant and prosaic--with those who are searching for diversions which are interesting, poignant and occasionally funny. I also plan to share recommendations about good/great movies I've watched and books and articles which I've found particularly mind-opening, entertaining, instructive. In addition, I can't pass up the opportunity to reflect publicly on how I am experiencing the so-called Golden Years. Write anytime: