In 1945, on furlough from a military hospital, I happened to tag along to a dinner party where an "important person" spoke of "the American soldier," his superiority. It was embarrassing, and just about impossible to find the words to show why. So, I kept silent and went away fuming. More wars came. By the time we finally pulled out of Vietnam I felt assured that we had finally learned war and would no longer bow down to the war hero syndrome. Wrong. Fifty-odd years went by and there we were again, in front of the screens, watching a president drop down to the deck of a carrier named Abraham Lincoln; he wore a flight jacket, he gave a victory speech. When will we ever learn?
Look back, to the War Between the States; no, further, to wilderness battles fought here on behalf of European kingdoms, against the French, the Indians and, at last, the British. First-hand accounts show that male fear of being branded yellow played a big role. More than once that kind of cowardice led soldiers into tactics that were just plain dumb, and tragic. But consider Red Jacket, branded a coward in combat, teased by his fellow tribesmen and tribeswomen, who became a great peace chief, skilled negotiator.
Later, in early years of our republic, slaveholders lusted after Cuba and other lands to the south. The nation did invade Mexico, on the basis of "false intelligence," won that struggle, took to itself a huge new realm. Manifest Destiny, under God, was hardening its hold. We fought Spain, took the Philippines, slaughtered villages.
We Americans, patriots all, desperately need great slabs of realism about those wars, the why of them, the vital stuff not told in the texts or by the media or from the mouths of those in power. Read Ulysses Grant, future war hero, then president, his being sickened by the shameful way the battles went in Mexico. Read Walt Whitman, nurse to Civil War wounded. And the generals who couldn't bear to send their troops into certain slaughter, and had to be replaced. Visit the 1919 "near mutiny" among American troops in Archangel, refusing to advance against the Red Army. And Ernie Pyle, war reporter who told it like it is, went with infantry dogfaces through north Africa, Sicily, Italy, the Pacific, where he died in combat. Take another look at Mauldin's cartoons. Investigate that forgotten Korean war: 95,000 United Nations soldiers killed (54,000 Americans) and a million Chinese soldiers, 10,000 South Korean soldiers, 2 million North Korean civilians, one million South Korean civilians. These are deaths, not counted are the wounded.
The standard bearer against Bush is driving ahead, flaunting his heroism. That is an insult to deep knowledge lurking below the surface of our lives, knowledge stemming from centuries of warfare, of citizenship in a militarist society. The knowledge is that there is no heroism in war. There is comradeship, fear, courage, humor, strange stories that outstrip fiction, untold sufferings that endure long years after the last "casualty" and "collateral." Singling out individuals from such multilayered and communal ordeals in order to brag about heroics is to commit blasphemy. Ask any veteran about that, about medals. Further, to use those medals and their attendant boasts in a campaign for leadership of our country is ... words fail.
We need a crash course in American Centuries, then a careful look ahead, and there isn't much time. It won't be nearly enough to simply trail behind the leader "who can beat Bush." Passionate determination is required of us, and passion demands belief that the candidate is worthy of our commitment. Therefore, the candidate has to be taught a few hard truths.
He has to be taught that Iraq and Afghanistan can't be put backstage; those war zones represent the current edge of more than two hundred years of conquest. "Our" candidate has to make a clean break from the wars. The fence has to be unstraddled. He must be made to understand that we can't go all-out for a man who merely promises to conduct the wars more intelligently. The slaughters we now commit, and countenance, have to be condemned, cease-fires arranged. Those are some of the lessons we will have to teach. There must be many ways. Impossible? Lives are at stake.
Here are a few words from "The Daily Shoot-Out for Tourists on the Square in Jackson, Wyoming" by William Stafford, Ampersand Press, 1985.
What got away?
Was it something the women once
glimpsed? -- not courage, not standing
behind their men, but what put curtains
by the front window?
Now there's a little flaw in the wagons,
the music, the whiskey
Now it is the birdcall every evening saying
Martin Murie served in the US Army 10th Mountain Infantry during World War II, later got a doctorate in zoology and taught life sciences at universities in California and Ohio before retiring to write fiction and poetry in far north New York state.