[This post is another in our series of selections from editor Daniel Schwindt’s Letter to My Generation.]
Our generation automatically perceives all war as unjust. It’s almost a priori. Seeing this, an observer could be tempted to think that we are principled pacifists. That would be one explanation, but it would be wrong.
The truth is that we could conceive of a war worth fighting and which we could get behind, but we have been so suffocated all our lives by wars that are distant, senseless, petty, and based on motivations all too obscure to us. It is by this incessant conditioning that we have become instinctively opposed to war as something dark and suspect. Our aversion to war is not a high ideal, it is a habit. It is a practical pacifism developed through experience.
We are like the villagers in that children’s story who heard the cry “Wolf!” too many times and eventually grew tired of the drill. When the bell rings and the watchman cries, “Our freedom! Our freedom is under attack! To war!”—we are instantly skeptical. It isn’t that we love the wolves and want them to come destroy the flock; it isn’t that we don’t believe the wolves exist. We just don’t see any reason to believe the village crier. We know wolves are out there; we just don’t have any faith in the people responsible for ringing the alarm bell. They’ve been ringing too long.
That’s the second half of the problem: we’ve become numb to the sound of the bell. It has been ringing so long that we can’t hear it anymore. War and the threat of war are just part of our ambience. The propaganda that once roused the passions of the whole populace just makes us nod our heads and change the channel. That’s what happens when a society employs propaganda constantly. It loses its potency and becomes counterproductive because no one notices anymore.
Incessant, pulverizing propaganda. That’s all we’ve ever known. They turned on the machine after WWII and forgot to turn it back off. It rings in our ears twenty-four hours a day.
That’s part of the reason we don’t even protest the wars that come and go, the way some of our parents protested during Vietnam. In order to protest with that sort of passion, you have to be able to perceive a crisis. No one can get up in arms about their normal circumstances. Plus, you’ve got to have some alternative in your head so that you can tell yourself: “This is how things should be.” In other words, before you can identify a bad war for what it is, you’ve got to be able to identify a good one. You’ve got to have some notion of what a war based on justice looks like. But we’ve never seen a just war. We weren’t around for Hitler and his Holocaust.
All we’ve known is what we now have. We’ve become numb to the whole thing. I suppose that is a blessing, if numbness can ever be considered a blessing. We’re at least immune to propaganda. Our passions cannot easily be charged and manipulated.
We still lack direction, however. Numbness leaves one confused and inert. At least the victims of propaganda had a direction. We know that the noise of the politician on the loudspeaker isn’t for us, but when we walk away our ears are ringing so loud that we can’t hear ourselves think and we don’t know where we want to go.
That is why we are ambivalent about war. We don’t know what a just war looks like, and so we can’t identify what exactly it is about this incessant violence that strikes us as evil. We have no comparative background with which to draw our distinctions. Nonetheless we sense something insane behind the march, and the war cry.
“They hate our freedom!”—someone tells us. What does that mean? Who are they? Which freedom? The freedom to raise a family and live a good life? Well I suppose that would be a freedom worth dying to protect.
But there are other kinds of freedom we enjoy and which we exercise all too often. What if these enemies of ours hate our freedom to swear and blaspheme in the streets? What if they hate our freedom to exploit the weak; to make debt-slaves out of the desperate and the stupid; to plaster sex all over public spaces; to sell that sex to children; to swallow the entire world’s resources through excessive consumption; or to reinforce slavery and abuse in poor countries just to have cheaper amenities?
If those are the freedoms under attack, then we won’t be so quick to join the cause, will we? We will neither kill nor die defending those liberties.
Freedom is meaningless in itself. It is a word, and a vague word at that. It could mean anything at all. Tell me which freedom is under attack, and why it is worth defending. But please stop insulting my intelligence with your war slogans.
Many of us join the cause, though. Just like many of us go to church, and many of us vote, and many of us work seventy years and then die. We live in the madness and we can’t always get around it. For one reason or another, many of us end up with a rifle in our hands in a foreign land.
As usual, we don’t join the military because we are enthusiastic about this or that war. We don’t join because we are convicted about a particular cause. We join because the military advertises itself as an escape from aimlessness. It promises meaning and victory to generations of men who feel aimless and impotent.
Men, as we said before, seek initiation and trial so that they can know who they are and that they are men. They crave this. That’s how the military gets men these days. It doesn’t promise death for a just cause, it just offers the possibility of meaning in battle. It hijacks the old assumptions about the warrior life as something disciplined, honorable, and as something that offers man a path to transcend himself. That’s exactly what our generation needs, after all. But the modern military is the last place to find it.
I knew a warrior once who joined the military. He thought the military was for warriors. By the time he finished boot camp he saw the lie. He saw military training for what it was: not a trial of manhood but a process of conditioning. He saw that it did not so much offer men principle as it did a program to follow.
The modern military is a unique instance of one of the traditional paths to fulfillment and growth into adulthood which has completely lost its essence while retaining its honorable reputation. It is yet another surrogate initiation for men in turmoil.
Modern militaries do not need men—beings with principles and virtues and powerful wills—modern militaries need men completely devoid of willfulness and spirit. They need soldiers with technical training and conditioned psyches. In a sense, military progress in the last few centuries represents a transformation away from the warrior and toward the “soldier.” The great victory of this new military methodology was that it somehow retained all the prestige, offering all the old promises and honors of the classical warrior vocation, even though it had become something entirely different. That’s how it continues to draw aimless young men into its net. Every man wants to be a warrior.
And so, many of us join the armed service to fight for our country. We don’t do it because we believe in the war, but because we want to believe in something and we think that by fighting we’ll be able to rise to that certainty. We go to war to conquer our existential rootlessness. That’s when the real barbarism of modern war shows itself.
Remember I told you that love and war are two things which cannot be made clean without making them monstrous. To kill is an evil, but men always tried to keep the evil within limits and to superimpose some sort of honor onto the whole affair. But man liberated himself from honor and limits, remember?
They sought to make war sterile, clean, and safe—like “safe sex.” The story has the same ending. Now war is more barbaric than ever. A man cannot kill another man safely and without risk or responsibility. If he tries he will suffer consequences the severity of which he may not be able to endure. That’s why some of our brothers pick up a rifle, go off to war, and then end up shooting themselves. The whole thing has become spiritual gangrene. No one survives, not even the victor.
Men once killed each other face to face. It was traumatic, it was horrific, and it was not clean. But relatively few soldiers died then, and each life taken on the battle field was felt, whether by friend or foe. It was intimate and personal, even if awful. Then we made progress and man began taking steps back from the battlefield, and the corpses began to pile up. Now one soldier can take any number of lives in seconds. He may not even feel this increase in gore at all—and that is precisely the problem. He can now kill without feeling it so much, and that is a terrible injustice, not just to those being killed, but to the man pulling the trigger. It hides from him the severity of his act. A man should never be able to kill without feeling it and seeing the life that he is smothering.
Just as love cannot be reduced to its physical process without producing monstrous inhumanities, so it is with war. And this is exactly what we’ve done.
Naturally the old ideas about “honor” and the “warrior vocation,” in which the solider became something like a monk with a weapon, have all but evaporated into thin air. There is no place for them when war is waged with buttons and without personal contact of any kind between enemies. How can a solider respect his enemy when he kills him from a mile off.
Soon, it seems, wars will be fought with machines. Or at least that’s how it will work for the rich nations. Already the poor technicians who must manipulate the death machines from a computer and then return home to their families, as if nothing had happened that day, are suffering the consequences of this inhumanity. Man can remove himself from the field as much as he wants, but killing is still killing, and he will always walk away changed.
The old strategy was to face the responsibility full force, right in the eyes. Only under such a discipline could a man kill an enemy and salvage his humanity. He faced the trauma of death by doing his best to transcend it. This is why the old warrior vocation had much in common with the priestly vocation, and why knights stood all-night vigils in church before pledging their swords to a cause. Modern man tries to salvage his humanity not by embracing the severity of the act but by escaping it. It leaves him all the hollower the further he is able to remove himself. If he stands a vigil, it is in front of a flag rather than before the cross.
Responsibility is inescapable. You may run but it will overtake you in the end, wherever you go. Modern warfare, from its motivations to its methods, seems to us a grand effort to escape responsibility.
Now they want to take the women to these wars as well. They call it “equal opportunity.” Equal opportunity means that our daughters, and not just our sons, will go off to fight the next world war.
And they wonder why we have no taste for the whole thing.