Chickenshit, Good Wars, and Evil

The real war will never get in the books.
— Walt Whitman
after numerous interviews with Civil War wounded

The first person I can remember actually wearing sandals on a daily basis — as their regular shoes — was a guy in my high school named Miller.  He also wore Levis with gray sweatshirts and had rather longish brown hair.  This was in 1964 at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C.

One day Miller was summoned to the principal’s offices and told to get a haircut.  And he did — he got it cut to about the same length as most of the other guys at Lee, mine included.  Then he came back to school, and they called him to the offices again and told him that this haircut was Not Exactly What They Had In Mind.  What they had in mind was what is known today as a buzz cut, a haircut like the Rangers wear in the film, Black Hawk Down.  So Miller went back to the barber shop and had his head shaved.

Miller was expelled.

The U.S. Army, where I grew up, has a term to describe this sort of routine.  It is called chickenshit.  Chickenshit is big in the Army and, indeed, in all branches of the armed services and corporate America as well.  It is the harassment and humiliation of the powerless, pursued by the powerful for no purpose other than harassment and humiliation, to prove that they indeed do have the power to make you do anything they want.  It is the classic illustration of the principle that George Orwell explains in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that the purpose of having power is to have power.

Chickenshit was the norm for business at Robert E. Lee High School, and its practice was preserved and continually perfected by three typical examples of American education.  These were our principal, William D. Parr, and his two assistant principals, a retired Army general named Corell and a short fellow called Mr. Raines who was specifically charged with “discipline.”  Mr. Raines spent his time at lunch walking up and down the aisles of the cafeteria, grabbing any suspiciously long locks on boys’s heads and measuring them with a white six-inch ruler that he carried in the breast pocket of his suit coat.

In keeping with the spirit of equality before the law, Mr. Raines also “disciplined” the girls at Lee.  Any young lady with a skirt or dress that looked a bit too brief was escorted to his office, where Mr. Raines had her kneel before him on a piece of white posterboard taped to the floor.  If her hemline didn’t graze the posterboard, she had to go home and get dressed in a respectable fashion.

Another great crusade instituted by the leaders of my high school concerned students who took their overcoats to the last period of classes.  This was nearly everybody, since Lee was severely overcrowded, and served by buses that were similarly packed to bursting.  The idea among the students was to get a seat on the bus.  To do this, you went by your locker before the beginning of seventh period, grabbed whatever you needed for homework, along with your coat, and then went to your last class.  With these materials in hand, you could make a dash straight to the bus as the last bell sounded, and, if you were lucky as well as fast, have a seat.

One day we were told not to do this anymore.  Specifically, we were told “not to take your coats to seventh-period class.” When we asked why, we received the following official explanation of policy: there was no place to hang the coats, so students tossed them over the backs of their desks, and this did not “look neat.”

The punchline to these memories is that Robert E. Lee was a public high school, and this sort of meaningless bullying of adolescents was an essential part of my public school education.  In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that these educational experiences had much to do with shaping the attitudes toward government of an entire generation of Americans.  Mine.  The same guys who had to have Miller’s hair cut just so also wanted to send him to Vietnam to die for their theories of “containment.”

What brought all these teenage diversions to mind is a copy on my desk here of The Greatest Generation, a book about the people who weathered the Great Depression and conquered European fascism and Japanese imperialism, purportedly written by the former managing editor of the NBC Nightly News show, Tom Brokaw.

The Greatest Generation carried me all the way back to high school because the three shapers of youth at Robert E. Lee, who initiated my classmates and me into chickenshit, which by 1968 we were mostly calling fascism, were all veterans of World War II and thus, according to Tom, members of “the greatest generation any society has produced.”

As my college adviser used to say, “Great certainly is an overused word.”

To be fair, Tom does admit that these people were not perfect.  (He’s right, they weren’t: on D-Day, the jails of Britain were chock full of deserters from the armed forces of all the participants.) Nevertheless, he does insist they’re the best the human race has ever produced, and I think this is a claim worth examining, not so much in itself — it is a laughable assertion about any generation, even those that produced the Vedas, Buddha, Confucius, Christ, and Mohammed — but for where it comes from: from the intelligence and understanding of the former managing editor of the leading national news show of one of the country’s most powerful media businesses.

Tom writes of D-Day veterans in particular and their generation broadly: “They answered the call to help save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs.”

Now, this kind of writing is at best a Saturday morning cartoon of history: the “good guys,” that is, Sgt. Rock and the men of Easy Company, “save the world” from the “bad guys,” Lex Luther, the Joker, Fu Manchu — you know, the usual gang of maniacs.  It is the point of view of a boy consuming The Longest Day in one sitting, or history as a beach read.  And there’s nothing wrong with it, except that, coming from a person in Tom’s position, it is even more impressive for its shallowness and immaturity.

Does Tom, whose show reported on wars around the world on an ongoing basis, really believe that they are fought for any such reason as “to save the world”?  Richard Nixon, a perceptive student of this country, used to say that Americans were children, and the idea of killing people to save the world is appealing to an immature sense of the ethical and the moral which cannot grasp the notion that to be alive in the world is to become, inevitably, guilty — the notion, that is, of sin.  Consequently, such a sensibility constructs scenarios in which it does wrong for the right reason, and is justified, then, not by faith but by works.  It is, all in all, a very American approach to things, but it is also a strikingly naive one, especially when espoused by someone in the news business, a trade which, after all, is not known for revealing humanity in its best light.

Or perhaps Tom is basically just a monster of cynicism, milking Second World War sentimentality — “The Time of Their Lives” is one of his chapter titles — with yet another potboiler book of “warm” recollections from old soldiers.  (Though not as warm as Dresden and Tokyo, rest assured.)

Of course, there’s always the possibility that he’s just plain stupid.  In an appearance on Today, Tom recounted his days as anchor on that show, a job which required him to rise before sun-up.  Then he commented that at least the homeless get to sleep late.  Maybe so.  But I’ll bet we could get a homeless person to switch places with Tom in a second, and probably get a better informed and more sophisticated view of events in the bargain.

All wars, after all, are fought over money and power, or, more specifically, about the matter of empire.  Namely:  Who shall rule over what real estate?  Wars are not fought to save the world or its refugees, or for the abolition of any evils, or to end any tyranny anywhere, or anything else even remotely worthwhile.  Sometimes, even most of the time, there are some coincidental good effects wrought by war.  Stopping the Nazi Holocaust, for example, or liberating France.  But if the United States could have gotten what it wanted without doing either of these things, we would still call ourselves the winners of World War II.  That Tom, who covered Henry Kissinger’s years in power and our slow-death “peace with honor” bugout in Vietnam, could have failed to learn this most obvious lesson of that shabby period is nothing short of astonishing.

An example of what I mean is here taken from a U.S. State Department memorandum on the threat of Japanese expansion, written just about a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor:

Our general diplomatic and strategic position would be considerably weakened — by our loss of Chinese, Indian and South Seas markets (and by our loss of much of the Japanese market for our goods, as Japan would become more and more self-sufficient) as well as by insurmountable restrictions upon our access to the rubber, tin, jute, and other vital materials of the Asian and Oceanic regions.

This analyst doesn’t say anything about Tom’s maniacs, for the plain good reason that they were not there.  If Hitler and Hirohito had been maniacal or anything close to it, World War II never would have gotten off the ground.  The study of history, as opposed to the study of old movies, reveals that both these men were quite lucid.
Both did gross evil.  But it was their lucidity that made their choices evil, not any manias.  No insanity pleas were entertained at Nuremberg or Tokyo, because these people knew exactly what they were doing.

So did we.  Here’s a little bit of war, from John Dower’s War Without Mercy:

Precision bombing was abandoned dramatically on the night of March 9-10, 1945, when 334 aircraft attacked Tokyo at low altitude with incendiary bombs, destroying sixteen square miles of the capital city and making more than a million people homeless.  Between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand civilians died in the Tokyo raid — “scorched and boiled and baked to death” was how the mastermind of the new strategy, Major General Curtis LeMay, later phrased it.  The heat from the conflagration was so intense that in some places canals boiled, metal melted, and buildings and human beings burst spontaneously into flames.  It took twenty-five days to remove all the dead from the ruins.  With the exception of the fires that raged through Tokyo and Yokohoma at the time of the Kanto earthquake in 1923, this was the largest urban conflagration in recorded history.  Radio Tokyo referred to the new U.S.  policy as “slaughter bombing,” and in the days and months that followed, incendiary attacks against urban areas became the primary U.S.  aerial strategy against Japan.  By May, incendiaries comprised 75 percent of the bomb loads, and in the final reckoning firebombs accounted for close to two thirds of the total tonnage of explosives dropped on Japan.  By the time Japan surrendered, sixty-six cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had been subjected to both precision raids and general urban-area attacks.  The exact number of civilians killed by both incendiaries and the atomic bombs is uncertain, but probably was close to four hundred thousand.

There are a variety of responses to be made to this passage.  The moral idiot will say, “They brought it on themselves,” a point of view that overlooks the presence in combat zones of children, the elderly, the sick and indigent, and other pacifists.

General Sherman, a more honest man and no idiot, might repeat the remark he made to the citizens of Atlanta who pleaded for mercy in the sacking of their city:  “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”

But I say this is evil, as evil as the rape of Nanking and no more justifiable.  In this opinion I side with General Bonner Fellers of Douglas MacArthur’s staff, who called the bombing of Japan “one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of non-combatants in all history.”

I would go on to say, in fact, that whenever you have a war, you have the rape of women and the murder of children, and that these crimes are committed by members of all the armed forces involved in any conflict.  No “bad guys.”  No “good guys.”  When you endorse a war, any war, you endorse the torture and murder of innocents.

We are often told that acceptance of war is realistic, and it is.  Such a statement would inspire a child to question the value of realism, but we are not children.  We know that evil is realistic, too.

However, in the words of John Berryman, we must not say so.  Hence, Frank Capra made Why We Fight, a series of indoctrination films for the U.S. Army that reduced the Second World War and its varied, even byzantine origins to the level of a kindergarten Sunday school.  Hence, for the edification of the troops today, The Greatest Generation, just in time to inspire us to save the world from whoever is menacing it on this evening’s episode of NBC Nightly News — a vintage piece of World War II propaganda, as good as anything the Signal Corps ever turned out.

Well, if it’s evil, why do we do it?  James Jones, a rare, real old soldier who did what every Second World War dogface dreamed of and actually wrote not one but three books that told the truth about the fucking Army, gave us the answer to that one in From Here To Eternity, when one of his characters explains pain and suffering to Private Robert E. Lee Pruitt by saying, “It’s the system, kid.”

And so it is.  It’s systemic damage that we’re dealing with here, in Flanders fields, at Stalingrad and Tarawa, Berlin and Tokyo, in Saigon, Haiphong harbor, and My Lai, on Grenada and in Kabul and the Persian Desert, too.  There’s something wrong with the system:  our distaste for war, and our need to rationalize it, prove this.  Because war is not some aberration in the way we do things.  It’s a part of the way we do things.  Being, like communists, utter materialists at heart, we love things more than we do people, so, at an extreme, we will allow the killing of people in order to obtain certain things.  This is a big part of the basis of our system.  If you think it’s not, ask your boss why he pays to ship a piece of office equipment across town but doesn’t pay to move you to and from your workplace.

So we cannot end war and continue doing business as usual.  To end war we would have to radically and permanently alter the basis and pattern of our lives, something we’re not about to do in this, the Golden Age of the Material.  And everybody knows it.  Especially Tom.

But what Tom doesn’t seem to know, and what a lot of Americans don’t seem to know, is that in choosing war for any reason we choose evil.  I’ll bet that’s a thought to make Tom squirm for a rewrite of the script, and he’ll get one, but the proposition remains true nevertheless.

I do not necessarily balk at the choice of evil, having made it more than once, and I try not to blink.  I agree with T.  S.  Eliot, who said in an essay on Baudelaire that sometimes it may be better to do evil than to do nothing.  But — and here is where Tom and company part ways with me — facing this hard reality does not make me, or anyone else, great, in any sense.  It makes of me a participant in evil, and therefore an evil man myself.  Admissions such as this are what responsibility means.  This is why forgiveness becomes as essential as judgment in the lives of people who are morally and ethically awake, that is, free of callow sentimentality and juvenile cynicism about what they do with their lives.

But all of that is where the nice people like Tom and his nightly audience draw the line:  choosing evil.  Given the nature of the system we choose live in, we sometimes have no choice but evil, but Tom and company, by sleights of mind such as his bestselling book, finagle a way to call evil “good.”  And so begins the empty argument over the goodness and badness of war.  It amused me to see Slobodan Milosevic weeping crocodile tears over the deaths of civilians from NATO bombing, because I am cynical enough to be entertained by displays of hypocrisy.  But I do not forget the equivalent hypocrisy of our own leaders acting as if such casualties are a kind of freakish, accidental occurrence, brought about by “maniacs” or some bizarre set of circumstances or “mistake,” when the entire Twentieth Century will go down as the time when human beings truly perfected the mass murder of non-combatants in wartime.

But again, we must not say so.  If we do, the audience will change the channel and tune out the war, any war, the way they did in Vietnam.  Remember Vietnam?  That was the one where we showed them all the blood and gore.  The senselessness of “our policy,” that is, what war really is.  We’re not going to do that again.  By the way, have you read Tom’s new book?

This is not to offer up the notion that war is some sort of conspiracy foisted on an unknowing mass of “good guys” in places like Simi Valley, Marietta, and Scarsdale.  The “good guys,” who are really just fairly nice, want to stay tuned.  They loved Showdown with Saddam and Gunfight in Grenada, both starring Norman Schwartzkopf, and they’d love it too if we could resurrect Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito, so they could watch “a real war” and feel like Gregory Peck in The Guns of Navarone or William Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai.  Which they can, as long as our mercenary army of “volunteers” does the fighting.  There were giants in the earth in the days of the Second World War — giants big enough to fill the centerspread in a limited edition comic book!

We tell ourselves our intentions are good, even humanitarian, and our motives do matter.  Motives make for part of the difference between the first and second degrees of murder.  But Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia to preserve the ethnic integrity of the people living there — that was part of the Sudeten Germans’ right of self-determination.  Mussolini extended Western civilization into darkest Ethiopia.  And Francisco Franco halted the advance of bolshevism on the Iberian peninsula.

By the same token, the Greatest Generation made war on fascist maniacs, then put fascist scientists to work in their anti-communist missile program in order to construct a war machine so ruthless it ultimately acquired the capability to kill every person on the planet several times over.  It also hired fascist espionage agents to spy on its former ally, the Soviet Union.  You may have heard of the Soviet Union.  They were the evil empire that suffered 20 million dead defeating the fascist maniac Adolf Hitler, ensuring in the process that he had to fight a two-front war and so could not unleash the full fury of his armies on the Greatest Generation, fighting in western Europe.  Somehow those 20 million dead Russians don’t rate as “great” in Tom’s book, anymore than they do in any other American war propaganda.  Better dead than Red, I suppose.

There is no historical record of anyone ever fighting a war with bad intentions.  Everybody believes in the good and the true and the beautiful.  An examination of the letters and diaries of German and Russian participants in the battle of Stalingrad reveal that men on both sides believed they were fighting for freedom.

But what do we mean by believe? It seems that everybody “believes” in all these good reasons for mass slaughter in the same way that public drunks believe in the need for law and order — in their heads, in their opinions, maybe even in their hearts, but certainly not in their deeds.  Maybe William James was correct to simplify the whole question by concluding that what you believe is what you do.

If we follow James’s reasoning, we will have to admit that we believe in mass murder, even in mass murder done for the sake of profit.  It is an approach to the history of warfare as a description of our morals.  And it is not simply American history that indicates this sad fact.  Everyone else’s leads to the same conclusion.  This undertaking is not the sort of thing that makes for bestselling books with follow-on publishing deals, but it is, strictly speaking, both pragmatic and honest.  Pragmatic because it ultimately raises the real question, namely, whether we, as a species, can actually afford war.  Honest, because it looks at what we actually and in fact do, rather than telling us how we ought to feel about it.

Such a ruthless approach to judging ourselves — as great, mediocre, or indifferent — strikes me as having much more to do with the discovery of truth and the nature of greatness than anything Tom and the rest of the gang in the media ever dream of.  I suggest they all employ it as the guiding creative method for their future works.


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