Sunday, May 30, 2010

National Sacrifice

From John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, 1961:
Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.

Dulce Et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen, 1918:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

On this Memorial Day, let's talk about national sacrifice. Wilfred Owen, in the most famous poem about war (with the possible exception of the Illiad), derides national sacrifice as "the old Lie." His poem does not provide a political explanation for why holding the pointy-hats at the French border failed to equal the loss of England's blood and treasure. It was probably self-evident to his audience. On the other hand, the crotchety old fucks who were grateful for the war surely viewed Owen's poem as treason. Surely it was also viewed as arrogant. If I were one of those crotchety old fucks, I would press Owen on the relevance of "the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer". Of what importance is the loss of individual life when compared to the Cause? Surely, of even less importance is the manner of such loss. Is not dwelling on "vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues" a bit indulgent?

While Wilfred Owen did not find it necessary to mix war and politics in his famous poem, plenty of people at the time were starting to awaken to the fact that war is politics by another means, or vice versa. Class struggles in the nineteenth century caused the citizens of the great empires to differentiate between the interest of the state and the interest of the people. This is the dominant theme in the late Howard Zinn's studies of history: history from the point of view of the people, rather than from the state. (Before nationalism came to dominate conservative political thought, it was also a dominant theme of conservatism-- that is, the primacy of the individual.) Zinn wrote, "... we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been." (Again, I can't help it. William F. Buckley could have said that, yet Zinn is the communist. Go figure.) The thoroughly liberal concept of the individual and the community decoupled from the state must inform all discussions of national sacrifice. Specifically, we may determine national sacrifice to be justified if the nation acts in the interests of the community. If the nation projects alien or perhaps foreign interests onto the community, or needless to say, when it lies or exaggerates a threat, then losses to the community in the course of protecting the state's interests are in vain.

The idea of national sacrifice is as old as civilization, but it has certainly evolved. In the beginning, pharaohs would slaughter millions of their own in battle in order to kidnap and rape the opposing pharaoh's harem-- or something. Today, pawns like us have defense mechanisms against such abusive treatment, but not nearly as much as liberals like Howard Zinn would have liked. Noble sacrifice in service of the nation is something that we all pretend still exists but which no one really understands with any sophistication. We generalize too much when it comes to soldiers and war. When the newly sacrificed are fresh in the ground, we dare not ask if the cost is justified. And even as those who died in Vietnam were turned to bone, Democrats dared not question the liberal bona fides of JFK.

The truth is, there are few instances in which national sacrifice can be described as trans-partisan or in the interest of communities across our nation. Lincoln's implicit message at Gettysburg was that every life sacrificed on that famous battlefield was equal in value. He knew that was bullshit. The South slaughtered both Northern and Southern soldiers because they wanted to continue to slaughter Africans for profit. National sacrifice has been a corrupted idea, a mere political meme, for a very long time. The new liberals who broke with the Establishment during Vietnam were certainly not the first to realize this, but they were perhaps the first with the potential to do anything about it -- namely, to stop the next aggressive war from happening. They clearly failed, and that's really fucking depressing. What's more depressing is the reason why they failed: our stupid parents are still fighting not only Vietnam, but the Civil War as well. Here's something fun to try: go back in time and show Lincoln -- just before the Gettysburg Address -- maps of the last 150 years of electoral college results. He would have stood at the podium on that sacred ground and told the audience, "Screw you guys, I'm going home!" And as for Vietnam's terrible legacy -- John Kerry lost the 2004 race because he fought in Vietnam. If 40 years ago, Kerry had joined the Massachusetts Air National Guard and kept his mouth shut about the justification for war, he would have won.

A democracy can only last so long without fighting tyranny before it loses its purpose. The United States ran out of external threats long ago, and terrorist organizations are unworthy substitutes for authoritarian superpowers. With each Memorial Day that passes without being engaged in a credible Manichean struggle with evil, citizens will continue to look inward for those Who Hate Our Freedoms. In the case of myself, I look at news like this everyday, and I can't wait until we pass on the World Police badge to people who are not crazy -- or better yet, to no one at all.

Well, I don't know how to wrap this up. Do you really need it wrapped up, though? I feel like you've got the gist.

UPDATE: Dennis Hopper is dead.

UPDATE 2: The oilocalypse continues.

UPDATE 3: Fuckin fuck balls.

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