Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the Battle-God, great, and his Kingdom –
A field where a thousand corpses lie.
–Stephen Crane, Do not weep, maiden for war is kind.
According to The New York Times, 1,000 U.S. troops have now died in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Here is this wide altar, Afghanistan, on which our empire leaves its tribute to the true god of all empires. One thousand of the young, blown apart by rough-made bombs buried on roads to nowhere, shot by snipers, or worse, by their own. One thousand sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, neighbors, mentors, students, friends, husbands, wives, lovers. A thousand goats led into the wild to appease the spirit of the wilderness, the maker of weapons, sent to the desert for our impurities.
Often we elevate troops who die far up on a pedestal in our national mythology. I think this is a mistake. It obscures why people join the military, it obscures what we’ve lost, and it prevents us from thinking critically about the choices we make that lead to their deaths. When a thousand of our people go into the dark, we should ask what led them there, what they hoped to gain and what we hoped to gain from sending them.
In 2006, the Pentagon found that when asked their main motivation for enlisting, 61.9 percent cited a reason other than “service to country,” a figure that the RAND Corporation’s Beth Asch cautioned could actually be higher since new recruits often cast their decision in idealistic terms. While “service to country” was the main reason for the plurality of recruits, skills acquisition, adventure, money for education, benefits, travel and pay were the other top reasons, listed in descending order. We also know that when the economy is in the tank, military recruitment increases. (I note, though, that the reason for enlistment may not remain their motivation to continue in military service, and that membership in a community in danger and under pressure tends to radically alter one’s orientation toward the group. So, someone who joins for economic reasons may not remain in the service for that reason alone, or at all.)
To say that troops join the military for economic reasons is not to degrade them. Supporting a family is not a selfish cause. But that little detail – that Private Smith died in a dangerous job that she took to support a family – is fraught with human connection and tragedy, and we lose that if we over-idealize what led them to the battlefield. The same is true if they just joined the service to escape a mind-numbing routine, or to overcome a criminal record, or to cut ties with a past.
All this is to say that portraying our troops as selfless warrior monks of virtue fails to honor the truth about the lives that ended in Afghanistan. These men and women were generally not burning with a desire to suppress their hopes and dreams so that the rest of us could have our hopes and dreams. They had their own plans, their own purposes, their own desired futures for themselves toward which military service was a step, and very few of them included dying on a battlefield. Their lives had their own meaning independent of the lives and “freedom” of the survivors. Obscuring their desires in an over-bright halo also obscures the futures that we lost with them.
We did not lose sacrificial lambs, born to die on our behalf. We lost the doctors, the lawyers, teachers, pilots, writers, mechanics, all of the potential for achievement which many of them hoped to unlock through the skills and opportunities they hoped to gain from their time in the military. We lost fathers, mothers, bedtime stories and a comforting, rock-solid presence in the bleachers at their kid’s sporting events. We lost them spoiling their grandkids. We lost the entire life of the person they would have become and all the gifts they would have given the human race.
Putting these troops so high on the pedestal that they “died for you and me,” high enough where their sacrifice is just shy of a crucifixion, also conveniently obscures our role in killing them. We all know the rhetoric we can expect to hear as we whistle past this marker: “It’s up to us to make sure they didn’t die in vain.” Empty-headed exhortations to “support the troops.” Support, as in, “do not gainsay the purpose for which power-holders are willing to see them die.” Don’t say anything that would upset these troops on the way to the killing floor.
I’m reminded of the dialogue in Monster’s Ball, where Billy Bob Thornton harangues Heath Ledger for vomiting while escorting a prisoner to the gas chamber: “You f***ed up that man’s last walk! How would you like it if someone f***ed up your last walk?!” The condemned deserve a placid walk; don’t let on what’s really happening here.
Similarly, the support we’ll be urged to give today will be the kind that doesn’t disturb the walk of the 1,001st troop. But let’s be honest, here – those who will spout this kind of rhetoric are at least as concerned with our disturbing the consciences of those who set the policies for which the soldiers died (or those of their constituents). Any bets on whether these exhortations and these policies come from the same people? How convenient is the demand: silence for the sake of the victims protects those who sent them to die.
Now is not the time for silence. One thousand Americans are dead in Afghanistan in a war that’s not making us safer. One thousand people are dead, and many others are wounded and deranged, because we continue to choose military action as the solution to a political problem. Al-Qaida is long gone from the country. The arterial wealth of our nation is gushing out in trillion dollar spurts. All this is obscured behind the glow of the sacralized dead, a glow that, we are told, will vanish if we question the purpose of the ritual and the plans of those who ordered the sacrifice.
One thousand American troops are dead in Afghanistan.
Look past the false sacred glow with which the power-holders will try to cover the dead, and by association, their policies.
See the field where a thousand corpses lie.
Remember the real people who lie there, and remember the real people on their way to join them.
Defend them from the Battle-God.
End this war.