Thursday, June 07, 2007

Meditations in a Time of War

For Memorial Day over at the Bellman we had a running skirmish on the nobility of dying in a war. Although it was never explicitly evoked, the discussion reminded me of Horace's dictum: Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori (It is sweet and becoming to die for one's country.)

I learned this little bit of Latin in high school from reading Wilfred Owen's poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est:

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.
Dying is never pretty and a noble death is a high standard. My point over at the Bellman was that it is logically possible to die nobly in battle, not that it is likely.

Similarly, it is possible to fight a just war and give one's life in a noble pursuit, but I had to reach pretty far back in the mists of time, all the way to Spartacus, to find an example I felt was pretty unambiguous of someone fighting the good fight and dying a noble death.

In practice, wars tend to be stupid, pointless affairs where the ostensible reason for the war is never the only reason, or even the most compelling reason.

And even assuming the justification for a given war is noble, it doesn't mean that soldier's lives won't be wasted, thrown away by some foolish command decision or political interference with military objectives.

But at the same time, I think it's dangerous to ignore the realities of the world we live in as a matter of principle. Despite our civilization, culture, technology, and vaunted educational system... the United States is certainly the most violent industrialized nation on Earth.

I'm reading a book on the Ethics of War right now and I thought the introduction to the second chapter makes an excellent point about the categorical errors pacifists make:

One of the great strengths of the pacifist tradition is its keen awareness of a common propensity or cultural bias in favour of war, upon which the war-maker is continually able to draw and with which the peacemaker has to contend. It is to this phenomenon, which first precipitates war and then dictates its ruthless prosecution, that the term militarism is applied [in the text].

The weakness of the pacificst understanding lies in its tendency to regard any defence of war and any resort to arms as manifestations of militarism. This association of all things military with militarism suppresses real and important distinctions and undermines any attempt to subject war to moral limitation.
One cannot be afraid to use force in the face of crime, extortion or tyranny. Violence should always be the absolute last resort, but when you've exhausted all your other options... sometimes you've got to kick some ass or even kill people.

I think another common liberal fallacy is that the use of violence is reserved solely for the State. The use of violence in self-defense is a time-honored tradition in the common law and arguably a fundamental human right.

Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.

- General John Stark

2 comments:

Language Lover said...

Wow, I remember studying that poem in English class with you and how it really seemed to move you. I did not realize that "Dulce et decorum est" was originally from Horace's Odes. I think I'm going to go read some more of them.

I think many would argue that it's necessary to perpetuate this lie; certainly the message of patriotism, honor, etc. is heavily used in recruitment and trying to maintain soldier morale. What could replace that, if people chose instead to be honest about the messiness and often complete futility of death?

Safety Neal said...

A provocative question. If we dispensed with the patriotism and bunting and were honest about the grim realities of war and death, would it spell the end of the military? Perhaps, but I think not.

There are plenty of mercenaries and others who will fight for money. But mercenaries are not the ideal choice.

Adrenaline junkies would probably still enlist. I know that when I was a young man the idea of playing with fully automatic weapons and pushing myself to the absolute limits of my abilities was very appealing. As I age, these types of adventures seem more and more foolish, but that's part of the reason war is largely a young man's exploit.

I would suggest that we provide additional benefits for the military. Robert Heinlein suggested in Starship Troopers that only those with military service should be allowed to vote or hold political office.

Previously on the blog I've suggested mandatory government service and that former members of the military could be given the right to carry concealed weapons nationally. Perhaps they could also receive free health care (without having to spend 20 years in service) or other economic assistance. Veterans currently receive hiring preferences from the federal government and foreign soldiers get a fast track to citizenship.

Just some thoughts off the top of my head.

However, a broader question that is related to this discussion is whether dispensing with the lie of patriotism would lead to the decline of the nation-state. I don't think that's true, but I imagine many people will disagree with me.