HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

May 28, 2007
From Liberty Street

Memorializing Military Exploits

John Turner


Listening to the flood of Memorial Day sentiment that pervaded television on Sunday, my mind was drawn irresistibly to the German army at Stalingrad during the fall and winter of 1942-1943. Everything said of American valor and the poignancy of war over the past week can be said of the soldiers of the Wehrmacht during that terrible time. They fought with terrific courage, under desperate conditions, and sacrificed for the Fatherland with pure devotion. And the death and hardship they suffered dwarfs, in magnitude, and perhaps in intensity, anything ever experienced by an American army. This they did in the service of a madman. Were they heroes?

By the standards we have adopted, almost universally in America now, they certainly were.

I don't suppose I disagree with the designation as long as we acknowledge what it means. It does not carry with it a drop of democratic virtue or an element of intelligent discernment.
This was made perfectly clear on Sunday evening by 60 Minutes which devoted the whole hour to an Iowa National Guard unit that was called to active duty late in 2005 and is now still serving an extended tour in Iraq. CBS pulled out all the stops to wring the heart. The soldiers of the Iowa Guard are good people, with good, loving families, who are agonized by the absence of their loved ones and the threats they face daily escorting supply caravans across the deserts of western Iraq. Mothers grow teary when they think of their sons, wives go to bed fearfully every night worrying about their husbands, little boys erect shrines to remind them of their fathers.

CBS interviewed both soldiers and their families extensively as the unit was preparing to depart for war. From no one did we hear a word other than false propaganda poured into their heads by a pack of fools. They all, as far as CBS informed us, swallowed the Bush story hook, line and sinker.

Only near the end of the program, after the unit's tour had been extended by four months, did quizzical, troubled looks began to appear on the faces of some of the soldiers, and more of the wives and mothers. These were early signs of a dawning democratic intelligence. It was a first step towards grasping that governments mislead people and use them, even to the point of spending their lives on fatuous, egotistic projects.

Thus, the television audience was left wondering how to think of the sacrifices of the Iowa National Guard. Are they noble acts that ought to make us all grateful? Or, are they occasions for simply beating your head against the wall?

I confess, I found it hard to listen to these people spouting what they have been led to think of as patriotic sentiments but which are actually a pack of lies. And I kept asking myself, why in the world have they never read a single analysis that would tell them something of what is going on in the world, and in Washington?

They were portrayed as dutiful people, driving their tractors, and their mail trucks, and going home at night to well-kept houses where they played in the backyards with their children. But there was nothing in their style of living that ever allowed them to read a book by Chalmers Johnson, or Andrew Bacevich, or James Hillman, or Thomas Frank, or James Mann, or Mark Green, or Seymour Hersh, or Chris Hedges, or Michael Sherry, or even Bob Woodward. There was not time ever to read anyone who might supply them with a whiff of truth.

Is this the portrait of American virtue that we are actually supposed to idealize?

This may be the stuff of which heroes are made but it is clearly not the stuff of a genuine democratic electorate. The truth is, a democratic people is not eager to be heroic because it knows that most of the time in history heroism is the product of manipulation to a massive degree. Why is it that that heroism in current American popular culture requires gullibility on a near-unbelievable scale?

If the price of heroism is leaders like George Bush and Dick Cheney then I'd be more than happy to sacrifice it in order to have rational, sensible politics. Maybe that's a bland view of life, but it seems to me there are genuinely more interesting things to be done than to strut around in soldier suits after having been taken in by belligerent, ill-informed, posturing men. It's not a traditional Memorial Day sentiment, but there it is. I'm even heretical enough to hope that it will someday penetrate to Iowa.


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