A CHILD’S PERSPECTIVE
[Caveat: All of my observations, or essays, however dubbed, are simply reflections on lessons that life has taught me, which I here pass along to my loved ones and to any others who choose to read them. I make no claim to prescience or wisdom; I simply wish to share what has grown to seem right to an observer of so many sunsets.]
From the Mouths of Babes
This observation deals with the enigma of war and the simple but profound observations of two children on point, as beautifully and musically crafted by a great poet; indeed, the greatest profundities sometimes flow from the mouths of babes. The folly of war was never better demonstrated than by the poet, Robert Southey, in his classic poem, The Battle of Blenheim, wherein the British halted French advances in 1704 and which, interestingly, has a nexus to Winston Churchill, who was raised in Blenheim Castle. This unforgettable poem exposes the folly of war better than any words that I’ve ever heard or read: Please do yourself and your family a favor and read it aloud to your children and/or grandchildren and, thus, enjoy the cadence, rhymes, the bucolic metaphors and the arresting profundities as noted by these children, Wilhemine (pronounced Will-hah-mean) and Peterkin:
THE BATTLE OF BLENHEIM
by: Robert Southey (1774-1843)
‘Twas a summer evening,
Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild, Wilhelmine.
She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.
Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
And with a natural sigh,
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
“Who fell in a Great Victory.
“I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men,” said he,
“Were slain in that Great Victory.”
“Now tell us what ’twas all about,”
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.”
“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for
We could not well make out;
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory.
“My father lived at Blenheim then,
Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.
“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every Famous Victory.
“They said it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a Famous Victory.
“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!”
Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay … nay … my little girl,” quoth he,
“It was a Famous Victory.”
“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’twas a Famous Victory.”
Who among us can disagree with the ingénue, Wilhamine, or “little Peterkin”? Here, again, we face an issue, like the next great hurricane, that is a force majeure, totally beyond our control. We can only watch and wonder – but might we duck? It is interesting to note that few great political leaders fight in wars; they somehow avoid service altogether or find ways to remain far removed from battle fields. To be trite, “Actions speak louder than words.”
Meanwhile, the brutal truths and musical wisdom of Southey’s words shall ring in our ears as long as any war persists on the face of the earth.
WARS AND THEIR CAUSES
One of the greatest enigmas of civilization is the omnipresence of wars, in all times and virtually in all societies. According to Google, “the causes of war” are analyzed in some 11 million books, all dealing with this arcane subject. It seems that everyone wants to know the causes, surely in hopes of avoiding the next war, but no society, of any size, ever succeeds — as far back as recorded history’s dimmed 6,000-year-old-eyes can see. If you will randomly peruse a few of these books, you will find a long list of “reasons” but no excuses, other than self-defense, which reason suggests is the only real excuse.
The many “reasons”, as found in these 11 million books, include: redefining territories; revenge; imposing one religion or political philosophy on another; fear of attack by another; or simple greed; but, beneath the reasons” given to the gullible public, lurks deeper, likely truths: most wars relate to the local potentate’s expansion of his country’s (and his) power-base and wealth (as many a Swiss bank account of an American-funded guerrilla leader attests), regardless of the putative reason given to the hapless masses. One author argues that wars are caused by “political elitists who misjudge their ability to win”, effectively ignoring the greater question: Why do they wish to go to war? Economic disadvantage (or enhancing one’s advantage) seems to be the most common cause. “Wars are about the belly,” one historian candidly observes. Hungry men are more easily motivated to fight. Indeed, for many centuries, the invading army (“the conquering heroes”) routinely raped the women and pillaged the village, growing rich with the spoils of battle. Upon return home, laden with the spoils of victory, governments erected imposing statues to their military leaders, many of which adorn the capitals of most major cities to this day, however much speckled with pigeon excrement.
Today’s armies don’t get “the spoils”, but they do get a day’s pay and myriad benefits (including ample medical and life insurance, deferred taxes on pensions, education-funding, etc.), and many rarely or never see actual battle. The U.S., of course, has a different agenda: ongoing wars feed a huge military machine and defense industry (the below-discussed “military-industrial complex” about which then President Eisenhower cautioned us), thus nurturing its economy, while its ostensible reason is re-structuring the world’s governments as democracies (“to protect our freedoms”), in name if not in fact; this allegedly heroic cause more often than not backfires, as the rebels America backs often turn into terrorists who later use American training and weaponry to attack the U.S., e.g. Osama Bin Laden).
President Dwight D. Eisenhower (a collegial and lovable West Point graduate who devoted his entire career to the U.S. military and whose prowess as a great General in WWII was his springboard to vast popularity and two terms as U.S. President) gave a chilling exit speech (Jan. 17, 1961), in which he warned the world of the “military-industrial complex” and its ability to keep a nation, especially the U.S., engaged in endless wars.
America’s endless wars have fed an elephantine military machine and underwritten the most titanic defense industry ever assembled, while keeping unemployment low. What red-blooded politician could say “No” to all of that? The “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower foresaw as potentially dominating America, has done precisely that, becoming, more aptly dubbed “the military-industrial-government complex”, a fearsome triumvirate which, in 2011, spent $1.4 Trillion on defense-related items, over 40% of all collected tax dollars.
Think of it: 40 cents of every tax $1.00 goes to defense, directly or indirectly. The defense behemoth is consuming America, grizzly body by grizzly body. Whether the President be FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan (although Reagan, a big defense-spender, brought an end to four decades of “Cold War” and splintered the Soviet Union back into the sovereign states that existed pre-WWII), or America’s more recent Presidents, Bush I and II, Clinton or Obama, the pernicious thread of war remains a pervasive and bloody backbone to America’s economy on the one hand and to its demise via massive debt which, in 2012, was 62% of Gross Domestic Product (all income). It was only 4% in 1941. The numbers are mind boggling: In 2012, America’s total income will be $2.5 Trillion, but it will spend $3.6 Trillion, roughly 60% on entitlement/social programs and 20% on defense-related. While defense accounts for 40% of total tax dollars collected; it accounts for only 20% of total spending. Regardless, wars, euphemistically called “defense”, are bankrupting America.
There is nothing that wee folk, such as you and I, can do to alter the fact that wars have always been, currently are, and will surely continue to be — all “in defense of our freedom”, even though they be situated on the other side of the world, endless squabbles among tyrants and revolutionaries that will never be resolved, any more than will the battles among gorillas in the deepest jungle. The actions of governments demonstrate that they generally promote wars, to underpin faltering economies. So, wars are just a fact a life. (Other than tiny countries too small to be of interest to conquer, only a few countries of any size have succeeded in remaining neutral, thus avoiding war, for any protracted period; the leading examples are Switzerland since 1815, and, with a few tiny exceptions, Sweden since 1814. The other big “powers” seem to relish a good scrap and all the spending that it entails.) During the last four wars in which the U.S. drafted or forced its citizens to fight (WWI, WWII, Korea and Viet Nam), some of those who did not wish to fight fled to Canada, Europe or elsewhere or found other ways to avoid battle.
Today, those who enlist, meaning voluntarily, into the service are by definition mercenaries; that is, they voluntarily join the military for pay. Unlike those drafted to fight in Viet Nam, Korea, WWII, WWI, etc., they were not drafted; thus, they are not patriots per se as were our wartime-draftees. This may work well for them in peacetime (meaning times devoid of a draft), but most times are not peaceful, at least not totally peaceful for long. Some have argued that it is ill-advised to praise our young for volunteering to go to war for money, because, if none did, our government could not invade and/or police other countries. This might lead to less wars and certainly to less expense. Except when our homeland is invaded, the question for us, or at least for our successors, is do we wish to be sporadically conscripted into battle or would we rather find a way to avoid same (e.g. as “religious objectors”, or moving elsewhere or using political influence, etc.), as have a goodly number of the world’s political leaders.
A wise political philosopher, compelling orator and financial writer, the late Harry Browne (1933-2006), twice the Libertarian Party candidate for the U.S. Presidency, once told me that wars could be stopped if the masses simply declined to fight. He continued that they might at least begin by refusing to fight on foreign soil; that is, agree to fight only when their homeland was invaded. The masses need to begin drawing lines. Governments, like the U.S., could still spend trillions on space-war-weapons, but they would then be forced to eschew invading, occupying and/or policing other countries, unless they imposed a draft, which is unpopular. So, the late Harry Browne would urge the masses “to shrug”, as Ayn Rand once caused her “Atlas” to do. If the masses “shrugged” and declined to fight on foreign soil, might the 4,000-year-epoch of wars end? Food for serious thought.
Post Script: Heroes vs. Mercenaries
Is characterizing volunteer-soldiers as “heroes” a method of enticing more to join the military, thus enabling the government to continue to engage in minor wars without imposing an unpopular draft?
As noted above, countries (and especially politicians and the “military-industrial-government complex or partnership”, about which then President/General Eisenhower warned us in his chilling exit address in 1961) seem to welcome wars, as they do so much for the economy, short term, while bankrupting it long term (a problem to resolved by some far distant leaders). While such politicians avoid imposing a “draft” that forces citizens to go to war, they solicit volunteers much as businesses recruit employees, and they enjoy calling them “heroes” or “freedom fighters”, even when most are not fighting at all or certainly are not doing so to “defend” the U.S. from invasion. (According to www.longwarjurnal.org, as of 2013, America had only “a few hundred” troops remaining in Iraq and some 60,000 in Afghanistan, or 3% of its two million military forces.)
In WWI, WWII and the wars in Korea and Viet Nam, for example, America and other countries imposed a draft; that is, by law, they forced young men (first the unmarried ones from ages 18-25, then, older ones of all stripes to age 40) to join the military service and fight in those wars. While a small percentage joined voluntarily before being drafted (often to enable themselves to select the service of their choice, be it army, navy, air force, national guard, coast guard, etc.), most were conscripted; that is, forcibly made to serve in the military. When these draftees were wounded, debilitated or killed, they were clearly done so “in the service of their country” or, more aptly, in the service of their fellow-countrymen, and they were true “heroes”. In WWII, approximately 16 million served in the U.S. military forces; some 700,000 were wounded and nearly 500,000 were killed — almost as many as the 600,000+ who died in America’s Civil War. These were our heroes, because all believed that, if the Germans and Japanese were not halted, they would invade the U.S. WWI (thought to be “the war that would end all wars”) was viewed much the same. While invasion of the U.S. was a long shot, had the Germans and Japanese won their wars, they would have controlled world trade and could have seriously injured the U.S. economy; moreover, both the Germans and Japanese were engaged in inhuman treatment of those conquered (e.g., the Holocost in Europe and torturing captives in the Far East). As such, most Americans supported WWII and, to a lesser extent, WWI.
Conversely, today, and throughout history, most armies have been comprised of “mercenaries”, those who join the military by choice for pay; it is their chosen vocation.6Most of them do so in times of peace, or of relative peace (that is, when most servicemen are not engaged in battle but rather in reserve, ready for battle, but who don’t need to fight as a rule). Today, the U.S. maintains military forces in 150 countries, serving more as police forces than as fighting armies; the total in the U.S. military was roughly two million in 2013 (versus 16 million in WWII). Of this total, as above noted, an estimated 60,000 were in “war zones”, most of which are in the Middle East, versus likely 15 million in WWII.
Regardless of the fact that America’s current soldiers were not forced to join and have chosen the military voluntarily as their jobs, we gravely regret the 6,000 or so who gave their lives in 2011 and the many more who suffered debilitating, horrific injuries, and we so wish that they were not placed in harms way, and we cry for their losses and for their families’ suffering, and we wish that all manner of wars could somehow cease, and that our “defense” troops could be reduced to the token forces that are warranted for our real defense. This would virtually eliminate the losses of, and injuries to, these soldiers, as they would be absorbed into a more peaceful economy and would not be enticed into the military, and our government would no longer need to deify volunteer-soldiers as heroes, as a further enticement to attract more and more volunteers.
Governments, and the strong men who control most of them, will not ever allow civilization to exist without wars, not for long. It’s simply too profitable for too many. Only the people can end wars, likely by refusing to participate. Hopefully, someday, America will get the ball rolling towards peace by ceasing to act as the world’s police force, thus allowing others to chart their own courses as best they can. Meanwhile, I hope that neither your nor my children, grandchildren or friends shall become soldiers. Someday, someway, the madness of wars must cease.
“I wish for the abolition of all soldiers.”
Pavel in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamozov
“War is Hell.”
Gen. Sherman, U.S. Army, Civil War