Thursday, November 7, 2013

Read for Our Veterans

I admit to clamping my jaw and putting undue pressure on my molars every time I see a Support Our Troops magnet slapped on the butt of a car. What our troops do for us is far too unpleasant and much too important for us to be so facile, especially because the troops receive none of the profits from those magnets.

Let no one misunderstand me, however; I absolutely support supporting our troops--not because I am a Neocon, Hawk, Republican, warmonger, arms dealer, employee in the defense industry, or private contractor who may benefit from troop deployments around the world. In fact, other labels including Progressive, Independent, Dove, and retired public school teacher describe me much better. I simply believe we must support our troops because it is our duty to do so

If we call upon the patriots among us to stand and fight, then we must arm them with more than weapons. We must give them training in how to make peace when they return from war.

If we need men and women to perform unpleasant tasks such as making war, carrying out our dead, and quelling violence, then we must give them trauma-free days and nightmare-free nights. We must provide support groups and medical care and safe harbor when they return.

Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Photo by Al Griffin

If we ask boys and girls to disrupt their lives to serve their country, then we must insure that they must not also endure want. They should earn a wage far above one that would allow them to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Their families should not be in danger of losing their homes when one earner is overseas because of mortgage bubbles, Wall Street greed, or impending government shut-downs. We must grant them peace of mind with regard to basic needs such as food and shelter.

Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Photo by Al Griffin
Note: Al Griffin has a series featuring homeless people, and several of them are veterans.

Some officials do not seem to agree with my assertions. More money goes to making war than making peace, more to defense contractors than enlisted men and women, more to weapons than healing. I submit, therefore, that officials must read some of the award-winning and classic war literature available to them. Some of these titles include:

Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War wherein decision-makers may learn about collapsed economies and lost national prowess, both long-term, irrevocable consequences of the conquering spirit.

From Homer’s The Iliad, decision-makers may learn about the effect of war upon a civilization. Homer narrates the sorry reasons for which men put their honor and lives on the line. The Greeks devastate an entire city and all its citizens, even those in the womb and those long past the strength to fight. Collateral damage and soul-smothering deeds characterize a war fought for the purposes of loyalty and honor.

Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur may teach officials lessons about humility and hubris. Sir Gawain’s determination to recover lost family honor is an inciting cause that leads to the loss of Camelot and its king.

Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies chronicle the differences between those who seize and defend power and those who are at the mercy of powerful men. Macbeth, once a valiant soldier, grows thick calluses against sympathy and moral restraints. Othello, a valued general and strategist, cannot endure the loss of his honor, executing the perceived enemy as he might on a battlefield, thereby blurring the line between civilian and military codes. In addition, through the Roman plays and English King histories, Shakespeare reveals the political machinations that construct a belief which lead men to march …somewhere else, to grief (from W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles”).

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries chronicle a war of ideologies, in particular skirmishes and battles for human dignity and rights against monarchial, colonial, religious, and economic oppression. Hobbes and Locke both reacted to and shaped civil unrest that served revolutions undertaken in the name of justice and opportunity for all-- in theory. As the next three novels listed reveal, in practice, men proved to be less evolved than the intellectuals’ philosophical arguments.

In the nineteenth century, British author Charles Dickens used The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle to develop A Tale of Two Cities (, a compelling story about the human costs of social and economic change. In France, Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables, a long, impassioned tale of Jean Valjean’s struggles to escape a cruel, stratified world and live in one where more people do more than just endure, they thrive. Hugo sets this personal quest in a time and place on the verge of revolution, linking the macrocosm to Valjean’s microcosm wherein he must, once again, sacrifice and summon extraordinary bravery. From Russia, Tolstoy added the epic War and Peace, a novel that reveals the violent, bloody combat that accompanies both noble and ignoble ambitions leading to war.

The work of early twentieth-century poets lyrically portray the horrors of war. Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed,” Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and Siegfried Sassoon’s “ The Rear-Guard” reveal the terrible price that men who make war must also pay.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque is a must read for decision-makers who should be moved from the introduction through the last page. They will, we hope, heed, Remarque’s introductory cautionary remarks: This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and lest of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air is an account of one man trying to return whole to the civilian world after service in World War I. Decision-makers need Orwell’s insights; too many veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and too many, unable to cope, commit suicide

Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, a novel about the British Navy on the Atlantic during World War II informs us that any and all honor in war is wholly vested in the individual, and every reason or policy leading to war leads inexorably to unacceptable suffering.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a dark, sardonic portrait of war’s absurdities, including the machinations of men at headquarters absent any understanding of the human cost of their decisions.

More recent wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan have inspired prize winning literature from Tim O'Brien and poet Kevin Powers. The Things They Carried by O’Brien and The Yellow Birds by Powers prove how random are the losses in war, how inevitable the brutality, and how unrelenting the tension and tedium.

Oklahoma City, OK Cemetery. Photo by Al Griffin

None of the titles I’ve referenced celebrates war. All demonstrate that whatever leads a nation to war is insufficient. Causes shrivel when compared to the human costs that war delivers.

General and President Eisenhower agreed; he said, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Eisenhower was a soldier, the architect and contractor for D-Day. He was also a politician charged with making war and peace, and he labored for peace as president because he understood how brutal war truly is.

So, dear decision-makers, please read, then amend our policies. We must retire war in order to support our troops

Dear readers, please support our troops by making your understanding of war known, by informing policy-makers of the great costs of war.

Reading Challenge:

Read any one or all titles cited in this list of war literature, one that merely skips through time, one that skips over and past worthy titles.

Writing Challenge:

Write a pledge vowing to support our troops. Be sure to include reasonable actions to take in order to demonstrate support.