What do I Say to My Brother? Iraq and the Loss of Ideals
War can be seen as the forfeit of ideals, or at least the litmus test for their rigor. The American jurist and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes is an exemplar of this. Two brushes with death, and the loss of friends in a civil war he saw as the contestation of faulty principles borne of limited minds, led him to the conclusion that deep investment in some metaphysically derived position was a potentially murderous proposition. The war born contradiction, an exercise in brutality, a cataclysmic loss of life in defense of life affirming ideals was, for him, an irony too tragic for any lasting faith in human beliefs. It was too costly. Of course, if you were black the alternative was even more costly, so perhaps he got part of it right. While war should be the last resort, it is at times a just resort, when it seeks to redress an injustice that can no longer be tolerated. It was the brutality Holmes witnessed that compelled him to reconsider the viability of adhering to beliefs, and going to war in defense of them. Witnessing death, and destruction should force open eyes to reevaluate the measure of what one thinks is right. But how does one choose to balance the weight of death, and mutilation, of others, possibly of themselves, in the absence of prevailing ethical ideas?
In three weeks my brother will leave for Army basic training. Far more troubling than his economic motives (credits from a degree with no money to finish) is the abandonment of his once progressive views, for a far more contemporary and expedient cynicism: “Our political leadership is satirically corrupt, the world is ever teetering on the verge of chaos, and it may be far more fortuitous to be armed with a carbine than to defend the quickly diminishing high ground.” This is the same young man who several years ago suggested I read Confessions of an Economic Hit-Man, who would gripe about terrorism being a consequence of American Foreign Policy, and who would routinely bring up the gap between military spending and money invested in education in the third world within our own borders.
Our conscience regarding the present conflict suffers a bizarre schizophrenia. In the public sphere, the sphere where perception has the greater leverage over fact, our presence in Iraq is a matters of ideals. Many of us see ourselves as belief stakeholders in the outcomes, believing the struggle is for the continuation of our way of life. Those who actually determine policy are looking to affirm “our way of life” as well, though in decidedly more concrete a fashion than some nebulous (and presently erroneous) conception of American identity. Their concern is controlling the oil necessary to continue an economic manifest destiny. This widening gap between our real concerns and our perceived ones undermine the ideals we see as part and parcel with “American-ness”, or at least the “American-ness” we draw on for inspiration, and seek to pass on as our legacy. It’s a schism that makes our stars and stripes sentimentality almost comical, and one that threatens the existence of even our phantom democratic vision. Had we sought to secure our interests through multilateral diplomacy, even if ultimately for realist economic motivations, we would still be in a position to affirm, or at least to present the image of a nation dedicated to its own founding principles. Yet even this is a cynics gamble, an investment in empire, while we countenance liberty, and justice for all. Not that the divide between who we are and what we profess is merely a contemporary concern. All one need do is look through American history from slavery to the Spanish-American war, to internment camps, and so on down the line. What is perhaps so different now is the relatively unfettered access we have to the truth behind our motivations, and the ways in which we disregard our own values. That access should compel us to re-evaluate the ways in which we are complicit. My brother’s current situation causes me to question whether or not this optimistic assessment is true. Are we actually being made coarser for it? The brazenness of American naked imperial ambition might be compelling many to disengage, and ultimately lose whatever faith we have left.
My brother maintains no illusions concerning the expansion of democracy. He understands that western exploitative economic practices that require the complicity of cleptocratic regimes in developing countries cause the desperation that pushes people to fundamental extremism. His immanent concerns are what’s at stake, and American foreign policy based on poorly conceptualized wars, makes him a highly sought after commodity; expediency, has essentially made him a realist. How many service men and women have arrived at the same conclusions? What disservice do we commit to young soldiers by asking them to defend national values they know are ciphers for economic concerns? Carl Von Clausewitz once said that “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” If we undermine our own political values, and conflict on foreign soil has made us in no quantifiable terms any safer, what is this war the continuation of?
I’ve heard time and again that this will be our Vietnam, our generation’s blank-stare questioning of how history, largess, and brutality tend to converge. Domestically we create the circumstances where military service becomes one of the few available options for the working class. However, when our soldiers return what bitterness will they carry, having witnessed what must be done for Americans to continue their “way of life,” blithely ignorant or indifferent to the costs, having defended nothing they can truly believe in?
The price is the expenditure of billions despite financial constraints, a tremendous loss of life, and quite possibly the further concession of our ideals, especially for those against the wall weighing the choice of military service. Not the ideals in car commercials, but the ones we were taught as children, believing the vague enormity of it all will be clarified and substantiated as we get older. The ideals that even the disillusioning of experience and learning can’t completely erase, that we want to believe are still vital in some way. Eventually there’s a consequence to our schizophrenia; a generation unflinching in the face of our falsehoods, disillusioned from jump, and frankly disinterested. They will bear witness yet again to the failure of principle, and see it as just another mark in history. Their cynicism will be endemic as they come to accept that there is no alternative to a broken system, and that they should simply do their best not to drown in the one we have. If this seems far-fetched speak to a kid in an American ghetto about the integrity of a system willing to invest an average of $390,000 in him per annum provided he risks his life in a desert, while he watches critical programs disappear from his school. Ask him how much faith he has in the America he’s told exists, despite the one he witnesses on a daily basis.
The hearts and minds we’re losing slowly are our own. And if, like in Vietnam, we turn soldiers into potentially willing and desperate mercenaries for American economic interests, continuing to engage in wars that countenance vague eroding values, we won’t even be able to find comfort in our illusions.