The Glory of War


Ed O’Rourke

Writing about the glory of war is easy because there isn’t any.  See this quotation from Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman:

“I am sick and tired of war.  Its glory is all moonshine.  It is only those who have never fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”

The idea that war is glorious is a PR job that disregards bloody mayhem and hideous death, not to mention vast, meaningless property destruction. Movies, parades, history books and Memorial Day suggest that war is unavoidable, our cause always just and that our nation always in a struggle with Absolute Evil.  Our country always fights not just to defend our country but to free others from oppression.

Of course, there is something to this.  Nazi Germany was as close to absolute evil as one could possibly imagine.  The Soviet Union under Stalin and Mao Se Tung’s China were close behind.

American presidents lie about other nations’ intentions and actions as well as our own.  This is not new in Bush the Younger’s actions.  Specifically, presidents have lied about wars with Mexico, Spain, Vietnam and Iraq, to mention a few.

President Polk sent troops into Mexican territory.  When they resisted, President Polk said that the troops were attacked and the country went to war.  Congressman Abraham Lincoln and others objected to the war.  President Polk’s intention was to acquire Mexican territory.  Since the UnitedStates obtained half of Mexico in the peace settlement, he clearly accomplished his mission.

President McKinley took our country to war unnecessarily because of what was probably a boiler explosion on the battleship USS Maine when it visited Havana harbor. Historians still have not forged a consensus on what did happen.  Since the Spanish offered restitution, the theory that the Spanish fired a torpedo to damage the Maine is the least likely explanation.  The real reason for the war was to acquire an overseas empire in the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

In 1965, President Johnson asked for a virtual declaration of war after the North Vietnamese attacked the US destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy in international waters, the Gulf of Tonkin. Congressional investigators revealed a few years later that the destroyers were in fact in North Vietnamese waters. There is no credible reason for our involvement in Vietnam.  Ho Chi Minh was more nationalist than Communist.  Since the US to this day vigorously supports oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and China, I am puzzled.

The first Iraq war is equally puzzling too, the Reagan and Bush the Elder’s  administrations actively backing Saddam Hussein up to when he openly prepared to attack Kuwait.  The Reagan administration wholeheartedly supported Iraq in its war with Iran organized an arms embargo against Iran, provided satellite data for Iraqi Army operations, asked allies to send modern equipment and covered up Iraqi atrocities.  When Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish citizens, our State Department claimed that Iran had done it. When Saddam Hussein massed his army near the Kuwait border, our ambassador, April Glaspie, told the Iraqi government the US was not interested in border disputes in the Middle East.  Saddam Hussein may have been legitimately surprised when the US government reacted so strongly to his Kuwaiti invasion.

Since the Kuwaiti government was an oppressive regime and Iraq supplies much oil to the world market, many US citizens might have regretted the invasion but not have considered it a big deal.  After all, it was okay when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980.

The Kuwaiti government, with Bush the Elder’s administration’s cooperation, hired the high powered, Hill & Knowlton public relations firm, to represent them and shape public opinion.  The firm executed a well-played plan to demonize the enemy, reminiscent of British stories of Germans killing babies during World War I.  Hill & Knowlton coached the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador and a member of the royal family to pose as a refugee who had seen atrocities.  According to her, the Iraqi Army removed 312 babies from incubators to leave them to die on hospital floors.  After the American occupation of Kuwait, investigators found that the incident never took place.  Later, when the role of Hill & Knowlton became known, the Bush I administration was not even embarrassed.

To induce Saudi cooperation, the Bush I administration faked satellite reconnaissance pictures that showed the Iraqi Army organizing for the invasion of Saudi Arabia.

The only reason for the American invasion of Iraq was old-fashioned realpolitik. Allow no other country to be strong enough to lead an independent course in the Middle East.

Soldiers and civilians do not support wars because of balance of power, acquisition of empire or realpolitik but to protect their country and, when possible, correct injustice elsewhere.

The closer one gets to the battlefield, the less one hears abstract nouns, even freedom.  When soldiers are in front of news cameras, they say things that comfort the home front but are meaningless in a combat zone.  There is a sense of comradeship and trust in the military that is seldom felt elsewhere.  Each soldier’s actions or inactions can cause casualties.

War promoters use comradeship in movies, novels, plays, documentaries and songs to glorify war. War promoters downplay death, injury, stupidity, deprivation and  destruction.  Until the Vietnam War, magazines and newspapers only published pictures of dead soldiers with all their body parts and their uniforms intact.  The soldiers looked like they were asleep.  There were no burn victims and nobody with missing body parts.  In this current war, our government has forbidden the media even to take pictures of coffins.  We have a president who has not attended a military funeral.

The Victory at Sea documentary series presented war as drama at its best, excellent narration and fine music performed by the NBC Orchestra. There were few references to Allied errors and none at all to Allied atrocities.

I would like to see a society that honors its peacemakers who bring social justice, income equality and sustainable development.  While honoring our soldiers’ valor, I want to honor war dissenters and conscientious objectors actions, as well.

For most of human existence, actions in one part of the world had little or no effect anywhere else.  There were limits to the sizes of empires.  During the RomanEmpire, for example, the Chinese and Romans had little contact or trade. There was no knowledge of the New World. Today, we are all interconnected, and have been so for at least two centuries.  Like it or not, 6.4 billion human beings are all in the same boat.  Environmental degradation, poverty, global warming and nuclear weapons affect us all.  For humans to survive, we will have to cease military action and through cooperative efforts, face the non-military issues that threaten our existence.  Remember Benjamin Franklin’s words, “Gentlemen, we will hang together or we will hang separately.”  With common action and courage, no one needs to hang at all.

Let us hope that our novelists, playwrights, songwriters and movie directors will begin to glorify peace.  Tommy James and the Shondells’ song Crystal Blue Persuasion, for example, envisions peace.  Together, we will turn swords into plowshares.

Ed O’Rourke is an Environmental Accountant