Best of SOTSOGM: Veterans Day, November 11, 2011

>> Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veteran's Day is one of those holidays that is hard for a pacifism-inclined, lefty, civilian intellectual to figure out how to deal with.  It's a fine line to walk between figuring out a way to honor the costs paid by those who serve the country in a military capacity while, how to put this, not endorsing the waste of life and limb and the catastrophe and futility of militarism itself.  One wishes that wars were never, ever necessary, and condemns the short-sightedness and stupidity of violence as a "solution" to anything; and yet to condemn war isn't to condemn those who wage it, who deserve to be treated well for what they've been asked to give up.

And that's really just skimming the top of it all.  Pacifism itself is a complicated subject, closely related--ironically, I think--to Just War Theory, another complicated subject.  Quite a lot of people, I think, take a stance for or against pacifism without taking the time to contemplate the nuances involved, the fractal patterns of philosophy, morality and decency that run from the smallest, most intimate, personal levels of violence--and issues like self-defense, defense of others, ethical eating, capital punishment, abortion, et al.--up to the larger-scale Mandelbrot sets of violence between nations.  When these things are all, I think, along philosophical continuous curves along which we must wend our ways, figuring out each and every one of us for ourselves if its okay to hurt another human to save a life, say-for-instance, but not to hurt a chicken we'd kind of like to have for dinner; or where (if) we can make a distinction between killing one person to save a thousand versus killing a thousand to save one.  (If that latter seems an obvious no-brainer to you, may I respectfully suggest you go back and dive more deeply into the ethical spectres raised by the Allied bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, or (for that matter) the American atomic bombs dropped upon Japan.)

It's hideous and intractable enough material when you spend, say, the entire Christian epoch (unsuccessfully) trying to reconcile everything, much less, say, an entire college semester (and there are plenty of college courses in all this mess, attacking it from every conceivable angle from the theological to the biological to the eco-political and beyond).  Reducing to a thousand-word-blog-post a subject that St. Thomas Aquinas (f'r'instance) spent a huge chunk of his adult life navel-gazing on just to come up with a bunch of dubious and culturally-serving rationalizations... well, yeah, I'll freely admit it daunts me and I'd really just rather say something about Wookies or Batman or call Todd Akin a dumbnut.

But I grappled with a few stray bits of it, along with America's impassioned love affair with violence and military iconography last November.  I don't know that I got anything across any better than Mr. Waters did when he conjured the image of a WWII tailgunner jumping to his death from a bomber exploding over Europe, and wondered if this man had just been wasting his blood on a vain and hollow hope we could do better as a species.


It used to be Armistice Day, and in most of the world, it still is.  On November 11th, 1918--at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of that year--the Germans relented and signed off on what would be a temporary peace in Europe.  Something like nine million soldiers had died of profound stupidity and incompetence: after decades of off-the-hook nationalism, a rampant arms race, backroom deals and assorted other idiocies, the jackass heads of state in Europe had finally done it and told their idiot generals to have at it; the idiot generals fought the last war with the next war's weapons and turned France into an abattoir.  As far as I can tell, that nine million figure doesn't include the collateral damage or the incidental damage; for example, the close-living and dubious sanitary conditions almost certainly contributed to igniting the influenza pandemic of 1918, famous as the "Spanish Flu" even though it may well have originated on an American Army base in Kansas and been exported to Europe with the American Expeditionary Force when the United States joined the bloodbath.  Influenza may have killed ten times as many people worldwide as machine guns, rifles, poison gas, tanks, mortars and the rest of the paraphernalia of war killed in the European trenches.

Good show.

Americans renamed Armistice Day after World War II to make it a more generic commemoration of our dead soldiers, and not just the ones from the First World War.  So it's a state and Federal holiday, but it's sometimes hard to tell whether anyone remembers why it's on November 11th or why it's a second separate day after Memorial Day in May.  It's on November 11th because people are capable of incomprehensible stupidity and madness and they woke up from a massive psychotic break for a few minutes one particular November 11th, that's why.  They probably wouldn't have awakened but for the fact they'd buried too many people to last at the rate they were going through them, but in that moment of clarity they perhaps remembered, at least for fifteen years, that they were going through young men and not a roll of toilet paper.  They said "never again" and maybe they meant it for a few years, but then they went under again and killed a few more million.  (And then the clever leaders of the West said "never again" and sort of really meant it for reals to the extent they could provide guns and ammunition to South Americans, Africans and Asians to fight their wars by proxies as much as possible, only sending in their own "advisors" and "peacekeepers" in sporadic, bloody fits.)

I'm sometimes shocked at how militaristic the United States has gotten, so quickly and quietly and pervasively that I didn't notice at first that the armed services were posting recruiting trailers in movie theatres and embedded in video games, that I recently had to be reminded that now high schools are required by Federal law to turn over children's contact information to military recruiters upon request in exemption to Federal student privacy laws.  And in this amnesia, I fear we forget the main reason soldiers are supposed to be fighting wars at all: so that their kids won't have to fight in the next one.

I mean, that's supposed to be the idea, right?  Or it used to be.  We fight this war not because we want to, but because we have to to prevent the next war.  We don't fight them because they're glorious, but because sometimes they are an inescapable obligation.  (And anyone, by the way--and I say this as a Southerner, too--anyone who says it's good that wars are terrible lest we like them while surveying the writhing carnage of 16,000 young men wounded or killed is a sick fuck, okay?)

I say this because we ask a lot of those who serve in the military.  We ask too much of them, actually.  We ask them to risk what shouldn't have to be risked and to do what should never have to be done, and because we're still stupid and we're still insane, we keep asking.  And sometimes we promise them they'll never have to do it again and we always break that promise--maybe that's why we don't seem to promise that so much anymore, not so much as we used to.  Like we've given up on ever being better than what we are.  And, anyway, there are people better than their leaders who will take risks of life and limb and soul and who will commit to doing irrevocable things willingly merely because they're proud to be asked--I suppose there's no point in our promising this war will be the last one if we've gotten psychologically used to the idea that there are so many people who were willing the last time to surrender everything to what they hoped and believed was a greater cause, and should have been a greater cause if we were worthy.  Which we never are.

So maybe, while those of us who have this day off are daying-off, and people who aren't off are having a Friday, maybe we all ought to take at least a minute or two to remind ourselves not just of the people who have served and the people who have died serving, but remind ourselves of what it was they were supposed to be dying for.  That they ought to have been serving and dying so nobody would have to again.  And maybe we ought to consider what we owe them not just for their service, but for the fact we failed them by requiring them to serve in the first place, and we failed them for requiring that somebody will have to serve again, and the obligations that ought to be upon every last one of us for dishonoring a sacrifice by demanding it at all.

1I deliberated over whether or not to use this version; it's a lovely arrangement, but attentive viewers may notice the embarrassing flub near the end.  Waters is using a guide vocal and he fails to catch up with it after the screamed "driving me insane" line; it's obvious he's not singing the first lines of the last verse of the song and when he rejoins himself, he can be heard essentially performing a duet with himself--he isn't really lip syncing, but presumably his live vocal was meant to be mixed in very low with the prerecorded audio.  In short, the video catches him "cheating", depending on how you feel about this kind of thing.

I decided, in the end, that the beauty of the arrangement, combined with the audio and video quality (there are other performances that are probably straight-live but are from bootlegged videos made twenty or thirty years ago), and the fact that I've previously used the original promotional/short movie clip filmed in 1983 for the Pink Floyd studio version, all led me to include this one even though, well... it's a little embarrassing.  I'm not an enormous Roger Waters fan--when he left Pink Floyd and David Gilmour decided to go on without him, I was wholly in the Gilmour camp and even went through a long period of despising Waters a bit for the nastiness and vitriol that mostly seemed to be coming from his side of the fence (Gilmour got nasty, too, but Waters really did start it; ironically, some of the nastiness was over people not actually playing: Waters accused Mason and Wright of not really playing their own parts during Pink Floyd live shows and leaning on samplers and backing musicians, Gilmour retaliated by saying he'd played a lot of the bass parts credited to Waters on various Floyd albums; as with a lot of really ugly personal disputes, Waters' and Gilmour's accusations were simultaneously patently unfair and misleading and contained grains of truth and weren't wholly inaccurate).  Still, even so, I'm not insensitive and I can sympathize with a guy wanting to give a good show even though he's basically destroyed a chief and irreplaceable instrument with decades of primal stage screams and cigarettes.

None of this has anything to do with Veterans Day.  But it seemed like something I had to acknowledge.  I could imagine, for instance, people commenting to ask if I'd noticed what was going on in that video I embedded.  Yeah.  I decided it didn't matter all that much in context.


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