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My pacifist lament

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One morning not long ago our tiny apartment began to shudder as if an earthquake were descending from above. My 14-month-old daughter scurried about, frightened and confused. Mom and dad looked on helplessly as the noise rattled our innards.

It turns out we were being buzzed by a trio of military helicopters flying extraordinarily low — White House Marine-1’s returning from Martha’s Vineyard, we were told.

Cool, right? 

Actually, those few disorienting minutes bordered on the terrifying. A physical intrusion; a kind of violation; our own little taste of “shock and awe.” It invited an angry, if reflexive, response. Imagine if every day your family lived with something similar, but with the added potential for death and destruction?

Soon after that flyover the president announced the end of combat in Iraq, and I thought back to opening day in 2003. A masochistic friend had insisted we watch the highlights via Fox. Though I try to avoid de rigueur condemnation of Murdoch’s network, I have to say the coverage that night smacked of a bloodthirsty circle jerk — the commentators barely containing their excitement as the tanks rolled toward Baghdad, like kickoff at the Super Bowl.

After seven years covering that conflict, a veteran New York Times reporter offered up a kind of mea culpa — confessing that neither he nor his many colleagues guessed at the carnage that would follow the U.S. invasion. Astounding. An invader came and filled the night with missiles and deafening explosions; munitions kill, they eviscerate. They were not invited.

How could anyone be surprised there was an insurgency? As Steven Walt said at the Naval War College four years ago: no one likes to be told what to do by a foreign soldier with a gun. There is an instinct to push back. In letters to various English newspapers during the Vietnam War, novelist and former intelligence agent Graham Greene repeatedly decried the needless carnage, all the while poking tongue-in-cheek fun at his “naiveté.” Fully aware of the geo-political chess game at play, Greene would not stop pointing out the emperor’s pants were bloody.

And, of course, the history books ended up vindicating him and countless others who protested the war.

This is a process that seems to repeat itself like an awful joke: thousands — out of innate common sense and decency — cry out against impending military folly, and only after the bloodbath do the official histories quietly agree they were in the main right.

Most agree the Gulf of Tonkin incident did not quite occur as sold, President Johnson; no WMDs, Secretary Powell and Ms. Miller (though, I suspect they probably knew that).

And Wikileaks reported the thousands of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, with little progress to show for the billions spent and coalition lives lost. And yesterday Wikileaks again confirmed our worst fears about the horrors that took place in Iraq. 

And the IDF essentially validated Goldstone’s Gaza findings, after all the dturm und drang purporting he was an anti-semite.

History shows us what happens to human nature once dogs of war are unleashed. A German friend expressed shock at the Abu Ghraib torture. I was shocked he was shocked. Don’t we know by now that this is what happens in war — regardless of your flag or uniform?

In a 2004 Guardian interview Paul Fussell called the Abu Ghraib torture “absolutely predictable — it’s usually practiced by soldiers upon other soldiers.” He told how his own battalion murdered surrendering Germans in World War Two. Fussell, in a remarkable 1989 Atlantic piece, is the antithesis of Tom Brokaw as he cold bloodedly recounts his combat experience and dismisses wholesale any attempt to glorify war. He points to its essential insanity and states that nations that work to convince their young to kill en masse are rationalizing the irrational.

My father once said he was disappointed he’d never experienced combat. A great-uncle, who served as a medic at Anzio Beach and was as conservative a Texan as you could ever meet, could only shake his head.

When I told a Vietnam vet the story he said, “That’s like wishing you could be in a car accident.”

Legal constructs also become less fixed once bullets start to fly. The public becomes desensitized to outrages by degrees. 

I remember when the media first began matter-of-factly reporting extra-judicial assassination by drone of alleged terrorists and insurgents in Iraq. I looked around dumbstruck, like I’d just seen an alien walk by and no one else noticed: since when does America fight that way?

Now it’s the tactic of choice in Afghanistan and Pakistan — and not even under the control of the military, but the ever-so-transparent and accountable CIA.

The press has only recently started wondering aloud if such a practice is cricket.

Marx said the revolution would come once the workers secured the means of production. But perhaps the revolution happens when the public secures the means of communication, as witnessed by the Wikileaks events.

Alex Jones, the excitable conspiracy theorist whose views I shall not attempt to defend, was at least correct in naming his website “Infowars.” Indeed, whom should we trust for our news?

The Wikileaks releases are a hybrid of the new and the old journalism — each acknowledges the utility of the other; Wikileaks has the goods and the New York Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel, the imprimatur.

One of the more curious responses to the first Wikileaks brouhaha was the claim that it was nothing we didn’t know already — a simultaneously odd accusation and defense.

A guest op-ed in the Times said we already knew war is awful, and it’s not news that civilians get killed… it always happens. And, furthermore, reporting such is dangerous: “Your reporting on our killing people could get people killed.”

We know these things, yet we still carry forth and commit them. Martin Luther King famously said that the arc of history bends toward justice. That line was reportedly embroidered in the new carpet for the Oval Office.

Obama, in his maddening acceptance speech in Oslo — both uncommonly inspirational while also ultimately disappointing, much like his presidency to date — pointed to the irrational human condition. For the time being, he seemed to say, we are hardwired for war. He touched upon a statistic that was repeated in yesterday’s Wikileaks coverage in the New York Times: in recent wars citizen casualties outnumber those of military personnel 10 to one.

I recognize mine is the pacifist lament of someone who, per Orwell, needs rough men to defend him when things get ugly. But as a new father, and with the sabers rattling again over Iran, I must lodge my protest. 

Swetlana Geier, 87, is a leading translator of Dostoyevsky from Russian to German.

Her father died of torture, a victim of Stalin’s political purging. Asked by Der Spiegel to compare the Soviet and Nazi regimes, she said: “I’ve found that murder is murder, regardless of the ideology behind it. And that is a notion that is lost in this day and age. There is no purpose or ideology that can justify horrific, unjust acts. Read Dostoyevsky. These are age-old, ancient questions. And mankind seems increasingly less capable of solving them.”

Perhaps you read the pieces on anosognosia in the Times, a condition where someone is somehow too dim to understand when he or she is doing something wrong. Too stupid to see they’re stupid.

Certainly this can be observed on a larger scale. Populations can be swayed to do horrific things, quite often against their own best interest; the advertising industry grew out of propaganda lessons learned in the First World War, that war to end all wars. 

There are obvious examples of collective insanity, like the Hollywood echo chamber that convinces seemingly intelligent people to undergo pricy self-mutilation to restore the tight-fleshed glory of their youth — and they look in the mirror afterward and actually believe it worked.

Ah, the St. Vitus dances of old, where everyone went inexplicably nuts all at once; and the Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic. These are considered examples of mass psychogenic illness. But nations devoting trillions toward being prepared to kill millions is the acme of sanity – of civilization.

I was pleasantly surprised by the New Yorker response to the first Wikileaks release. Rather than smugly dismiss it from on high, the publication said, essentially, “Whatever: perhaps the lesson should be to end the war in Afghanistan.” And yesterday’s revelations only make heartbreakingly clear that the Iraq adventure was horrifically misguided.

Which is what many of us thought before it began.

So many fought the wars

What was that all for?

They said “between good and evil”

Well, I think they lied a little…

Karl Wallinger, “Rolling Off a Log”

Peter Voskamp

Peter Voskamp is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.

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