Why Can't We Talk about Peace in Public?
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"The fellas from 121 started showing up the other day. It's starting to sink in... I'll have to go home, the opportunities to kill these fuckers is rapidly coming to an end. Like a hobby I'll never get to practice again. It's not a great war, but it's the only one we've got. God, I do love killing these bastards. ... Morale is high, the Marines can smell the barn. It's hard to keep them focused. I still have 20 days of kill these motherfuckers, so I don't wanna take even one day off. " -- letter home from an unnamed Marine F/A -18 pilot in Iraq.
The above letter arrived in my inbox via an email circular sent by an acquaintance of mine, a defense analyst and former congressional aide named Winslow Wheeler. It came alongside a pained commentary by another former Pentagon analyst named Franklin (Chuck) Spinney, who is probably best known for the famous "Spinney report" of the mid-'80s which exposed the waste and inefficiency of many hi-tech Defense Department projects.
Spinney's career followed the classic whistleblower arc; after sending his courageous Jerry Maguire letter on Pentagon waste up the bureaucratic flagpole, he was nearly buried by his own bosses only to be saved from ignominy at the last minute by the intercession of Senator Chuck Grassley, who invited him to air his findings in Congress.
Spinney ended up on the cover of Time magazine a week later and soon thereafter began a new career as a much sought-after expert on the inner workings of the military-industrial complex. Like another famous post-Watergate whistleblower, Karen Silkwood, Spinney ended up inspiring a Hollywood feature film -- although in this case no Oscars were forthcoming, as the key role in the lighthearted comedy The Pentagon Wars was played by Cary Elwes instead of Meryl Streep. Brutally, Kelsey Grammer also made an appearance as the film's heavy.
Now retired and living in the Mediterranean, Spinney briefly returned to the States and somehow got hold of the above letter by a Marine pilot involved in close air support missions in Iraq. Spinney's commentary about the pilot ran as follows:
Here is a "warrior" who brags about killing for killing's sake, but the people he kills are just spots on the ground that disappear in clouds of explosions. He describes the joy of war at a distance and sees nothing of its horrors. You won't find any descriptions of blood, broken limbs, trauma or destruction in this email. You won't even find reference to his own feelings of menace or fear -- not to mention their noble counterweights courage and esprit -- just braggadocio on the subject of killing. Of course, his targets are all insurgents: no sense of any human capacity for doubt on that point. ... Hopefully, the man who wrote this ghastly thing is an aberration and not at all representative of the men and women in our military.
I searched the internet to see if anyone had anything to say about Spinney's commentary. There were only a few sites that mentioned it, but in this one he is predictably blasted by soldiers who viewed his comments as a betrayal.
"I'm surprised at Spinney's outburst," writes one. "I would have thought that as an AF guy, he'd at least understand the emotion of a fighter pilot doing a CAS mission. I've enjoyed Spinney's views on Pentagon finances -- maybe he should stick with his area of expertise."
"Spinney is pathetic!!!" writes another. "I'm a grunt, we get paid to kill and we do a damn good job. America has kept Marines around for that fact, and not because we look incredibly good in our dress blues."
I'm always wary of these stories about American soldiers acting like hateful, mindlessly violent psychopaths in Iraq, though they're not exactly rare -- from Abu Ghraib of course, to a chilling video of a pilot pointlessly wasting a huge crowd of what appear to be civilians in Fallulah ("Oh, dude!" the pilot chuckles, after the explosion appears to kill dozens), to a gang of squids in the Gulf who lined up on an aircraft carrier deck in a formation that cleverly read "Fuck Iraq," to soldiers running over a cab driver's car with a tank because he was suspected of looting a few pieces of wood to stories about the use of napalm in Tallulah, and so on.
It's not that I don't believe these stories, and not that I don't want to hear them. I'm just wary of sullying the debate over this war with a referendum on the behavior of young soldiers who have been placed in an impossible position, sent to fight in a strange and hostile place with no clear mission and no detectable strategy for securing peace or victory. In my mind, all the people in the Bush administration and in Congress and in the media who got these kids sent there in the first place have to be the first ones held responsible for whatever those kids do after being thrown into the fire. I just don't yet have the stomach to start pointing the finger at a bunch of teenagers and twenty-somethings who never should have been sent there in the first place.
But the letter from this Marine pilot is something different. What worries me about it is this unabashed glee in killing people from high altitudes might not be a psychiatric aberration, but an inevitable consequence of the entire structure of our economy, which is based heavily on government spending in the area of high-technology defense manufacturing. When Spinney focuses on this gruesome and bloody letter from a single Marine pilot, he's not ripping an individual soldier but showing graphically how the tail has, by now, wagged the whole dog -- how a society whose economy is based on hi-tech defense spending will first tend to gravitate inexorably toward hi-tech defense solutions to policy problems, and then over time will raise whole generations instilled with an implicit belief in and enthusiasm for such lunacies as the "surgical strike." Here's how Spinney put it:
We all know that the American Way of War is to use our technology to pour firepower on the enemy from a safe distance. Implicit in this is the central myth of precision bombardment that dates back to at least to the Norden Bombsight in World War II ... Of course this is all hogwash, as the conduct of the Iraq War has proven once again. Real war is always uncertain and messy and bloody and wasteful and accompanied by profound psychological and moral effects. But these preposterous theories are central to the American Way of War, because they justify the maintenance of a high cost hi-tech military which is so essential to the welfare of the parasitic political economy of the military-industrial-congressional complex that is now seamlessly embedded in our political culture.
The reason I'm even writing about Spinney's letter this week is that we're now just seeing come into focus the first outlines of the rhetorical parameters for the 2008 presidential campaign. Among other things, I'm seeing a lot of TV commentators pound home the theme that the Democratic party needs to shed its reputation for "pacifism." An article I saw about Rudy Giuliani last week saluted the former mayor for being sensible on Iraq without being a "peacenik." After four years of Iraq, we still can't talk about peace in public! This evil bullshit has been buried in the commercial media's descriptive campaign language seemingly forever by now, but it may be time -- in the wake of this Iraq disaster -- to start thinking about where it comes from and what effect it may have on the national psyche.
I believe that Marine pilot is driven by the same forces that render the presidential candidacy of someone like Dennis Kucinich impossible in America. A country that feeds itself through the manufacture of war technology is bound to view peace, nonviolence and mercy as seditious concepts. It will create policies first and then people to fit its machines, finding wars to fight and creating killers to fight them. If that's true of us, and I think it is, our troubles won't be over even if someone brings the Iraq war to an end. We'll be treating the symptom and not the disease. And the reason our elections are a sham is that the disease is never on the table. Excepting the occasional Kucinich, no one in either party is interested in trying to change who we are, no matter how sick we become.