Sunday, January 04, 2009
The March of Folly Continues... 2009
Airstrike on Gaza
With the fall of Communism in the late eighties and early nineties there was a brief flurry of speculation within some scholarly quarters as to whether or not we were heading towards a bright hopeful future characterized by the univeral embrace of democracy and freedom, the end of ideological conflict between nations, and the "end of history."
There were more skeptical voices out there to be sure, but hardly even the most pessimistic expected to see what the early 21st Century has looked like so far, the century that John Paul II had hoped would be one of "New Evangelization."
Everywhere is war, and as we look at the horrific events unfolding in Gaza, I find myself wondering if humankind can ever find its way out of this cycle.
Regarding Gaza in particular... I stand by Israel. For all of Israel's flaws and mistakes, of which there are many, if I'm forced to take sides between Israel and Hamas, I will have to choose Israel. The tragedy is amplified by the fact that both sides are locked into a death spiral over their shared conviction that force must always be answered by force.
I'm still wrestling within my own heart and mind over the implications and possibilities of pacifism. Can it ever be practically applied in this world of harsh and unforgiving realities? I pray, I wish to God that it can, but I'm not so sure. There are times when I'm inclined to lose hope. One way or another, through nonviolence or violence, the nihilistic death-worshipping ideologies of Hamas and like-minded groups need to be discredited and repudiated.
World War II was not being fought as a "Just War" by the time it ended, if it ever was at all. "Total War" was being waged by both sides. Is it really true that Total War is what it took to put the ideologies of National Socialism and militaristic Japanese emperor worship into disrepute? Can might really make right? Does good sometimes need to triumph over evil using the same forces as evil?
Maybe that's true. What, however, does this mean for our Christian faith? If we accept this principle of might making right, what difference did the appearance of God in incarnate form make in this world? What was the purpose of his death and resurrection if the world was only going to continue operating in the same way it always had before? Is this what the Kingdom of God was supposed to be, with us piously coopting and recasting the message of Jesus into something totally other-worldly instead of this-worldly?
I never served in the military, but my family has a proud military tradition within it. I don't consider the military a dishonorable profession by any means. On the contrary. I admire a soldier's courage, discipline, self-sacrifice and loyal selflessness. On the other hand, we need to be careful of where this lionization of martial attributes leads to, out of love of weaponry, adventure, uniforms, etc...
It may be that war is a regrettable necessity in certain circumstances, but it always represents a human failure. It is always a tragedy. Even a war fought for necessary purposes is obscene. As humankind makes the same mistakes over and over again, seeming to learn nothing from them except how to continue making endless lists of enemies, do we have to wonder if it really is true that we are nothing more than highly socialized apes, capable of love and art and close cooperation, but also the most vicious forms of competition?
Most authors and commentators who've earned the right to have an opinion on the matter seem to have come to a consensus that the best memoir written by an infantryman in the Second World War was With the Old Breed by the late Eugene Sledge, a native of Mobile who served as a combat marine on the Pacific islands of Peleliu and Okinawa. He escaped those epic and horrific battles without a scratch and went on after the war to become Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. He deals with a fair amount of survivor's guilt in those pages, wondering why he emerged physically unharmed when so many of his comrades were killed or wounded, but the most important point to take out of his book is the utter obscenity of war, and that there is no glory to be found in it whatsoever.
Fallen Marines on Iwo Jima
Excerpts from Sledge's book, describing the atmosphere surrounding the Battle of Half Moon Hill, before the Shuri Line on Okinawa, 1945.
Everywhere lay Japanese corpses killed in the heavy fighting. Infantry equipment of every type, U.S. and Japanese, was scattered about. Helmets, rifles, BARs, packs, cartridge belts, canteens, shoes, ammo boxes, shell cases, machine-gun ammo belts, all were strewn around us up to and all over Half Moon.
The mud was knee deep in some places, probably deeper in others if one dared venture there. For several feet around every corpse, maggots crawled about in the muck and then were washed away by the runoff of the rain. There wasn't a tree or bush left. All was open country. Shells had torn up the turf so completely that ground cover was nonexistent. The rain poured down on us as evening approached. The scene was nothing but mud; shell fire; flooded craters with their silent, pathetic, rotting occupants; knockedout tanks and amtracs; and discarded equipment-utter desolation.
The stench of death was overpowering. The only way I could bear the monstrous horror of it all was to look upward away from the earthly reality surrounding us, watch the leaden gray clouds go skudding over, and repeat over and over to myself that the situation was unreal-just a nightmare that I would soon awake and find myself somewhere else. But the ever-present smell of death saturated my nostrils. It was there with every breath I took.
I existed from moment to moment, sometimes thinking death would have been preferable. We were in the depths of the abyss, the ultimate horror of war. During the fighting around the Umurbrogol Pocket on Peleliu, I had been depressed by the wastage of human lives. But in the mud and driving rain before Shuri, we were surrounded by maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool….
The longer we stayed in the area, the more unending the nights seemed to become. I reached the state where I would awake abruptly from my semisleep, and if the area was lit up, note with confidence my buddy scanning the terrain for any hostile sign. I would glance about, particularly behind us, for trouble. Finally, before we left the area, I frequently jerked myself up into a state in which I was semiawake during periods between star shells.
I imagined Marine dead had risen up and were moving silently about the area. I suppose these were nightmares, and I must have been more asleep than awake, or just dumbfounded by fatigue. Possibly, they were hallucinations, but they were strange and horrible. The pattern was always the same. The dead got up slowly out of their waterlogged craters or off the mud and, with stooped shoulders and dragging feet, wandered around aimlessly, their lips moving as though trying to tell me something. I struggled to hear what they were saying. They seemed agonized by pain and despair. I felt they were asking me for help. The most horrible thing was that I felt unable to aid them.
At that point I invariably became wide awake and felt sick and halfcrazed by the horror of my dream. I would gaze out intently to see if the silent figures were still there, but saw nothing. When a flare lit up, all was stillness and desolation, each corpse in its usual place.
Among the craters off the ridge to the west was a scattering of Marine corpses. Just beyond the right edge of the end foxhole, the ridge fell away steeply to the flat, muddy ground. Next to the base of the ridge, almost directly below me, was a partially flooded crater about three feet in diameter and probably three feet deep. In this crater was the body of a Marine whose grisly visage has remained disturbingly clear in my memory. If I close my eyes, he is as vivid as though I had seen him only yesterday.
The pathetic figure sat with his back toward the enemy and leaned against the south edge of the crater. His head was cocked, and his helmet rested against the side of the crater so that his face, or what remained of it, looked straight up at me. His knees were flexed and spread apart. Across his thighs, still clutched in his skeletal hands, was his rusting BAR. Canvas leggings were laced neatly along the sides of his calves and over his boondockers. His ankles were covered with muddy water, but the toes of his boondockers were visible above the surface. His dungarees, helmet, cover, and 782 gear appeared new. They were neither mud-spattered nor faded.
I was confident that he had been a new replacement. Every aspect of that big man looked much like a Marine "taking ten" on maneuvers before the order to move out again. He apparently had been killed early in the attacks against the Half Moon, before the rains began. Beneath his helmet brim I could see the visor of a green cotton fatigue cap. Under that cap were the most ghastly skeletal remains I had ever seen-and I had already seen too many.
Every time I looked over the edge of that foxhole down into that crater, that half-gone face leered up at me with a sardonic grin. It was as though he was mocking our pitiful efforts to hang on to life in the face of the constant violent death that had cut him down. Or maybe he was mocking the folly of the war itself: "I am the harvest of man's stupidity. I am the fruit of the holocaust. I prayed like you to survive, but look at me now. It is over for us who are dead, but you must struggle, and will carry the memories all your life. People back home will wonder why you can't forget."
During the day I sometimes watched big rain drops splashing into the crater around that corpse and remembered how as a child I had been fascinated by rain drops splashing around a large green frog as he sat in a ditch near home. My grandmother had told me that elves made little splashes like that, and they were called water babies. So I sat in my foxhole and watched the water babies splashing around the green-dungaree-clad corpse. What an unlikely combination. The war had turned the water babies into little ghouls that danced around the dead instead of little elves dancing around a peaceful bullfrog. A man had little to occupy his mind at Shuri-just sit in muddy misery and fear, tremble through the shellings, and let his imagination go where it would.
More excerpts for Eugene Sledge's book can be found here at the PBS website for the Ken Burns series The War.