Tortured Or Obedient?

My father, a veteran of the Second World War, spoke very infrequently about his experiences in the war. The engine room of a ship in combat was simply a place I don’t believe he much wanted to revisit. Memories of one of his stories, however, still gives me chills.

His ship was assigned to pick up surviving Marines after the horrific battle for the South Pacific island of Peleliu. My dad described the Marines as, in his own words, living ghosts: withdrawn and disconnected, starving and thirsty, filthy, wandering aimlessly about the ship, unable to speak, shaking, staring blankly into the air.

It didn’t help that Peleliu was a complete disaster: a ‘victory’ that came with a very high cost in lives and, as it happens, no real military value.

I’m reminded of my dad’s story whenever I think about our nation’s recent military actions in Afghanistan, a mission that is literally bleeding away our nation’s resources, cannot hope to succeed (whatever that would even mean in this context) and is of dubious military value in any event.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Afghanistan has been repelling and outlasting invaders for millennia. Most recently before our arrival, Afghans bled the army of the Soviet Union to near-death during its 10-year occupation. Today, Afghans are already preparing for the day American forces depart by arming themselves and their militias to the teeth and setting up militia-led and, in some cases, Taliban-led de facto local and regional governments. In many cases, according to recent reports, these governments are more accepted and more efficient at providing services than the elected Afghan national government.

Over the long term then, what, exactly, have we accomplished through our sacrifice of blood?

Understand, I’m not in any way criticizing the men and women of America’s armed forces. The problem lies considerably higher in the chain of command. Our soldiers, sailors and Marines were put into an untenable and dangerous situation because our leaders lacked firm goals and adequate knowledge and understandings of the context. Further, they continue to be sacrificed because our leaders are more concerned with their own egos than the lives of our service men and women.

Those in our armed forces pay the price, sometimes the ultimate price, for the stupidity, fecklessness and ego of their masters.

As he contemplated the cost of war, author and scientist Jacob Bronowski mused:

‘There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.’

Just like their predecessors on Peleliu, the men and women in our armed forces are being turned into ghosts, whether obedient or tortured, for nothing of real value.

Our leaders should be ashamed.

A Lesson of History

Many times and from many quarters, we San Franciscans have been derided, sometimes to humorous effect, at other times, less so, for being retrogressive, nostalgic, romantic and overly protective about our past. We can seem to want to slap an historic designation on almost any structure older than a few years, from 1950s diner mascots to winking billboards. We can seem more reverential about some of these pieces of our civic history than the Greeks about their Parthenon.

Recent case in point: the brouhaha over the Gold Dust Lounge, a kitschy bar in the touristy Union Square shopping area. [Disclosure: I love the place and hope it lives forever.] You’d think people were fighting over the fate of the Golden Gate Bridge.

That said, there are a lot of physical places I knew growing up here as a child that no longer exist. The loss of some make me sad and make San Francisco a significantly poorer place, in my opinion. We’re not, in the great scheme of things, a very old place. We don’t have bottomless stores of architectural beauty and history. We should appreciate and preserve the important things we have.

‘Stones make a wall, walls make a house, houses make streets, and streets make a city. A city is stones and a city is people; but it is not a heap of stones, and it is not just a jostle of people.’ – Jacob Bronowski

San Francisco has the character it does because of what’s here and who’s here. And we should all be conscious of that and exercise no little measure of care when we’re considering saying goodbye to either – buildings or people.