How, Indeed.

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“War, children. It’s just a shot away.”

– Gimme Shelter, Jagger/Richards (1969)

The physical evidence of now-dead civilizations, some civilizations we still consider ‘great’ among them, quite literally circles the globe and populates our kids’ study-sheets and textbooks.

Athens. Rome. Great Zimbabwe. Machu Picchu, Sukhothai.

Ruins. Grand palaces repurposed as stores, stables and shithouses. Formerly powerful imperial cities of gold buried under strata of the refuse of succeeding societies and generations.

Think it won’t happen here? Think it can’t? That we’re too great, too special? American exceptionalism? “Don’t make me laugh,” says history to every civilization since the dawn of time.

Only a fool thinks himself the endpoint of evolution.

If there are any lessons to be learned at all from history, this is its primary lesson.

And yet, we Americans behave as if everlasting world dominion is our rightful inheritance. We project our military power around the globe willy-nilly, with the flimsiest of pretexts. When the pretexts are exposed as wrong-headed, ignorant, or just plain false, we don’t withdraw; we persist.

We extract the earth’s resources as if we had the key to a private, bottomless storeroom.

We have all but abandoned the decades-long compact between citizen and state that had as its foundation a high-quality, robust and universally-accessible system of public education. Go to the schools our tax dollars fund, it said, and become the engine of our economy; you’ll be more affluent and we’ll get better citizens. We’ve underfunded these schools, allowed them to bleed to near-death, made them inaccessible to those with no alternatives and unattractive to those with many.

We murder each other with reckless, yet increasingly efficient, abandon and argue against any attempt to control our unfettered access to the instruments of our very own deaths.

Relying on the mass marketing of deliberately ahistorical fantasies about the American characteristics of self-reliance and individualism, we distribute ever more of our economic wealth to ever fewer people; in so doing, we squeeze the life out of the very middle class that created our society’s wealth and stability to begin with, and inflate the economic and political power of a class with seeming indifference to all that live below it.

The result?

Decaying streets, sewers, roads, bridges, schools. Declining economic opportunity. Increasing concentration of power among the proudly-ignorant. A ratcheting up of violence. And internecine warfare over the scraps.

This is the way all empires die.

There will come a time when the people of this country will look around with slack-jawed wonder and ask how it could have come to this.

As if they didn’t know.

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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.

Waste

There are times, I believe, when a nation must take to arms for absolutely legitimate reasons. Invasion is certainly one of those reasons. Ego gratification is not.

What we now call World War One, what was once called The Great War, started because of happenstance and lunacy. It became the most horrific spectacle of the 20th century because a very few number of leaders (none democratically elected) thought virtually nothing of the lives of their subjects, and cared very much about their own personal standing in the world.

Unprepared for the demands of modern warfare, military commanders blithely sent wave after wave of young men against poison gas, artillery and machine guns, then the newest weapons of mass destruction, into the certain death of direct assaults against fortified positions. Before the carnage was over, there were 35 million casualties, of whom 7 million were civilians. Cities fell to constant bombardment. Death and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

The nations of Europe lost an entire generation of young men. Empires, that had sought to improve their standing in the world, collapsed. Maps were redrawn. That continent changed, more or less, permanently.

And there were the waves of war-scarred veterans returning home, changed, more or less, permanently as well. Sullen. Withdrawn. Drug-dependent. No longer able to fit within the societies they’d left.

As we Americans consider our next use of our armed forces, we would do well to ponder Europe’s ugly history of military adventure directed toward achieving uncertain aims. For unleashing weapons with illegitimate reasons, there is hell to pay.