Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial Day: Personal Reflections

Memorial Day - among other this is Penny's, my oldest daughter's birthday. Perhaps this is why the day has not been, for me, a day of sadness, or proud sadness, as it might be and is for others.

But there is, I believe, another reason as well - and that is June 3d, which of course comes hard on May 30th. On June 3, 1960, my mother's father, Joe Logler, died and he was the one person in our family that made me feel like I was not adopted. A Yankee fan, as am I and I think have been since and because of him. He gelled for me as he did for my mother. He was her hero and so he became mine too.

Then on June 3, 1967, my older brother, Charlie, was killed in action in Vietnam, 7 years to the day of my grandfather's death. Charlie did not have to go into the Marine Corps as he had been accepted to grad school and would have been deferred had he gone there. But, as Charlie said, his country needed him.

But beyond Penny's birthday and June 3d, there is what happens on Memorial Day, how "We the People" celebrate it. It is, we are told, the day to remember those who gave what Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion" to this wonderful land, to this nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." This is a good thing to do. But is it enough?

For some of us - maybe for all of us - it is not enough because it is not honest enough. And without this honesty, we have wounds that cannot heal. We remain "dis-eased." It is comforting to think that when we send soldiers into battle we are doing an honorable thing, just as it is comforting to think that when people don our military uniforms they become honorable. But deep down, in all of us, we know that while comforting, these thoughts are myths. We can pretend we do not know this, but we do as is revealed when the dishonesty reappears and cannot be ignored, as it did recently.

Memorial Day is or could be a day, a good day, to embrace such honesty by honoring those who deserve it, the wounded among us who, like my brother Charlie, heard and heeded JFK's call to "ask what you can do for your country" without realizing what this would mean in Vietnam, without realizing that that war might take their honor from them by compelling them to violate those principles "We the People" hold most dear. As a result of circumstances beyond their control, soldiers were invited to commit indefensible acts, acts that were and are traumatic because they seem to be unspeakable in their inhumanity, in their senselessness, in their meaninglessness.

We need to be honest with ourselves to recognize that these soldiers were betrayed, especially by those with authority. Such honesty, especially if communalized, would go a long way toward healing our wounded, toward healing ourselves for we are wounded too. Such honesty does not devalue what our soldiers did. Rather, it recognizes their honor while acknowledging what we all know, deep down, that this was not our finest hour, that our leaders do not act honorably merely by sending women and men into battle.

This way the wounded - all of us - would hear what we need to hear to be healed: "Yes, we are sorry for your wounds, for your loss, especially as they were un-necessary. But we are proud too, proud of your sacrifices, proud of your devotion, proud that you remained faithful to Lincoln's challenge that 'a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.' You were our best even when we were not at our best. Job well done - be at peace.'"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

More From Wandering Souls

Another set of passages from Wandering Souls, by Wayne Karlin.

"In Joseph Campbell's description of the 'Journey of the Hero' monomyth, the journeyer is self-driven into exile by a sense that something essential is lacking in the community that nourished him. He goes down to a dark place people by demons, accompanied by a guide of doubtful nature, and there receives a wound. But the traveler survives that wound, and not only learns from the wounding but brings that received wisdom back to the community. The hero uses what he has learned - the wisdom of the wound - to change or fill what was missing in that community. The heroism is not so much in the journey as in the return; the journeyer makes the choice of moving back into his world again and attempting to fix it. That contemplation and universalizing o fthe hard-won wisdom of wounds is the difference between memory as therapy and memory as art, the difference between the therapeutic and the heroic. Philip Caputo describes the process in his postscript to A Rumor of War: 'The job of the battle-singer is to wring order and meaning out of the chaotic clash of arms, to keep the tribe human by providing it with models of virtuous behavior - heroes who reflected the tribe's loftiest aspirations - and with examples of impious behavior that reflected its worst failings.'

"Art, myth, and psychology mix, each an incarnation of the other. The need of some writers to wound the place they come from so that it can learn what they have learned, what it is responsible for, and so be worthy of homecoming, is echoed in Dr. Judith Herman's description of trauma and recovery. Trauma occurs, she writes, when a horrible event or events cause a break in one's own life narrative. On the other side of that break, you can no longer see yourself in the same way. Recovery from trauma starts to occur when you are able to tell your story, in sensory detail, to people willing to listen without judgment and willing to be changed by what they hear - in other words, when you can be taken back into a community that is willing to be wounded itself, willing to break through a comforting shell of protective myths and learn what you have learned. 'Healing from trauma depends upon communalization of the trauma,' writes Jonathan Shay. The damaged past must be brought back up into the light and contemplated for meaning before it can be mourned; it is what the individual must do for himself or herself, what the artist can create for the community, as O'Brien creates, in art, the face he could not bear look into before. If this communalization does not happen, you remain forever exiled, forever outside your community..... pp. 173-74]

Wandering Souls

I have discovered, quite by accident, a wonderful book entitled, "Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Vietnam," by Wayne Karlin. Here are a couple of passages that might move you.

"Homer had lost his belief in the institution that had sustained him. An army, Jonathan Shay writes, is 'a moral world that most of the participants most of the time regard as legitimate, "natural" and personally binding....' When a leader destroys the legitimacy of the army's moral order by betraying 'what's right', he inflicts manifold injuries on his men.' This statement applies equally to the authority that an army exists to serve and protect. Jack Kennedy admonished you to ask what you could do for your country. But you could not feature that what you did - and what was done to you - in Vietnam was what he had in mind. There is a certain 'destruction of the capability for social trust.' Alpha Company is not only inserted on top of an enemy regiment without support, an act of incompetence that is later unabashedly credited as the key to a victory, but then command lies about the number of causalities the company suffered as well. You and your men desperately need water and machine gun ammunition; instead, a seemingly inept or indifferent or possibly insane commander sends freeze-dried rations that have to be prepared with water. Or the enemy and the population you have been told you were there to protect are inextricably braided together, and the gauge of victory is the body count - all leading to that spoken and unspoken mantra for murder, "if its dead and it's Vietnamese, it's Viet Cong." Or you are sent to die in an unnecessary war that an administration propagates out of a fabric of lies - nonexistent attacks against destroyers, a nonexistent monolithic and menacing communism, nonexistent weapons of mass destruction - that the government either instigates, creates, or carelessly chooses to believe. "Viet Nam is a place where everybody finds out who they are," Stone's character Converse says to his friend Hicks in Dog Soldier, as he tries to convince him to smuggle heroin back to the States. "What a bummer for the gooks," Hicks replies. [p.146]

"'At the time,' Homer says of his enlistment, 'at least until I was a couple of months in country, I thought I was going to save the world from communism. I thought it was a serious threat and that if we didn't stop it, it was just going to snowball and that the next thing you know we'd have red flags flying in downtown Bamberg.'

"His belief had not lasted; it lost its shine in the red mud,rusted to a fragile shell in the monsoon rains. 'We carried, along with our packs and rifles, the implicit convictions that the Viet Cong would be quickly beaten and that we were doing something altogether noble and good. We kept the packs and rifles; the convictions we lost,' wrote Philip Caputo. Without these sustaining convictions, even if they were buried deep and only disinterred back into consciousness after the war, many could not live with the deaths they had witnessed or dealt. They could not, the psychologists would say, put them into an acceptable narrative." [p. 147]

"Homer" here is Homer Steedly, Jr. who shot a young Vietnamese man, point blank, took his papers, sent them home and kept them for some decades and then sought to and did return them to the man's surviving family in Vietnam. And this is a book that illustrates the obscenities of this thing we call "war." It is, I think, well worth the read.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

War and the Constitution

A friend of mine, in the midst of a Facebook discussion on politics, asked me to post something on an argument I made that the Constitution and war go together like, say, love and marriage. That is, I was making the argument made by some Anti-Federalists that the Constitution tilts in the direction of war and would therefore create a war-like government or a government that "likes to go to war." Sounds implausible I know, especially given the tendency to idealize the Constitution and its framers, but it is persuasive none-the-less and it goes like this.

Some Anti-Federalists noticed that the argument made in the Federalist Papers for extensive national powers with regard to national security or national defense was not really an argument on behalf of defense or security. If it were, I will add, then Hamilton's argument in the Federalist for a virtually unlimited government in this regard would prevail, logically and necessarily. But these AFs noticed and asserted that this argument for defense or security disguised a change in what is deemed the appropriate end of government, a change from personal liberty to political, economic, and social greatness. As Patrick Henry said in the Virginia ratifying convention, when America was in its youth it spoke the language of individual liberty as the end of government, whereas now the language had become that of "greatness" or "empire." The Constitution looked to establish a government that could and would pursue greatness, subordinating individual liberty to this end.

Hence, the argument between the Federalists and the AF is not simply over the extent of power of the national government or over the division of power between the states and the national government. No, it is over what is or should be the appropriate end or goal of government and civil society, individual liberties or greatness. Under the Constitution, we were to be or become a great nation, with a great military, a great capital city, a great economy, and a great empire. But this meant and means I would add [as did the AFs], that the Constitution was created to facilitate the new government engaging in war, not in defensive war but in offensive or "empire building" wars. For some AFs, war was a plague that gave rise to all kinds of evils in any society, but especially in a society that aspired to be a republic. War was not, as Teddy Roosevelt and others would argue later, ennobling. It was obscene and was so even when waged defensively. So, the Constitution, by embracing and aspiring to greatness, to creating a great nation, necessarily and logically becomes war-like. After all, other nations do not just roll over in the face of foreign nations.

A reflection of this is the presidency, which Patrick Henry said had "an awful squinting, it squints in the direction of monarchy." Of course, at that time, monarchies were understood to be more war-like than republics. I would add that the provision making the president the commander in chief of the armed forces reflects this tendency toward war as well [despite Washington's attempt in his Farewell Address to short circuit this tendency]. Hamilton wanted an "energetic executive," that is, an executive that wants to act and act vigorously, with "secrecy and dispatch" to use Alex's words. Act first, deliberate later. Well, this means, necessarily, if in doubt as to whether to make war, then make it - worry about the collateral damage later! And, of course, as the AFs pointed out as well as Machiavelli, there are always "dangers" - you know, like WMDs that no one has seen - that can be used to justify going to war. And, just as logical, if you endorse an energetic executive, you want to have executives who are prepared to use their power, including military power, without worrying too much about such things as "collateral damage." You want executives who are not queasy about shedding blood, executives like Teddy Roosevelt, not those like Jimmy Carter. In fact, "good men," men with consciences, might just be liabilities in the presidency, as seems to be the take on Carter.

So in not so brief of a nutshell, this is argument for linking the Constitution with war and saying that the former tilts toward war, makes us a war-like nation. Our history might be taken as proof that this argument is not as weird as it sounds at first. After all, we do make war frequently and just like Hamilton in the Federalist, we like to think that they are defensive adventures. In fact, though, they appear to be offensive or "empire building," the necessary acts of a nation that strives or aspires to greatness.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Government and Democracy

Here is a plea from one of the people in Thailand who is protesting the current government, taken from the NY Times today [05/20/2010]: "Everyone feels that our leaders betrayed us. We want democracy. True democracy, free democracy. Why is it so hard, why?" [p.A10]

Well, I know at least part of the reason and, I think, maybe the most important part. Because we use the word "government" so frequently we fail to understand that "government" is just one way of organizing power in what we call "societies." Aristotle never used the word "government" when writing about politics, which is not to say he did not understand the phenomenon we call "government." You see, "government" is a what I call a "modern invention," which can be traced, I think, to Nicolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and others like John Locke. "Government" is a distinct phenomenon and it is meant to replace, among other forms of organizing power, democracy. Hence, expecting "government" to be or become "democratic" is akin to expecting turtles to fly or to shed their shells and grow gills and become fishes. It ain't going to happen.

To explain a bit more. "Government" is, essentially, a bureaucratic phenomenon and, of course, bureaucracies are not and cannot be democratic. In bureaucracies, the power is hierarchical, flowing from the top down, not from the bottom up as it flows in a democracy. There are remnants for democracy in our political organizations but they are just that, merely remnants. They help to disguise our situation, leading to such pleas as that of the young lady in Thailand who is waiting for her government to become democratic. This is like "waiting for Godot," who of course never shows up.

Also, "governments" are, like the "societies" they control, inherently repressive, as are all bureaucracies. This repression should not be confused with "oppression" as the two are very different phenomena, with the latter, "oppression," justifying what is called "the right of revolution." But while two different phenomena, repression invariably becomes oppression and, hence, the Declaration of Independence says "That when any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [preserving our rights], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it" and create a new government that secures our rights. This is what is going on in Thailand and even in the United States today, as it goes on in any and every society ever constructed on what I am calling "modern principles." As Thomas Jefferson knew and said, a little revolution every now and again is a good thing and the tree of liberty is nourished by the blood of patriots, necessarily.

But, again, most of this escapes us because of how we speak, using terms like "government" and "bureaucracy" without realizing just what it is we are saying. I sympathize with the Thai who pleaded for democracy. But why is it so hard to get "true democracy, free democracy?" Because we have governments - this is the simple but not inaccurate answer.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

History and People

I was chatting on the phone with a former student, one of my "conservative" former students [he really is bright despite his continuing confusion about politics...;-)] and he said something like "The definition of insanity is: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." I said that I make only one change in that aphorism: "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of 'normal'"! Having learned from my brother, Mike, the psychologist, that most of us repeat behaviors we learned in childhood, until we see the light [or not], I think that repetition in behavior is normal, what most people do most of the time, including of course our politicians. "Deadly Paradigms," a book I mentioned here earlier, is about this kind of behavior, specifically our repeating what is called "counter insurgency politics and war" despite the fact that it is not at all clear that it has ever worked. Of course, Vietnam is the clearest example of this failure and, yet, despite that failure, we are pursuing pretty much the same strategies in Afghanistan - "Fight, Clear, Construct". Does this mean we won't prevail in Afghanistan? No, it doesn't, but it does mean we have to wonder even if we do prevail whether it was because or in spite of our "counter insurgency" strategies. Which brings me to my second point.

Then my friend said, "History repeats itself, as in the saying that those who don't know history are bound to repeat it." And I said, after a light bulb moment, "No, history does not repeat itself. People repeat themselves." That is, we think that history repeats itself because that is what we want to think, even what we need to think. That makes sense of our all-too-human tendency to repeat behaviors we learned once and which we cannot shake. You know, Saddam Hussein is Hitler...Now that makes it all simple, we think. Just avoid "appeasement" and all will be fine, just as if we had avoided appeasement in Europe pre-WWII all would have been fine in Europe! Problem: We did avoid appeasement in the Far East, with regard to Japan, and all was not fine there!