Elizabeth Samet is a professor of English at West Point, although I am given to wonder for how much longer. By the sheerest coincidence I happened to be reading an article by her on Armed Forces Day that appeared in Foreign Policy (May/June 2014) in a special issue on the “fog of wars to come.” The title of her article was “Can an American Soldier Ever Die in Vain?” seemingly a question with all of the perilous traps of a Cambodian minefield. It was a question that Prof. Samet put to her class of first year plebes by way of passages from Shakespeare’sRichard II (not the Richard who desperately needed a horse). Certainly it would be a question of interest to students about to embark upon professional careers as warriors for a nation that has been at war since her cadets were fresh out of kindergarten.
I myself have addressed this question on a couple of occasions in these pages, but never with the temerity to extract relevance from Shakespeare. Since Prof. Samet’s students experienced such difficulty we will move directly to what she was leading to in her as her teaching point. I will repeat it in a substantial, and surprising, chunk:
The language most often used today to talk about war is suffused with a sentimentality that seems to belong more properly to some faraway age. It isn’t Shakespearean metaphor, yet it is a code of distortion, misdirection, and concealment. This may strike readers as a strange assertion to make about an era frequently celebrated for its knowingness and ironic detachment. Yet even after the revolutions in modern consciousness ostensibly occasioned by conflict in the 20th century, a pernicious American sentimentality about nation and war has triumphed, typified by demonstrative expressions of, and appeals to, a kind of emotion that short-circuits reason.
It is a language of the heart that works to insulate us from the decisions we have made and paradoxically distances us from those whose military service we seek to recognize. We see it in the empty profusion of yellow ribbons and lapel-pin flags. We hear it in the organized celebrations of American heroes and patriotic values: celebrity public service announcements, beer commercials about military homecomings, the more jingoistic variants of country music, and the National Football League’s “Salute to Service” campaign. All these observances noisily claim to honor and celebrate, in the words of the NFL, “the service and sacrifice of our nation’s troops.” We have become exhibitionists of sentiment: The more public and theatrical our emotional displays, the better we seem to feel.
Wow! When Prof. Samet alleges that we have been engaged in “linguistic subterfuge” she backs up her words. And she doesn’t just take on some dimwit NFL announcer blathering bullshit about how some guys they dragged out on to the field from a VA hospital to exploit for the NFL’s public service image. She takes on the Commander-in-Chief. She reprises Obama’s 20214 State of the Union where the president hauled out that now hackneyed theatrical meme by calling attention to Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger badly wounded in Kandahar, Afghanistan, who was seated in the gallery next to Mrs. Obama. The president then went on With his speech to ambiguously link the sergeants experience with the bumpy progress of the nation, as though he were some sort of a prop (my words, not Prof. Samet’s). But she does reference in this regard the ”slipperiness of sentimentality,” adding “But once a soldier becomes a symbol, an abstraction available for political ends, we deny him or her the humanity we strive to celebrate. Sentimentality distances and fetishizes its object; it is the natural ally of jingoism. So long as we indulge it, we remain incapable of debating the merits of war without being charged with diminishing those who fought it.”
Nevertheless, the American public are expected to be grateful for their service, even if it is in what many regard as unnecessary and or unjust wars instituted by this country. We are also increasingly expected to regard our killed and wounded soldiers as “heroes” and “wounded warriors” when little concern is accorded those local casualties that are simply regarded as “collateral damage” in these conflicts and, in some cases, when there have been egregious, if not criminal (though largely unpunished), malfeasances perpetrated upon civilians by some American service personnel. [See my review of Kill Everything That Moves, 87.1] While I know that there are military that serve honorably in combat I also know that there are many who are “rear echelon” personnel. It is also difficult to reconcile glamorizing television commercials by the various armed forces with un-heroic reports of atrocities upon non-combatants, the infiltration of military academies by Christian religious organizations and as many as 26,000 rapes of female military personnel.
As I write this General Shinseki is being grilled by a congressional committee about the inability of the VA to deal with the health needs of veterans (remember, America is a country where a substantial number of conservative politicians actually oppose healthcare and, in fact, are denying it to many of their citizens in predominantly red states). Portraying our wounded soldiers as heroes and wounded warriors, rather than as the “victims” that they are of a governmental system that is corrupted with war profiteering, the construction of weapons systems and military bases that comprise substantial amounts of the economies of red states that consistently support exorbitant defense expenditures, the perpetuation of wars, and often, perversely, are unsupportive of sufficient expenditures for the medical needs of the “wounded warriors” that their interests and policies create. For the citizenry to be forcibly made complicit in this process by way of their payment of taxes is difficult enough to abide, but to be asked to help promote and propagate the fiction of our military actions and its deleterious consequences is to enlist us in the perpetuation of, as Prof. Samet tells us, a “linguistic subterfuge,” a lie and a fundamentally immoral process. That some many of those who have served honorably and out of patriotism have their victimhood euphemistically-cloaked in events and media dramatizations and “heroes” and “wounded warriors,” and so many have taken their own lives is a tragic national hypocrisy.
So let’s close with monitory words from Prof. Samet.
“Now, as the United States emerges from Afghanistan and Iraq, is the time to think about these wars — indeed, all wars — with our heads. The language we use to talk about matters of power and violence can influence the future use of American force. To the degree that we allow the undeniable suffering and sacrifice somehow to redeem all causes — that we allow our guilt to obscure the realities of devastating, indecisive wars — we increase the likelihood of finding ourselves in a similar predicament again.”
The only problem is that the first casualty of war is truth.
© 2014, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 5.29.2014)