National Catholic Reporter, February 3, 2006

There's nothing noble about war


On the morning of Aug. 3, a Marine colonel came to the door of Paul Schroeder’s house in Cleveland to say that his son, Lance Cpl. Edward Schroeder II, had been killed in Haditha, Iraq. “Your son is a true American hero,” the colonel said to Mr. Schroeder.

It was a poignant moment, except that Paul Schroeder wasn’t buying.

In a recent Washington Post column, he wrote that his son’s death “and that of other Americans who have died in Iraq was a waste. They were wasted in a belief that a democracy would grow simply by removing a dictator -- a careless misunderstanding of what democracy requires.”

Such frank talk isn’t much heard these days, especially not when the media dutifully follow the hallucinating president from military base to military base pledging victory in Iraq, and obedient audiences of soldiers, befogged in their own caverns of illusion, hoo-haw and cheer.

Debunking military heroism and rejecting the bogus pieties that go along with it might seem to be the rarest form of dissent. Not really. Though it is not taught in our schools or extolled on the floors of Congress or preached from pulpits, a whole literature exists that echoes the sentiments of Paul Schroeder.

In his 1935 Esquire piece “Notes on the Next War,” Ernest Hemingway offered plain language: “They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet or fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.”

H.L. Mencken, who died 50 years ago this week, wrote that in time of war “admiration is lavished upon physical bravery, and the prevailing hero is one who has risked his life for a presumably holy cause. Such men, I confess, leave me cold. … I can see nothing superior in a man willing to trade his life for public applause, and I can see no more superiority in him when he is a soldier than when he is prize fighter, a lion tamer or a parachute jumper at a county fair.”

What kind of person did Mencken look up to? “The kinds of courage I really admire are not whooped in war,” he wrote. “No one in such times of irrational and animal-like emotion ever praises the man who … seeks to restore the national thinking, so called, to a reasonable sanity.”

Another sane one is former Adm. Gene LaRoque, a combat veteran of 13 sea and land battles: “I hate it when they say, ‘He gave his life for his country.’ Nobody gives their life for anything. We steal the lives of these kids. We take it away from them. They don’t die for the honor and glory of their country. We kill them.”

The most shrouded of lies is that American soldiers are dying in Iraq while serving their country. They die serving those who run the country, that is, government officials in their three branches: the executive, which stoked the war; the legislative, which funnels the money; and the judicial, which legalizes the violence. If that’s your taste, serving officialdom is fine, but it shouldn’t be confused with anything nobler. If soldiers wish to believe that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in the White House, Speaker Dennis Hastert in the House and John Roberts in the Supreme Court truly care about them, let them. But little praise should go to those who valorize the service by gussying it up in heroism.

For a lesson in getting real, there’s Donald Rumsfeld’s remark from July 14, 2003: “Are more people going to be killed? You bet.” And the waste went on, well predicted.

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington. He teaches courses on nonviolence at four universities and three high schools in the Washington area.

National Catholic Reporter, February 3, 2006

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