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Win or lose, war’s aftermath is filled with nauseating rituals, as if the stench of the dead must be out-stenched by the triumphalism of the living. Think of the parades, the monuments, the medals of honor, the ostentation of “EX-POW” or “purple heart” license plates, the “Patton”-like movies of carnage-ennobled patriotism. Think of the “unknown soldier” ceremony, that worldwide fetish of wreaths and grief dangled around an empty tomb by the very men who would not hesitate to shovel anonymous soldiers by the battalion into death’s maws at the next opportunity.
Reverence for soldiers returning in one or many pieces shouldn’t be trivialized, much less reverence for the memory of fallen soldiers. But even the focus on soldiers conveniently denies the overriding fact of modern warfare — that civilians suffer, sacrifice and die in incalculably greater numbers than soldiers, who are at least equipped for atrocity. There are no tombs for the “unknown civilian” because they’re everywhere underfoot, no more remarkable than history’s landfill.
War may be necessary those rare times when willful aggression can’t be defeated any other way, just as the rituals may be expressions of gratefulness and sorrow as genuine as the sound of a lone bugle playing taps. Less explicitly, the rituals enshrine the organized perversion of war into something honorable, therefore doable again. They burn, not like the eternal flame at the unknown soldier’s tomb, but like the pilot light for the next war even as the last one is preached as the war to end them all.
This is true most of all in the United States, a peace-loving country in lore and lies only. Aside from its vibrant domestic market for violence — Indian genocides, slavery’s peculiarities, the Civil War, a penchant for riots and homicide — the country hasn’t known a single decade without war. It intervened militarily 20 times just in the first 20 years of the 20th century in Latin America and the Caribbean alone. Paradoxically, it is a country that knows war only tangentially, because in warfare (as in so little else anymore) it has always maintained a healthy trade surplus: It exports war overwhelmingly more than it imports it.
So most Americans know war as an entertainment on par with the thrills of a Jerry Burkheimer flick or the artificial mush of “Saving Private Ryan.” Whether or not GIs are involved in a war somewhere around the globe, cities may be razed, whole populations decimated, American bodies may be dragged down a bedraggled street. But as long as the mall keeps its regular hours and cheap gas is keeping the SUV happy, the off-shore mayhem is all part of the day’s mass of information, a hierarchy of trivia to be sorted between the “amazing,” the “terrible,” the “sad,” the “I-gotta-tell Mom about this,” and so on until the next cycle of news refills the stimulus tank. None of it is real. Not in the way that a rocket shattering the neighbors’ living room and stunning you awake in the middle of the night is real, not in the way that the daily dance with snipers, car bombs and sudden air raids is real, not in the way that a world of orphans more numerous than Barbie dolls in American closets is real.
A big-screen rendition of war on CNN is no more real than those third-degree emotions rustled up for a photo-op ceremony. In a nation that has rarely known the true cost of war beyond the luxuries of protest and the byte-size reckonings with repatriated body bags, that kind of simulated renditions are worse than unreal. They’re the formal preparations for war by other means. They keep the warmongering mindset oiled and ready like those strategic bombers that were kept on alert during the Cold War, engines humming and warheads polished for their destinations. Those displays of war’s after-burn are what make America so quick on the trigger of war and what allow the imminent war with Iraq to be framed as rational policy.
For all their numbers, the peace marchers have been a featherweight in the balance of war’s choreographers. Congress, the White House and the media are spoiling for war in rituals of their own, because a preemptive war requires its preemptive rituals. The tear-stained parades of departing soldiers kissing wife and kids, the soldiers themselves barely past childhood, are in full swing. TV news is drooling war programming like pre-game shows (“Countdown Iraq,” one cable network calls it). Newsweeklies pander to the Pentagon’s unvarnished propaganda. And of course schools are getting in on the act by making kids write letters to soldiers, so “support our troops.”
Writing letters to peace marchers (for lack of worthy Congressmen), to support them at least until all else has failed, seems to be a reflex strangely alien for an avowedly peace-loving, Christian nation. In any case kids are always war’s first draftees. Might as well warm them up to the fact in grade school, get them used to the stench and inoculate them against the more dangerous subversions of peace.
They’re not lacking for role models. German officers in World War II used to call the stench of the dead “the perfume of battle.” To hear President Bush and his junta’s officers talking, they can’t wait to inhale and douse the rest of us with it.
PIERRE TRISTAM is a Daytona Beach News-Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org