When President Bush says we must make war in Iraq to fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here, he’s saying each one of us is menaced by distant murderers and each one is protected by fighting over there. He is appealing to self-defense, saving our individual skin—an often compelling justification. Some people buy the rationale, though most see its radical oversimplification and historical distortion. The Iraquis had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack. It was our attack and occupation of Iraq that brought Al Qaeda into Iraq. There is colossal callousness too—we devastate faraway cities and citizens and culture to protect our safety and comfort, all the while pronouncing that we’re protecting and liberating them.
Many US citizens know this and deplore our war, recognizing that we are war criminals by legal international standards. Passing laws to legitimize our behavior and insisting on our noble motives—as Blake might say “A Pretence of Liberty to Destroy Liberty”/“A Pretence of Love to Destroy Love”—only intensifies our culpability.
Yet public discourse still speaks of ‘winning’ as the only acceptable outcome—as though brutal warfare was a sports event and the myth of us as number one the only story that matters.
In the decline of the Vietnam War some people said cynically ‘declare victory and withdraw.’ They recognized the US need to ‘win.’Senator McCain, prisoner of war, says the military cannot afford to lose. When death and destruction, the means of war, are the action, the gameplan, the sacrificed soldiers and families have to have a worthy story, a good ending. They have to win somehow.
Many Americans love “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” line “as he died to make men holy let us die to make men free.” The Civil War Union soldiers are compared to Christ; they are noble for dying in a good cause. Christ of course was not a soldier; he did not smite in self-defense. He chose not to fight though he said he could command legions. Christ was in fact a victim of soldiers. He not only didn’t intone “Onward Christian Soldiers,” he instructed his followers not to resist evil with evil. When struck, he said, turn the other cheek. He ‘won’ not by inflicting death but by returning to life.
The Battle Hymn collapses the distinction and says death itself brings heroic life. War songs and war stories need to collapse the distinction to make a good winning story. Plato writes that poets must be banned from the ideal republic because they tell dangerous stories, losing not winning stories. Homer shows warrior Achilles in the land of the dead disparaging his heroic death. When Odysseus tells him all the world sings his warrior praises, Achilles says he’d rather be a live slave than a dead hero. Plato says this kind of talk will dissuade young men from fighting. It must not be allowed. Say instead that death is life; persuade young men to fight argues the philosopher who would be king.
The philosopher moves by abstraction, turning men into ideas and means to an end. Each one is sacrificed to the state. That entity which should safeguard each one becomes the entity for which the individual is sacrificed.
The poet understands not by abstraction but by embodiment, he sees the human form. So for Blake “the hapless Soldier’s sigh/ Runs in blood down Palace walls.”
The words about winning are not just vain boast, nor fuel for our dominating drives. They are also desperate attempts to recast death as life and by this spell save us from death and loss and ignominy.
Saying cannot make it so.
DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org