When Gen. Westmoreland Visited My High School to Pray

 

In case you missed the news last summer, General Westmoreland is dead. Some have written how the general was the “architect” of US military policy in Vietnam. Let’s get something straight here – Westmoreland wasn’t the architect of anything. His war strategy was older than King David: just keep on sending warm bodies into battle and let them kill or be killed. Then lie to the citizens about the way the war was going. That’s not a plan, it’s plain murder. As young men facing the possibility of being drafted into Westmoreland’s architectural disaster, my friends and I (and millions of other young men and their parents) were not impressed with the General or his strategy. Unfortunately, our opinion didn’t matter.

Westmoreland continued to get his troops and Vietnamese and Americans kept dying. The only time I ever was near the general was in high school. It was 1971 or 1972 and near graduation. As part of the pomp and circumstance, that year’s graduating class was told that they must attend a service at the base chapel. Very few seniors were excused from this duplicitous exercise in piety. Unknown to all of the seniors, however, was the fact that General Westmoreland would be in attendance and probably say a few words. Now, just because the high school was on a military base and catered to military dependents didn’t mean that the young men and women who attended the school supported the war. In fact, we had a pretty good-sized group of students who were vocally opposed to that murderous debacle. Indeed, after the invasion of Cambodia and the murders at Kent State in 1970, close to half of the students walked out in protest. Of course, there were also quite a few faculty members who shared (and encouraged) our opposition.

Anyhow, as I heard the story (not being a senior I wasn’t allowed to attend the service), sometime after the second reading of the service, the General stood up from his pew at the front of the church (where he was surrounded by Military Police and various sycophantic officers) and walked to the lectern. He began to issue forth the standard nonsense most graduating seniors always hear about the future and so on. Then, he began to talk about the holy mission of the US and its special place in the world. My friend said it was like hearing John Winthrop give his city on the hill sermon. After a couple minutes of this, some of the more political students decided that they couldn’t just sit there and do nothing when this major war criminal was less than a hundred feet away from them. So, they decided to stand up, say something and then walk out. As it turned out, they had barely stood up when a couple school administrators accompanied by a military policeman or two were at their side. Before any of the standing students could utter a word they were escorted from the building. I assume the General continued on.

There is a song by Eric Burdon and the Animals titled “Sky-Pilot.” For those readers unfamiliar with this tune, it is about the hypocritical life of a military chaplain as he uses the name of god to send men and women of to kill and die for the State. Whenever I play this tune or hear it on the radio, I think of two events: the episode described herein with General Wastemoreland and the constant characterization of this land’s native peoples as heathens and savages by US religious men during Washington’s campaign to exterminate America’s indigenous nations. This use of religion is the ultimate justification. Having it come from the mouths of men who are supposedly in touch with god makes it the ultimate contradiction. In today’s world where the politicians and commentators wonder about and curse the young men and women who choose radical Islam and kill themselves in suicide bombings for their god, it might do well for us all to give this song a listen. And wonder about those of us of the supposedly Christian or Jewish persuasion who kill for our version of the holy one. A name that comes instantly to mind in regards to the latter is General Boykin, who considers Muslims to be the spawn of Satan. He is not alone. I recently received an email from a gentleman whose brother is a chaplain in the military and considers the Iraq war to be just, despite the fact that the Vatican has decided the opposite. This writer has it right when he wrote that his brother doesn’t work for god, he works for the Pentagon. Therein lays the confusion, no matter who the god is or the government.

Max Weber, the last century’s great German thinker and writer on topics peculiar to the world of bureaucracy and bloodshed that century created, spoke of an iron cage of religion and capitalism in what is perhaps his best work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The essence of his argument was this: the Protestant sects of Christianity rationalized that profits derived by the few from the labor of many was the will of their god. This was especially true if the man laboring and the man profiting were doing it solely for the goodness of that god. Indeed, this work on both sides of the owner’s desk was to maintain an almost ascetic quality, much in the manner that monks make wine and till fields for nothing but a place to live and pray and food on the table. Of course, the laborer suffered from this dynamic much more than the business owner or the banker, but it was his god-given lot to do so and accept that.

Weber continues, however, by stating that modern capitalism, with its technology and mechanical basis, no longer requires this ascetic approach. Now, instead of god’s grace being the reason that caged man into a life designed by the needs of capital (foremost among those being the need for greater and greater profit), it is the need for profit itself. As for those who labor for the boss, they have replaced toiling for the greater good of god for toiling for the god of consumerism. Weber writes regarding the profiteers: “the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often give it the character of sport.” As for the rest of us, laboring to make our car payments and buy the latest thing from Circuit City, we have become “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart” who “imagine that (we) have attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”

Back to the war. What we are seeing in Iraq and the so-called war on terror is a combination of cynical and millenarian impulses killing with one intention. That intention is to control the world’s resources and the profits those resources bring. The aforementioned General Boykin (and probably George Bush, as well) are of the millenarian inclination in that they truly believe that the war they are waging is a holy one. On the other hand are the cynics-I would include Rumsfeld and Cheney in this group-who have no religious illusions and understand quite plainly that this war is being fought for the only true religion-the religion of the dollar. Indeed, the insensitivity and callousness of the war’s treatment of its victims, living and dead, is the ultimate realization of Weber’s “pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning,” with the war and its torture, wanton bloodshed, and deception becoming something that these men and women play as if it were a sport. Meanwhile, those of us who labor inside the iron cage whose gate is controlled by the Rumsfelds, Bushes and those for whom they work, help to keep that gate closed. After all, we have a civilization to maintain.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net

This piece originally appeared in State of Nature.

 

 

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com