In the late 80’s while a group of us were hanging around the newsroom of a weekly newspaper in a town on the California coast complaining about Reagan and wars and things of that nature one of my colleagues a guy named Walter said something very simply, “I don’t like soldiers. They kill people.” He knew whereof he spoke, he and two family members escaped from the Ukraine in the mid-1940s to Canada. The rest of his family were killed or “left to die in the death camps”, as he put it. When someone asked him whose army it was that killed his family, the Soviets or the Nazis, he answered, “What difference does that make?” He never did tell us the answer.
Around the same time the owner of the paper, Mr. Blake, an old time newspaper man from the Chicago Tribune had been sending out memos for weeks headed “Very Important” with the message that soon smoking would no longer be permitted at the newspaper. In the memos he confided that while he sympathized with the smokers for he had once “happily smoked many a cigar” he had no choice but to issue the edict. The folks in advertising got real upset. How could they work without smoking? With increasing frequency Mr. Blake tacked up new memos warning of the impending deadline of the smoking ban.
The day of the cease-smoking arrived. One avid cigarette smoker in advertising had a mini-breakdown. She literally had to go to the hospital. The same group of us commented on her demise. “Poor Shirley,” Walter the guy from the Ukraine said.
Suddenly the door burst open. It was Doug the graphic artist and Vietnam vet who somehow missed seeing all the memos, somehow missed all the agitated talk in the advertising room where the people had been hysterical for weeks about the no-smoking ban. Somehow missed Shirley being carted off to the hospital.
“What is this crap, that I can’t smoke?” he screamed at us. He didn’t often come into our end of the newspaper but I guess he figured his anger was worth sharing. “What do you mean I can’t smoke!” he shouted again. “I fought a fucking war for you people and this is what I get for it”?
The sports writer looked up from his copy. “Yeah”, he said nonchalantly. “But you didn’t win.”
At that Doug slammed his tattered brief case into a nearby trash can and stormed out. It remained in the trash for three days while he went on a bender. He retrieved it when he eventually came back to work. Shirley had come back too. She was adjusting to smoking standing outside the building under the eaves in the rain.
Forty years ago many of us knew that the State, either through conscription as in the Vietnam war, or what it devised after that war, a standing professional army, sends its military men and women off to other countries to kill people because the ruling classes decide they want a war. These wars have nothing to do with you or me. They have nothing to do with our defense or spreading democracy or overcoming evil rogue leaders. Wars are done in the interests of the ruling classes who propagandize a sentimental message of patriotism. And even patriotism isn’t enough. The soldier or the taxpayer must be given a “moral stake” in a war, a “moral responsibility” to put down “evil.”
Someone wrote recently that Cindy Sheehan perhaps finally figured out that the “system” was the “real problem” and that sudden realization is what caused her to give up her fight against our obscene killing of other people in foreign countries. What is the system? Is this not merely a euphemism for the State? And what propels the perpetuation of the aggrandizement of the State? The military. And what propels the military? Among other things, our sentimental attachment to soldiers.
I have little sympathy for hired killers. Why not call a spade a spade? I’m still angry about the funerals I went to in the 60’s and 70’s where I saw my classmates dead from that other war. I still think about those boys, some I had known from the third grade. But I agree with the Ukrainian who refused to sentimentalize what it is they do. Patriotism is for fools. Sympathy for grieving mothers whose children get killed in America’s wars sucks us in even further which is why we see the constant drone of grieving parents on television telling us how their kids died believing in the “fight for freedom.” The “system” in one way or another turns us all into cannon fodder.
EVA LIDDELL lives in the Pacific Northwest.