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The Human Toll of War

There’s a telling exchange between the famous singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie in a May  2015 interview on Democracy Now (“Legendary Native American Singer-Songwriter Buffy Saint-Marie on Five Decades of Music, Activism”).  Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote and performed one of the most famous folk anthems of the 1960s, “The Universal Soldier” (1964). The song has perhaps the most powerful lines from the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War:  “He’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame… His orders come from far away no more.”

Those lines were earthshaking at the time. They informed a generation of anti-war protesters who knew that the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg Principles put responsibility for individual actions in war squarely on the shoulders of soldiers in a theater of war. This is a somewhat oversimplified view of contemporary warfare, where the steady drumbeat of war is fueled by national interests and calls for patriotism. Indeed, following the attacks of September 11, 2001, many believed there was an immediate need to respond to that awful day by service in the military. Few analyzed the web of alliances, the role of the military-industrial complex, and military actions in the Middle East prior to that horrific day, but that too is an over simplification. A limited police action rather than all-out war requiring massive numbers of fighting men and women was never “on the table” for discussion during the egregiously bellicose Bush II administration.

Here is the interaction between Democracy’s Now co-host, Amy Goodman,  and Sainte-Marie:

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you hope to be doing now, as you go on this tour, the message you’re spreading? You were fighting the Vietnam War. You were blacklisted. We’re now in the midst of—well, I don’t know if we can count the number of wars we’re involved with in the Middle East.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Yeah. I really am on a campaign to appreciate the good things that we have going on right now, which is really being awake. I have been to the Alberta tar sands, where fracking—you know, it’s fracking central. I’ve seen it. It’s much worse than I could have imagined.

Maybe there was the fear of retribution for an anti-war statement of long ago? Or perhaps it’s the numbing effect of contemporary unending wars in the Middle East, but the result was riveting? In other words, let’s not dwell on the discomfort that a former work of art may now carry into an era of endless wars, let’s just change the subject and move on as if that era of protest never happened.

Fast forward to Memorial Day weekend 2016. Somehow the subject of war and medals of war came up during a discussion at a local lumber yard. The young sales clerk, a man in his early 20s, talked about a planned visit to the graves of his great grandfather and grandfather during the weekend. Both men had fought in past wars. He talked about how he respected the decision of those who joined the military, but added that he could never personally be involved in war. Keep in mind that the geographical area where we had our conversation is steeped in patriotic values,  one of which is service in the military, and up until the present political season almost always voted for conservative candidates. The latter seems to have changed in this election cycle, where people in these rural, upstate New York towns and villages cast the majority of their primary votes for Bernie Sanders. That in itself may be part of a seismic shift in political alignments in the US.

The line metaphorically drawn in the sand about what constitutes the rules of war has been blurred by the advent of contemporary warfare. Who fights these wars also has become the subject of much debate, as this society places the burden of the actual fighting of wars on men and women who generally come from the fifth quintile of the economic system. Drone warfare and the lack of reporters on the ground further blur the lines of just what is happening in contemporary theaters of war. Determining what constitutes a just war has always been a complicated subject. The latter was almost entirely dismissed in an article in the New York Times on this past Memorial Day weekend, “Those With Multiple Tours of War Overseas Struggle at Home,” (May 29, 2016). That article is a detailed account of the trauma that multiple deployments of soldiers has caused for them and their families. What is missing, however, is any discussion of the equally devastating effect that these wars have had on the people in countries where wars are fought.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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