Friday, November 06, 2009

Re-evaluating War and Its Lasting Effects

When lone gunmen brutally slaughter innocent citizens on our shores, the first thing everyone runs to diagnose is motive. Wild speculation rages as the first few confused details trickle out, which eventually are firmed up as substantive information becomes public. The media framing implies, but can't bring itself to mention directly, whether the psychological cost of warfare might be a deeply destructive force that erodes the emotional health of those who serve. That, in turn, points a finger at our reliance on war as an economic tool and a political necessity. Politicians and military contractors both push a robust military option and insist upon on the existence of many triggers eager to be squeezed. Socialist might be the right-wing insult of the hour, but pacifist follows closely behind on the scale of damning conservative indictments.

Over the course of history, humans have sanitized and sought to civilize the rules of conduct and in so doing mute the brutality of mass carnage. The response to capital punishment has mirrored these same trends. Even in the past few decades, the electric chair has been exchanged for the more "humane" lethal injection, although the end result is still the same, of course. No matter how many sensitivity trainings or relatively painless procedures we introduce, death is the ultimate aim and death is the undeniable reality. No one has conclusively determined the precise impact of gruesome violence upon any and all elements of society, but if violent television programs, gang rapes, school shootings, serial killers, suicide bombing attacks, extended tours of duty, and the daily barrage of horrific images are to be taken into account, the combined toil upon the human mind is likely not a positive one. That few speak out against these assaults against everyone's overall stability merely emphasizes just how ubiquitous and pervasive they have become in our daily lives.

Regular readers will note that I frequently refer to the place of my birth because it influences the construction of my ideas and provides needed contrast. Growing up as I did in the south, I couldn't help but notice the vast number of sons and daughters from the region who chose to enlist in the armed forces and in so doing, make one branch of service their profession. This was often a decision made out of working class financial limitations and the reality that once basic training was endured, the military provided lasting stability and a sense of structure not often present in other career paths. So long as one keeps one's nose clean, military service rarely produces a pink slip. Returning, if I may, to the south and its peculiarities, the region itself still clings to an old-fashioned chivalric ideal where underneath the genteel manners lies a hot-blooded desire to demand satisfaction for any offense. Its emphasis on hyper-masculinity and glorious sacrifice paints military service in romantic, dashing terms. Thus it is no wonder so many enlisted men and women opt in, rather than opt out.

Like everyone else, I concede that at this early stage in the investigation substantial details are few and far between. As a result, I am not going to idly speculate as to the motives or plan of action of Nidal Malik Hasan. One does, however, have to concede the irony that a psychiatrist, one who treats mental illness as a vocation, might have been ill himself with the very disease he sought to treat. Whether Hasan serves as the miner's canary for us all or is simply another severely troubled individual with a gun in the grips of a debilitating disorder may never firmly be established. Still, that there might be some doubt between these two perspectives is damning critique enough. I have always found the disconnect between embracing violence and hardhearted cruelty towards one set of humans while behaving with mannerly restraint to another nonsensical at best. Though we might have the ability with enough societal conditioning to thread that needle, I question whether it is a healthy perspective for anyone to take on and in so doing, justify.

I myself grew up with several great-uncles, relatives, and other mentoring figures who had served in World War II. Though they might have served "proudly", I can't exactly say they were proud to have been exposed to one dangerous, horrific scene after another. I can't think of a single man who wished to talk about the war in much detail and certainly not in glowing terms. One such wise figure was an usher at the church I attended at the time. Having recently retired, he was finding it difficult to know what to do with himself now that he had so much free time on his hands. I suggested perhaps he should take a trip to Europe to revisit the battlefields upon which he had fought all those years ago. Quite surprisingly, he declined. He stated that after deployment he'd only made one brief trip across the Atlantic Ocean, then to France, and then to Belgium, where he had been one of the first few unfortunate Allied units to bear the brunt of the Nazi offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. He had been wounded in the resulting onslaught, was summarily shipped home, and before he had recovered enough to return to battle the war was over. He had no desire to be reminded of any of those things. What he did mention was the trauma he experienced that resulted from the unforgiving moment a brief pause in outright hostilities became a shooting war. An instant before all hell broke loose, he had been chatting excitedly with his best friend, sharing a private joke, then mere inches in front of him the face of his companion was ripped off by enemy fire. The friend fell instantly and bloodily dead, right at the man's feet, and only a few moments later he himself was wounded. Perhaps I understand why war to him was nothing worth commemorating or revisiting, even if the point might have been to try to make sense of it all.

In the self-serving ways that military contractors, politicians, and those who stand to profit from war is a careful strategy to make sure to not denigrate the service of those who shoulder the burden and place themselves in harm's way. A sure-fire way to make oneself instantly unpopular is to criticize the troops in any way, shape, or fashion. As for me, my point in writing this is to take the same care not to transpose blame onto those who serve in the military, but rather to question whether the entire war machine itself is detrimental to everyone's mental health. It shouldn't take shooter after shooter after shooter for us to contemplate this matter in the detail it demands. Even though events like Fort Hood are relatively rare, hence the reason they are such a big deal when they do occur, what we do not address are the subtler, insidious means that a violent society damages each of us. I would hate to believe that we'd have to have an epidemic of deranged shooters, gang rapes, serial killers, and abusive behavior against young women before we'd ever seriously sit down and contemplate our own complicity. It is the silently calculated sum of constant exposure to savagery that leads some to snap and to take our their inner turmoil in such awful ways.

Violence, I am afraid, cannot be sanitized or made less morally and ethically abhorrent. Death is death, pain is pain, and trauma is trauma. Our society's greatest necessary evil may be war, but so long as we cleave to it, we should never be surprised when rape culture indoctrinates young men to objectify and denigrate women, when some believe that the best conflict resolution is with handguns raised, when pedophiles continue to be rooted out and revealed, when a woman has to fear the man walking behind her while on her way home from a long day at work, or when the latest serial killer is reported to be on the prowl. There is no way to justify inhumane attitudes and behaviors, even with ancient rationalizations that were are as false now as they ever were then. Here is a solution, but I have a sneaking suspicion we'll try yet again to treat the effects of the problem, not the causes. Treating the causes in this regard would rattle too many cages, threaten the livelihoods of too many wealthy people, necessitate a shift in major industries that drive our economy, require a completely different cultural outlook, and above all force us to be self-reflective and introspective, two qualities few people wish to take on for any extended length of time. Yet, for those seeking answers, here is one. Until we ask hard questions like these of ourselves and the world around us, one interrogative which we ought not need to ask is "Why?".

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