But they’ve been taught the way to do it
Like Christian soldiers; not with haste
And shuddering groans; but passing through it
With due regard for decent taste
—Siegfried Sassoon, How to Die (1918)
It is my favorite moment. Of World War I, that is. The one that stays with me.
Christmas, 1914: Nearly a million men are already dead, and the war is barely four months old. Suddenly, and ultimately in unison, the opposing German and British troops begin singing Christmas carols. At first light, German troops emerge unarmed from their trenches, and walk out into “no-man’s land.” Despite fearing a ruse, the Brits eventually joined their sworn enemies in the churned earth between the trench lines. Carols were sung, gifts of cigarettes exchanged—one man even brought out a decorative tree. It only happened once. Though the bloody, senseless war raged across three more Christmases, the officers on each side quashed future attempts at a holiday truce. And yet, for that brief moment, in the ugliest of circumstances, the common humanity of Brits and Germans triumphed. It must have been beautiful.
Ultimately, nearly ten million men would die in battle. For all that, little was settled. It rarely is. The ruling classes still ruled, the profiteers profited, and Europe went to war again not twenty years later. So it went, and so it goes.
Nonetheless, World War I boasted countless skeptics and anti-war activists both in and out of uniform. Their poetry and prose was dark, but oh was it ever powerful. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen from the Brits; Erich Maria Remarque for the stoic Germans; and our own Ernest Hemingway. A lost generation, which sacrificed so much more than youth: their innocence. They call to us, these long dead dissenters, from the grave.
They might ask: Where are today’s skeptical veterans? Tragically, silence is our only ready response.
It was not always so in America. During the brutal Seminole Indian Wars, 17 percent of army officers resigned in disgust rather than continue burning villages and hunting natives down like dogs in Florida’s Everglades’ swamps. Mark Twain’s cheeky prose demolished the Philippine-American colonial war at the turn of the century (some 30 years after he briefly served in the Missouri state militia during the Civil War). Hemingway, laid the truth bare after being wounded in the First Great War while serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver. And Major General Smedley Butler—two-time Medal of Honor recipient though he was—emerged from the Caribbean “Banana Wars” to admit he’d been naught but a “high class muscle man for Big Business,” a “gangster for capitalism.”
For all the celebration (and mythologizing) over World War II, at least we had Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller to burst our comfortable, patriotic bubble. And, though it likely lost him the presidency, Senator John Kerry (and his Vietnam Vets against the War mates) showed the courage to testify to the truth in the Winter Soldier Hearings.
Today, despite a few brave attempts, we are treated to nothing of the sort. Why, you ask?
To begin with, most of the above mentioned wars were fought by draftees, militiamen, and short-term volunteers: in other words, citizen-soldiers. Even now, the identity of “citizen-soldier” ought to emphasize the former term: citizen. It doesn’t. Now, as we veterans are constantly reminded, we are warriors. Professionals. Hail Sparta!
In 2017, it’s near impossible to remember that today’s professional, volunteer army is less than half a century old, a product of epic failure in Vietnam. Most of America’s Founding Fathers, after all, scorned standing armies and favored a body of august, able citizen-soldiers. Something more akin to our National Guard. Deploy these men to faraway lands, so the thinking went, and each town would lose its blacksmith, carpenter, and cobbler too. Only vital interests warranted such sacrifice. Alas, it is no longer so.
In truth, the “citizen-soldier” is dead, replaced—to the sound of cheers—by self-righteous subalterns hiding beneath the sly veil of that ubiquitous corporate idiom: professionalism. Discipline, motivation, teamwork—these are all sleek, bureaucratic terms certain to mold terrific middle managers, but they remain morally bare. And, ultimately, futile.
So today, my peers are silent. Professional officers are volunteers; dissenters are seen as little more than petulant whiners, or oddball nuts. It is hard to know why, exactly, but the increasing cognitive and spatial distance of contemporary soldiers from society at large seems a likely culprit. Combine that with the Republican Party’s veritable monopoly on the political loyalties of the officer corps and you have yourself a lethal combination.
Only don’t rule out cowardice. Who isn’t fearful for their career, income, and family stability? It is only natural. After all, this business—despite protestations to the contrary—does not tend to value intellectualism or creative thinking. Trust me. Besides, in this struggling transitory economy, the military “welfare state” is a tempting option for America’s declining middle class. Ironic, isn’t it, that the heavily conservative officer corps loves their socialized medicine and guaranteed pensions?
Under the circumstances, perhaps silence is understandable. But it is also complicity.
By now, the wars are lost, if ever they were winnable. Iraq will fracture, Syria collapse, and Afghanistan wallow in perpetual chaos. It will be so. The people will forget. Our professional, corporate regiments will, undoubtedly, add banners to their battle flags—sober reminders of a job well done in yet another lost cause. Soldiers will toast to lost comrades, add verses to their ballads, and precious few will ask why.
Perhaps a good officer suppresses such doubt, maintains a stoic, if dour, dignity, and silently soldiers on. As for me, I am not made of such stuff, and more’s the pity. I buried seven men in the fields of the Forever War, casualties of combat and the muted sufferings of suicide.
Their banal sacrifice demands explanation. They deserve as much.
For those lonely few, we who publicly dissent, the audience is scant, interest meagre, and our existence: solitary.
Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wrote a memoir, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.)
*** This article has been edited to reflect Mark Twain’s brief stint in the Missouri state militia, not the regular Confederate army; and the fact that Ernest Hemingway served the Red Cross during World War I.