Saturday, May 27, 2006

Saturday morning, Memorial Day weekend thoughts.

It’s raining again outside. That’s one of the hazards of living in the Pacific Northwest. Spring is usually about three stretches of good weather, surrounded by gloom, overcast, mist, and rain. You must be able to fit in your activities, such as mowing lawns, whenever the chance presents itself. You may not get another one for several weeks.

There are many stories in the papers and on the web this weekend about how the American public doesn’t even really understand this particular holiday. There have been some efforts to get the public to slow down and think about the sacrifices military people have made over the years. Whether or not they were involved in truly great causes, or colossal mistakes, is irrelevant. These people were willing to sacrifice what other people think of as a “normal” life. Their motivations are all over the board, ranging from defenders of American principles (and I am not saying that ironically right now) to lack of any other career options and maybe gathering up a little money to pay for college. But once they are in the military, their individual motivations are irrelevant. They are there to do their job, which is, in essence, to do what their superiors tell them to do.

This is a difficult post for me to write. My own feelings about the military are extremely mixed. When looked at from a distance, the military deserves all the support and good will we can provide them. I think that the young men and women who were in the military during World War II were indeed the “Greatest Generation”. What they did was awesome in scope, in bravery, in just about any measurement you can think of.

However, when you start looking at things a bit closer, I get some very, very uneasy feelings. For one, I feel distinctly uncomfortable when talking directly with a hard-core military person. I can tell they just think differently than I do. They view most of the things that I hold in high regard with distain if not outright hostility. That’s the impression that I always get. Individuals in the military think they are above us “ordinary people”. I suppose that is drilled into them from Day One.

I once saw a program on the Discovery Channel, or the History Channel, I don’t remember now. It was about basic training for the Marines. I forgot the name of the camp now. It’s in Georgia, I believe. I was truly appalled when I saw what was being drilled into the raw recruits. They were being brainwashed. They were better than everyone. They were defending their “little Shelias” back home. That’s how they view their wives and girlfriends. Little Shelias. And they were taught that killing was not only something that would have to be done on occasion, it was a good thing. Basic training was breaking down all the social conventions that our society normally tries to build up in young people.

I am also very wary of the concept, “obey orders from your superiors without thinking.” I abhor that kind of principle. We are all thinking, rational creatures. I would never accept a job in the private sector that would require me to unthinkingly follow the orders of my boss and never raise an objection. But that is what the military demands of its’ people. Of course, I understand the reason behind it. When in the heat of a battle, you cannot stand to have your people stand up and say, “Well, wait a second. I have a question.” That won’t do. You need to have military units you can trust to do whatever it is they are called upon. I truly do understand that. But I think, at an individual level, this takes quite a lot of humanity out of a person. And the military does not want to recognize that aspect.

Being in the military changes a person. I have seen it. Many times, it is for the good. The military teaches discipline. It teaches honor. But returning from very stressful situations, like Iraq and Afghanistan, and Vietnam before them, can really break a person. The mental illness of many returning soldiers is going untreated because the military does not want to really acknowledge that such problems exist. Then it becomes a matter of that person not cutting it, not making the grade. They were somehow deficient. It’s their problem, not being in the military in that position.

I, for one, cannot imagine what it is like for 18 to 24 year olds, people who are still only finding out who they are as people, to be put into a situation where dying is a constant threat, where you are seeing your buddies being blown to bits in front of your eyes or picked off by a sniper while just walking down the street. That would affect me, very drastically. How they cope, I don’t know. I guess it is the same as always. You have to cope, so you do, somehow.

But constant pressure such as this cannot be good for a person. And given the manipulations to a person’s character that go on during a their indoctrination, it is not surprising to me that bad things occasionally happen. The latest incident, if it can be called that, from Haditha, Iraq is proof to me that people are not the robots the military wants or needs. How is it humanly possible, given the ideals that our country supposedly holds in high esteem, that a unit of Marines can go out and slaughter a bunch of innocent Iraqi civilians, in cold blood, in retaliation for one of their men being killed? How? It seems like the brass in the Pentagon is essentially saying the initial reports have been confirmed. These people went out on a 3 to 5 hour killing rampage, where they broke into houses, rounded people up, and shot men, women, and children that were not threatening them. How could they possibly think that they were doing Justice? It was revenge, pure and simple. It didn’t matter to them that these were the people they were supposed to be defending. We “liberated” these people from an evil, despotic leader who used killing and torture wantonly and indiscriminately. Now we are doing the same thing. What could they possibly been thinking? The answer is that they weren’t. Their basic indoctrination of killing, strength, and “defending your tribe” took over. There was no thinking involved. There couldn’t have been.

Without knowing all the facts about this incident, which I am sure we will never do, I am trying to withhold my judgment about these people. It’s pretty difficult, though. I am more upset about the situation that they were put in that contributed to their mental state that would allow them to participate in such brutality. What the hell are we doing over there, anyway? No weapons of mass destruction have been found. And our secondary reason for going in was that Saddam was an evil nasty man, and the people of that country deserve better. No doubt that was true. But all these actions, from this to Abu Graib to the mistaken bombing of a wedding party and then covering it up, just invalidate any justification we have in being there. What is our mission? I can’t tell.

The point of this post is not to condemn anyone, other than our leaders who put us in this gawdawful situation. I still think all individuals, past and present, in the military deserve our respect. But they are not above the law; they are not above having their actions questioned.

We should remember those who gave so much, and continue to do so in this present day, to the service of our country. Stop for a moment of reflection before you go on that trip to the mall on Monday. Light a candle. Attend a public service. Go to church. But while remembering their sacrifices, perhaps we should whisper a little prayer for their collective souls as well.

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