Private Peter Pan
The other day I posted about a pseudonymously written story published in the New Republic by a soldier in the field describing some rather despicable behavior by himself and some of his buddies. It seemed to me that it was plausible, although of course, I have no way of really knowing. But I have observed some fairly similar behaviors in people in normal life, and even drew some comparisons to some documented behavior by our president. It made me worry once again about whether the troops' inevitable PTSD and other mental health problems are going to be adequately cared for back in the states.
That was where I left it. But the story has become something of an obsession in the rightwing blogosphere evidently. (Sadly No has a nice run-down of how it developed.) After a tremendous amount of wingnut pressure on TNR to prove they hadn't been duped by an imposter, now that they know he does in fact exist, they are working their way into a complete frenzy going after this soldier as if he were al Qaeda and acting as though the hawkish New Republic has just endorsed Cindy Sheehan for president. It's like watching a bunch of piranhas attack some kids who accidentally fell into the water.
This soldier certainly had no idea what he was dealing with, and I suspect TNR didn't either. (Up until now, the right has been sympathetic with their editorial line on the war, after all. For all the disdain for the blogofascists of the left, this is undoubtedly the first time TNR's felt the full force of the wingnutosphere, which makes our little ideological disagreements look like kisses on the cheek. )
But this is bigger than blogospherics. There has been precious little good writing about the actual gritty experiences of average soldiers in these wars. Everything has been so packaged and marketed from the top that it's very difficult to get a sense of what it's like over there. I have no idea if this piece is accurate, but regardless it didn't seem to me to be an indictment of the military in general, merely a description of the kind of gallows humor and garden variety cruelty that would be likely to escalate in violent circumstances. And so far, there has been nothing substantial brought forward to doubt his story -- the shrieking nitpicking of the 101st keyboarders notwithstanding.
It certainly should not have have garnered this vicious right wing attack from everyone from Bill Kristol to the lowliest denizens of the right blogosphere. They want to destroy this soldier for describing things that have been described in war reporting since Homer so they can worship "the troops" without having to admit that the whole endeavor is a bloody, horrible mess that only briefly, and rarely, offers opportunity for heroic battlefield courage (which, of course, it sometimes does as well.)
Why are so many of these people such children in these matters? Rod Dreyer read "All Quiet On The Western Front" a couple of weeks ago and was so moved that he actually felt compelled to write a column about it. (I did too. In the eight grade --- only I called it a book report.) I guess I thought everyone knew that war was a crazy, fucked up enterprise filled with great drama and boredom and courage and loss of humanity and that most of the simplistic mythic clap trap that society uses to compel young men into doing it was pretty much propaganda. Sure, it still has to be done sometimes and it takes great physical courage and commitment to throw yourself into the meat grinder, but that doesn't change the fact that it is, on many levels, a total debasement of your humanity. Like most things in life, it's complicated.
I have never been to war. But that doesn't mean that I have no knowledge of it. Human beings have been at it for some time now and they've left quite a record. Nothing that Private Beauchamp wrote in that piece had not been written before by some other soldier in some other war. (That doesn't excuse the behavior, of course, which hasn't been acceptable behavior for soldiers for centuries, if only because of the lack of discipline.) But if you have the habit of reading books you will have come across descriptions of war that make your hair stand on end and you will know that nobility and honor sometimes seem like quaint concepts from another life in such circumstances. It isn't shocking in the least that otherwise decent people could lose that decency during wartime and it certainly doesn't surprise you that those who already have a light grip on conscience (or sanity) would behave in ways that would make us recoil in horror in our everyday lives. That is not a judgment about soldiers in general. Each one is his own agent and is responsible for his own actions. War doesn't render morality inoperative. But it does challenge it and in the case of wars that are themselves immoral it challenges it severely.
I hear so much from the right about how they love the troops. But they don't seem to love the actual human beings who wear the uniform, they love those little GI Joe dolls they played with as children which they could dress up in little costumes and contort into pretzels for their fun and amusement. If they loved the actual troops they wouldn't require them to be like two dimensional John Waynes, withholding their real experiences and feelings for fear that a virtual armchair lynch mob would come after them.
Thank God Joseph Heller and James Jones and Erich Maria Remarque and countless others aren't trying to write their books today. They'd be burned as heretics by a bunch of nasty boys and girls who have fetishized "the troops" into a strange form of Boy Band eroticism --- that empty, nonthreatening form of masculinity the tweens use to bridge the scary gap between puberty and adolescence. Private Peter Pan reporting for duty.
The real men for them are the civilians on 24 torturing suspected terrorists for an hour each week, keeping the lil'est tough guys safe from harm with hard sadism and easy answers. That's where this wingnut war is really being fought. With popcorn.