Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The militarization of grief and a Senator's definition of "sacred"

Of the many comments on the speech of Mr. Khan at the Democratic Convention, this one sentence in a TPM  article caught the attention of the post's author:

"You will never win a fight savaging the parents of a dead soldier."

It encapsulates the emotional aspect of the issue very neatly. And it also masks the extent to which grief about the loss of a loved one in war has become a tool to silence critics, has become militarized.

The fact that Mr. Trump managed to get around serving in Vietnam, like so many other members of the "elite", as well as his aggressive reaction to the speech have made this particular debate more surreal than one would expect.

To the author of this post, the concept of war has lost none of its fundamental absurdity.  The sense of absurdity took hold as a child when the family was talking about an uncle "who fell" in war.

They sounded distressed. What was so distressing about falling?

As a child, you fall all the time, then you get up, maybe with a bruise or two, and you get on with it.

It took several years to understand that an adult falling in war meant the person was killed.

Why didn't they say killed, or shot dead?

Even later, the then former child learned more awful euphemisms, the most damning of which is "the ultimate sacrifice". Yes, there are well known stories of soldiers risking their own lives to save wounded fellow soldiers. They are few and far between.

There are also stories about soldiers who questioned their commanding officers being made to "walk point" in Vietnam.

Basically serving as bait.

The Vietnam War was the last war ruled by the draft, so we can justify speaking of some degree of "serving the country" and to some extent of "sacrifice". That war was also deeply amoral, both in the ways its necessity was justified and in its gruesomeness.

For a short time following the campaigns in South East Asia, it seemed that militarism in the US and elsewhere had lost its hold over society. What changed, however, was how the public was sold war and its images and effects. A decade later, journalists were embedded, war imagery was sanitized like never before, and the slaughter continued.

Grief stricken parents became "Gold Star families", were paraded in front of TV cameras, and veterans became homeless and suicidal in record numbers. After the original sin of the 21st century, the attacks of 9/11, patriotism was repurposed as jingoism. Subsequently, the millions of citizens who demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq were ignored. And torture by our very own military followed.

Ceremonies and ritual around serving in the military and getting killed in doing so worried the author as a teen: why would you have a military ceremony, with gun salutes and a show of military might on a day meant to pay tribute to the fallen of past wars? How can you possibly speak of heartbreak and grief, yet have the same machine that invariably causes more of the same parade and flex its power?

The answer, of course, is that we pay tribute to those who made "the ultimate sacrifice" in the "defense of their country". But those who fought and died defending their country rest side by side with those who died in various wars of choice, in campaigns with a thin veneer of legality, and in activities for which no legal cover was even sought.

Which is in part why the backlash against Trump has been so fierce, with reservist Senator Graham upping the ante: "This is going to a place where we’ve never gone before, to push back against the families of the fallen." And Graham continued "There used to be some things that were sacred in American politics - that you don't do - like criticizing the parents of a fallen soldier even if they criticize you. "

Donald Trump, no matter how you phrase it, was very successful with his five deferments and - with glaring insensitivity and aggressiveness - stands there as a mirror, breaking the comforting narrative of the social contract.

Graham's parenthetical explanation of what "sacred in American politics" means, i.e. things "that you don't do", perfectly illustrates one of the few remaining taboos in American politics.

You don't have to subscribe to the view of General Smedley Butler, who famously declared that War is just a racket. However, respect for the soldiers and civilians who lost their lives in war is not incompatible with Butler's views either.

As long as we effortlessly declare every dead soldier a hero while being silent when the parents of a dead civilian are savaged, the militarization of grief will continue.

Note: The author of this post is an honorary lifetime member of the 3rd of the 36th Infantry.

[Update 8/1/2016] Spelling. Added link to Abu Ghraib report.

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