Today is Veterans Day, which of course needed to be a separate holiday than is Memorial Day, because instead of remembering our war dead, we need to be reminded of our war dead-inside.
I am not so much a media victim that I believe everyone who serves in our military does unspeakable things for ulterior motives that leaves them a broken husk back in the apathetic society they just risked life and limb to protect. But neither do I think they are blameless pawns of the Western all-consuming Moloch nor alpha loose cannons a hapless, pencil-pushing bureaucracy is unable to reign in. The truth, as usual, lays somewhere squarely in the three-way Venn diagram of the three faults. Yet who will accept the blame with the honor? Who is that hero? And if they take as much pride in the former as the latter, are they actually a villain?
A common slogan in these regards is “Freedom Isn’t Free.” I’ve seen it more than once today. Except it isn’t true. Freedom is in fact the most free thing on Earth. You have it when you’re born and your choices are all that mitigate it. If you choose to live in a society of certain laws, and you break any of those laws and get caught, you may be imprisoned. But if you did not make an effort in all good conscience to change the laws that had those ramifications or sought to live somewhere that better reflected the nuances of your morality, then felt called to violate those laws anyway, you are nevertheless free of judgment beyond whatever you consider your highest power. Being true to yourself under your given circumstances is as free as it gets. Yes, the mentally ill have the freedom to believe God is on their side, but since the bulk of us in whose midst they act agree what more fundamentally trespasses upon our own freedoms, we are likewise compelled to prevent, mitigate and/or punish any attempt to exercise that confidence. Both can be true and everyone could still look at themselves in the mirror.
Now suppose you are someone with a choice whether or not to serve in the armed forces of a society that was founded on genocide and slavery and whose military adventures are overwhelmingly for the benefit of a few elites. The odds are that any similar effort you might be enlisted into is going to be analogously depraved. All rhetoric you could regurgitate tends to favor a subsection of society at the direct expense of tiers of the remainder. You say “Freedom Isn’t Free,” but the cost is your moral high ground and the welfares of countless innocents who, like even this complicit serviceperson, are at the mercy of the machinations of those they may or may not have had a fractional hand in giving power, or at very least not having deposed with whatever tools they have at their disposal. If militaries were people and nations houses, we would not stand for the manner in which either conduct themselves.
The built-up images of soldiers, like police officers, is a comfortable fiction to spare them and the rest of us from the reality of their work. It is in its essential function a brutal horrorshow, as no doubt almost every one of them would be the first to tell you. The very concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a product of the trauma — right there in the name — experienced on the battlefield. But we’ve shut ourselves off from true sympathy by reducing it to the PTSD diagnosis, and instead just try to make troops a just another cog of the war machine that is increasingly mechanized. Rather than truly helping veterans now, we try to make less veterans, not by reducing war but by removing the human element from it. Not, of course, the human element of our targets, for whom we have no sympathy: they are complicit in whatever trumped up crimes we accuse their masters by dint of proximity. No, we want them to feel every single death as acutely as we blunt ourselves to them. But we are the enlightened society. We are The Champions of Freedom.
I do not hate veterans. Each one of them has a certain bravery I may never know. But bravery is not necessarily virtue, and we need to stop conflating the two. How does bravery in war compare to standing up to the seemingly impossible odds the status quo has stacked against being deprived of power? Either may require acts that anyone outside that role might find reprehensible, but at the end of the day, one is usually cowtowing to the will of another, while the other is enacting the will of the many to be free to make their own choices. If a soldier has a cleaner conscience than the rabble-rouser, it is only in the same way as a puppet feels no guilt for what the hand controlling it forces it to do.
The choice is between your life and your soul. In 1984, Big Brother’s final victory over Winston Smith is not merely in brainwashing him but in making him so fearful of his life that he would gladly assign his pain to someone he loves. That is “fearful OF his life”; he would welcome an instant death, but to live in pain and disfigurement is more than he could stand. It is a life we’ve forced upon so much of the world’s people using our brave troops. Patrick Henry, the great patriot, famously told his executioners, “I regret I have but one life to give for my country.” No mention was made of his soul because it was already free. Patrick Henry was not a soldier. He was a school teacher. Why does the imperialist Christopher Columbus get a federal holiday but the defender of liberty Henry does not? Why do we not celebrate the builders as we do the destroyers? Where is their trillion-dollar budget?
Our society decided we’d rather be feared than loved. And faced with the choice between keeping their lives as cattle or dying for something they believed in, both more so than any of our troops will ever know, the world we have exploited is exercising what’s left of their freedom via the few avenues in which we will even acknowledge them. Marshall McLuhan, the great media theorist, said that violence is the media of the disenfranchised; it is the means of expression that proves their existence to an otherwise deaf culture.
It is facile to suggest we could devote the resources we pour into war to affording all of humanity with an equal standard of living instead when we are not just apathetic but outrightly hostile to doing even remotely likewise with those who actually reside within our borders. Our priorities are utterly skewed so our role models are the ridiculously wealthy, today’s versions of royalty; failing to meet those standards, we lionize those who service the unfathomably powerful’s goals and, in turn, those who portray any of the above in a mediaspace that our rulers control. Any “subversion” of that paradigm is directly playing upon the de facto assumption that they would be otherwise, and serves as a placebo for frustrations that might be expressed more palpably.
This essay, if it rates attention at all, will be ignored and reviled by those who ignore and revile any challenge to this condition. They will cloak their fear and hate in God and country, both poorly understood concepts. They will not read this far but interpret what they managed to take in as an attack on all they hold dear. They made their choice of life over their souls. They may have worn a uniform or they may not have, but only those who say NO to the machine of death have a right to call themselves “soldier.”