Friday, May 9, 2008

The Romance of War

Long ago armies were personal things, the private tools of the rich and powerful.

During the Dark Ages in Europe, dukes, barons, earls, and other various lords and highborns would dip into their coffers and raise an army composed of their own sworn men, knights errant (kind of the medieval version of Blackwater Security), and the general peasantry. Then they'd march off in search of conquest or the throne or the holy land. War was the purview of nobles, and all real lords embarked on such endeavors in the name of God, or chivalry, or boredom. When it was over, they'd come home and hang their swords above the mantel in the Great Hall and drink and boast and tell tales of honor and glory. And things would be good for a while, not just because they'd come home with loot to refill their treasuries, but because a lot of the knights errant and a rather large number of the peasantry were left behind on battlefields of England and France or along the pilgrim trail to Jerusalem, rotting in the sun, and no longer a burden on the local economy. And while tragic to the common man, the nobility viewed these things as romantic. The peasantry was exactly that, and not worth a second thought - they were simply pawns in a lord's quest for glory.

As time passed and the world changed, standing armies became the domain of nations and not highborn men. Though the custom of personal armies did linger on for many years. And up until very recently it was common, both in Europe and here in the United States, for the rich and powerful to buy their way into military service. During the US civil war, a rather large number of Colonels and Generals (both North and South) bought their ranks and uniforms, or they bought their sons a lieutenancy. For the rich and powerful, military service was not viewed as a duty, but rather a romantic privilege of the highborn - just as it had been among the lords of medieval Europe. Some of these men were notably less successful with their commissions than others, many came home after the war shattered and disillusioned - but some were successful, and they came home in triumph and built empires of commerce and industry. Successful or not, many, like the lords before them, viewed themselves as better than those of the lower classes. Born into power and wealth, they returned to it, hung their swords above the mantel, comforted themselves with the smug belief that they were superior to those they'd left rotting on the battlefield. They came down from their lofty perches only to go on safari, or travel Europe, or cross the oceans in first class luxury. They smoked cigars and drank fine port wine and told tales around the Gentleman's Club of honor and glory and perpetuated the idealized myth of the romance of war.

There were exceptions along the way, during the Spanish American war, the young scion of a powerful family, one Theodore Roosevelt, gave up his job as deputy secretary of the Navy and used his connections and wealth to obtain a LtCol commission in the US Volunteer Calvary. Roosevelt had a highly idealized vision of manhood and war, but his inspired leadership and personal heroism at San Juan and Kettle Hills on the island of Cuba was the stuff of epic legends, as was his honest concern for his men. When it was over, Roosevelt returned to a lifetime of public service and he never forgot those men, or they him. War shaped him and changed him and far from feeling superior, he wrote that he often felt humbled by the experience, and humbled by the courage and determination of the common men around him on the battlefield. Roosevelt spent the rest of his amazing life speaking about duty and service, and though he lived a life of adventure (he and his son nearly died in a year long expedition to the jungles of the Amazon - after his presidency), he never glorified war or romanticized military service. When he wrote his autobiography, he gave only a few bare lines to his time in the USV, and only a single paragraph to the epic battle of San Juan hill - and said almost nothing of his part in it. Roosevelt understood the myth of the romance of war, and he knew from personal experience that it was only that, a myth.

Today, in America, that time is past. Members of the military, both officer and enlisted, are professionals. They join for many reasons, but never for the illusion of glory. Now that the draft is thirty years behind us, the rich and powerful can no longer buy their way into or out of the military. They have to settle for getting their sons and daughters an appointment to VMI, or one of the service academies - and those kids get treated exactly the same as everybody else, and they have to start at the bottom.

America has moved on.

Most of it, anyway.

Among the rich and powerful, the myth of the romance of war still lingers.

"I must say, I'm a little envious," Bush said, in response to complains from troops in Afghanistan. "If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed... It must be exciting for you ... in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history..."

We began the last century with a president who was a true hero, in every sense of the word. An admirable man of courage, vision, and honor. A man who went when called by his country, who personally led his men into battle and who truly understood war in all of its horrifying reality.

We began this century with George W. Bush.

Some things change, but many stay exactly the same.


  1. You have got to be fucking kidding me.

    THIS from the son of a bitch who got out of duty in Vietnam?

    If it wouldn't land me in prison, I would love to smack some sense into him. Because he really is a complete idiot.

  2. Yeah, rather funny in a sad and hypocritical way that when he was younger and unemployed he'd didn't think going to war in S.E. Asia in order to help that struggling democracy was such a fucking romantic idea.

    This sheer magnitude of this guy's stupidity, ignorance, and arrogance never, ever, ceases to amaze and appall me.

  3. Dear Mr. President:

    Since you seem to have a problem with history, and have no actual experience with war yourself, perhaps I can enlighten you by referring you what a few of our greatest generals had to say about war:

    You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.

    General William Tecumseh Sherman
    to the Mayor and Councilmen of Atlanta

    If men make war in slavish obedience to rules, they will fail.

    General Ulysses S. Grant

    I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a method of settling international disputes.

    General Douglas MacArthur

    One final note. I find it apalling that you have proved the truth of the following statement made by Hermann Goering privately to Gustave Gilbert (a German-speaking intelligence officer and psychologist who was granted free access by the Allies to all the prisoners held in the Nuremberg jail) on April 18, 1946 (see Gilbert's book Nuremberg Diary):

    We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

    "Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

    "There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    Shame on you, sir. Perhaps if you really gave a shit about the American people, as you claim you do, you'd have made some different decisions.

  4. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country

    And that, my friends, is the most frightening thing I've read all day.

    I'm going back out the shop and crawl into a pile sawdust.


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