'General,' said the commander of the delinquent brigade, 'I am persuaded that any further display of valor by my troops will bring them into collision with the enemy.'"
But would such valor be good and kind or destructive and foolhardy? Bierce had himself been a Union soldier at Chickamauga and had come away disgusted. Many years later, when it had become possible to publish stories about the Civil War that didn't glow with the holy glory of militarism, Bierce published a story called "Chickamauga" in 1889 in the San Francisco Examiner that makes participating in such a battle appear the most grotesquely evil and horrifying deed one could ever do. Many soldiers have since told similar tales.
It's curious that war, something consistently recounted as ugly and horrible, should qualify its participants for glory. Of course, the glory doesn't last. Mentally disturbed veterans are kicked aside in our society. In fact, in dozens of cases documented between 2007 and 2010, soldiers who had been deemed physically and psychologically fit and welcomed into the military, performed "honorably," and had no recorded history of psychological problems. Then, upon being wounded, the same formerly healthy soldiers were diagnosed with a pre-existing personality disorder, discharged, and denied treatment for their wounds. One soldier was locked in a closet until he agreed to sign a statement that he had a pre-existing disorder -- a procedure the Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called "torture."
Active duty troops, the real ones, are not treated by the military or society with particular reverence or respect. But the mythical, generic "troop" is a secular saint purely because of his or her willingness to rush off and die in the very same sort of mindless murderous orgy that ants regularly engage in. Yes, ants. Those teeny little pests with brains the size of"well, the size of something smaller than an ant: they wage war. And they're better at it than we are.
Are Ants Heroes Too?
Ants wage long and complex wars with extensive organization and unmatched determination, or what we might call "valor." They are absolutely loyal to the cause in a way that no patriotic humans can match: "It'd be like having an American flag tattooed to you at birth," ecologist and photojournalist Mark Moffett told Wired magazine. Ants will kill other ants without flinching. Ants will make the "ultimate sacrifice" with no hesitation. Ants will proceed with their mission rather than stop to help a wounded warrior.
The ants who go to the front, where they kill and die first, are the smallest and weakest ones. They are sacrificed as part of a winning strategy. "In some ant armies, there can be millions of expendable troops sweeping forward in a dense swarm that's up to 100 feet wide." In one of Moffett's photos, which shows "the marauder ant in Malaysia, several of the weak ants are being sliced in half by a larger enemy termite with black, scissor-like jaws." What would Pericles say at their funeral?
"According to Moffett, we might actually learn a thing or two from how ants wage war. For one, ant armies operate with precise organization despite a lack of central command." And no wars would be complete without some lying: "Like humans, ants can try to outwit foes with cheats and lies." In another photo, "two ants face off in an effort to prove their superiority -- which, in this ant species, is designated by physical height. But the wily ant on the right is standing on a pebble to gain a solid inch over his nemesis." Would Honest Abe approve?
In fact, ants are such dedicated warriors that they can even fight civil wars that make that little skirmish between the North and South look like touch football. A parasitic wasp, Ichneumon eumerus, can dose an ant nest with a chemical secretion that causes the ants to fight a civil war, half the nest against the other half. Imagine if we had such a drug for humans, a sort of a prescription-strength Fox News. If we dosed the nation, would all the resulting warriors be heroes or just half of them? Are the ants heroes? And if they are not, is it because of what they are doing or purely because of what they are thinking about what they are doing? And what if the drug makes them think they are risking their lives for the benefit of future life on earth or to keep the anthill safe for democracy?
Soldiers are generally lied to, as the whole society is lied to, and -- in addition -- as only military recruiters can lie to you. Soldiers often believe they are on a noble mission. And they can be very brave. But so can police officers and fire fighters in quite similar ways, for worthwhile ends but much less glory and hoo-ha. What is the good of being courageous for a destructive project? If you mistakenly believe you are doing something valuable, your bravery might -- I think -- be tragic. And it might be bravery worth emulating in other circumstances. But you yourself would hardly be a model or an ideal. Your actions would not have been good and kind. In fact, in a common but completely nonsensical pattern of speech, you could end up being denounced as a "coward."
When terrorists flew airplanes into buildings on September 11, 2001, they may have been cruel, murderous, sick, despicable, criminal, insane, or bloodthirsty, but what they were usually called on U.S. television was "cowards." It was hard not to be struck, in fact, by their bravery, which is probably why so many commentators instantly reached for the opposite description. "Bravery" is understood to be a good thing, so mass murder can't be bravery, so therefore it was cowardice. I'm guessing this was the thought process. One television host didn't play along.
"We have been the cowards," said Bill Maher, agreeing with a guest who had said the 9-11 murderers were not cowards. "Lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it. Not cowardly. You're right." Maher was not defending the murders. He was merely defending the English language. He lost his job anyway.
The problem that I think Maher identified is that we've glorified bravery for its own sake without stopping to realize that we don't really mean that. The drill sergeant means it. The military wants soldiers as brave as ants, soldiers who will follow orders, even orders likely to get them killed, without stopping to think anything over for themselves, without pausing for even a second to wonder whether the orders are admirable or evil. We'd be lost without bravery. We need it to confront all kinds of unavoidable dangers, but mindless bravery is useless or worse, and certainly not heroic. What we need is something more like honor. Our model and ideal person should be someone who is willing to take risks when required for what he or she has carefully determined to be a good means to a good end. Our goal should not be embarrassing the rest of the world's primates, even violent chimpanzees, through our mindless imitation of little bugs. "The 'heroes,'" wrote Norman Thomas,
"whether of the victorious or the vanquished nation, have been disciplined in the acceptance of violence and a kind of blind obedience to leaders. In war there is no choice between complete obedience and mutiny. Yet a decent civilization depends on the capacity of men [and women] to govern themselves by processes under which loyalty is consistent with constructive criticism."
There are good things about soldiering: courage and selflessness;
group solidarity, sacrifice, and support for one's buddies, and -- at
least in one's imagination -- for the greater world; physical and mental
challenges; and adrenaline. But the whole endeavor brings out the best
for the worst by using the noblest traits of character to serve the
vilest ends. Other aspects of military life are obedience, cruelty,
vengefulness, sadism, racism, fear, terror, injury, trauma, anguish, and
death. And the greatest of these is the obedience, because it can lead
to all the others. The military conditions its recruits to believe that
obedience is part of trust, and that by trusting superiors you can
receive proper preparation, perform better as a unit, and stay safe.
"Let go of that rope now!" and someone catches you. At least in
training. Someone is screaming one inch from your nose: "I'll wipe the
floor with your sorry ass, soldier!" Yet you survive. At least in