By David Swanson, World BEYOND War
Some are inclined to recognize that Trumpies are dwelling in an alternative universe in which neither climate collapse nor nuclear apocalypse is a concern but terrifying wild hoards of Muslim Hondurans are skipping and dancing into the Fatherland armed with gang symbols, deadly rocks, and socialistic tendencies.
Others are alert to the fact that the so-called "mainstream" -- the viewpoint of pro-status-quo, anti-improvement institutions -- is also fabricated in a wishful dream factory. As exhibit one, I offer: Veterans Day.
A National Museum claiming to tell veterans' stories and longing to become "the clearinghouse of veteran voices" where "producers or authors or podcasters in the future" come "for authentic from-the-veteran voices," has just opened in Columbus, Ohio. The $82 million recruitment ad benefits from government funding and raises donations with this language: "Your tax-deductible gift helps to honor, connect, inspire, and educate all on the story of those who bravely served our country." Not one word about accuracy, thoroughness, diversity of viewpoint, or independence of thought.
"What you are going to see and here are the stories -- Why did someone decide to serve? What was it like to take the oath, serve in combat? What was it like to come home?" reports one newspaper. For example? Well: "For example, there's Deborah Sampson, a Massachusetts woman who disguised herself as a man in order to serve in the Revolutionary War (even pulling musket balls from her own thighs to avoid having to see a doctor, who might discover her true sex). Or Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez, who received the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of at least eight men during the Vietnam War in a six-hour battle, in which he sustained seven gunshot wounds and shrapnel throughout his body."
Do visitors obtain information, education, challenged assumptions? Maybe, but what one can read about this museum says that one will be "inspired," like this guy: "For my own part, I find inspiration and opportunities for reflection in the 'ultimate sacrifice' exhibit honoring the fallen; in the sound of 'Taps' playing on the second floor; in the meal kits and other everyday objects carried during service and the letters sent home; in the windows striped with colors of military service ribbons through history; in the stories of transition to civilian life; in the leafy Memorial Grove outside."
Arguably honoring is not the same thing as studying. Without question, much participation in the military has involved bravery and much has involved cowardice. A very strong case can be made that militarism has not been a "service" in the sense of serving any useful purpose or benefitting people rather than endangering, killing, traumatizing, and impoverishing them. Indisputably, millions have not "decided" to "serve" at all but have been compelled to participate, and millions more have "chosen" to sign up principally for lack of any better source of income. Of all the veterans I've spoken with, those pro- and anti-war, not a one that I recall has ever mentioned the taking of an oath as a major part of the experience of war. The heartwarming stories of a woman sneaking into the military and a soldier saving lives in Vietnam can't erase the larger story of soldiers having killed millions of people in Vietnam and tens of millions more all over the globe. Do people really "fall" in a "sacrifice," or are they slaughtered in a stupid heartless machine? Do they "transition" to civilian life, or do they crash into an agonizing obstacle course of injury, guilt, PTSD, and culture shock? Are veterans more often disturbed by apocryphal tales of being spat on, or by naive gratitude for having committed moral atrocities?
A war museum that is also openly a war memorial constructed by a war-making society that has normalize permawar is not going to answer those questions. But they've long since been answered by poor people's museums, also known as books, and there's a new one of those just out that I'd put up against the toxic offerings of this new museum. The book is Guys Like Me by Michael A. Messner.
This book tells the stories of five veterans of five U.S. wars: WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq Parts I and II. We learn their stories from long before they entered the military through long after they left it. The stories are well-told, with subtlety and complexity, not museum-like propaganda. Patterns become evident without the book becoming repetitious. Each person is unique, but each confronts the same monster.
Recent veterans' stories alone would not have sufficed in creating this book. The stories of past wars long-since enveloped in mythology are needed if the reader is to begin questioning war itself. Such stories are also more useful as typical stories of the wars they were part of. In more recent wars, the stories of U.S. veterans amount to a tiny percentage of the stories of those impacted by the wars. But older stories alone would not have sufficed either. Recognizing the eternal horror of war in its current guises completes the powerful case presented here. This is a book to give to young people.
The book's first story is called "There Is No 'Good War'" and tells the story of World War II veteran Ernie "Indio" Sanchez. Don't take my assertion above that war involves cowardice as well as bravery from me. Read Sanchez' story and take it from him. But cowardice was not the horror that lurked in Sanchez' brain for decades while he kept busy and avoided it until he could avoid it no more. Here's an excerpt:
"All of this--the bone-chilling fear, the guilt, the moral shame--hid out in Ernie Sanchez's body for the remaining seven decades of his life, ambushing him when he least expected it, jabbing him like that piece of shrapnel lodged near his spine. He could never make it go away, not entirely. Eventually he learned that talking about it--testifying to anyone who would listen to his stories of the stupidity of war, the burdens of having fought and killed, and the hope of peace--was the best salve for his wounds."
This book is not only a model of telling the sorts of stories unwelcome in museums and NPR documentaries and Veterans Day parades, but also a model of writing about the perspective of an organization. Messner found his subjects through Veterans For Peace, on whose advisory board I serve, and accurately captures the wealth of moral and personal motivations behind the work of these veterans to rid the world of the means of creating yet more veterans.
Sanchez's story begins with a tough, rough, gang and prison life. But that life contains nothing like the horror of war. He recalls:
"In two-and-a-half weeks, they had to pull out the 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions, because they were decimated. In two-and-a-half weeks, that Division lost 9,500 men, either killed or wounded. Two-and-a-half weeks I'm talking about. In this war we're having [now] in Iraq, we haven't killed 6,000 people yet. How many years we've been over there?"