Julian Assange’s Wikileaks of many thousands of secret documents will go down in history as courageous and heroic – like Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Secret Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam era. Then as now, we learned that our leaders, up to and including our presidents, had lied to us. The Gulf of Tonkin incident – like the Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” or Afghanistan’s significant ties to Osama Bin Laden – were lies told to drag us into wars of choice. Our soldiers and their families are making monthly blood payments in what may be our final attempt to hold on to America’s empire, fast shipping out to Asia.
Nor are the rest of us innocent. We love the perks of empire: cheap oil, cheap goods manufactured abroad in conditions of sweatshop slavery and child labor, a deceptively high standard of living and the 65-year habit of dictating terms to our trading partners. Our best-connected corporations aren’t bothered by the fact that their billions of dollars in profit are paid in the currency of blood money. Our soldiers are pawns sacrificed at the whim of the military-congressional-industrial complex’s Mad Hatters and Red Queens.
The legal and enforceable obligation of our corporations is to maximize profit for their shareholders, not to be led astray through unprofitable niceties like empathy. The corporations are doing their job. Then, as General Smedley Butler wrote 75 years ago, “The flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.”
When it all works, prices shoot up in the stock market, where the score is tallied in our war of the rich against the rest. Euphoria shoots into the veins of everyone who owns stock – even if it’s misleading euphoria. About 50 percent of Americans own stock, but half of those have portfolios of less than $50,000. Without Medicare or very good insurance and an equally good pension plan, one serious health problem could break any of us. So, for three-quarters of us, a rising stock market mostly means that a few people who don’t live in our neighborhood are making more money from shipping our manufacturing jobs overseas, destroying workers’ unions, eliminating worker benefits and methodically unraveling the social safety nets that 75 percent of us will need, and ever more desperately.
Our richest corporations and individuals hope they are being clever enough to use the anger of our masses – that’s most of us – to suck the money out of social security, Medicare, and the other strands in our social safety nets. The result will be a transfer of the rest of our public wealth to the few who have already taken most of it, through robberies committed on Wall Street and other mean avenues. They plan to remove the rest of the rungs on the ladder of success, leaving them walking on stilts high above the rest of us rabble – including, in a shrewd and vicious irony, nearly everyone who thinks they’re going to a tea party.
Our leaders and lawmakers are betraying us while soldiers and their families pay the bloodiest price. Those soldiers follow the flag at tremendous cost: physically, emotionally and morally. The toll this scheme takes on them can be measured not only by the dead or dismembered, but also through the huge number of veterans who suffer from PTSD after coming home — 35 percent, according to one analysis. The toll can also be measured by the number of suicides; California recently reported that more of its soldiers have committed suicide than were killed in the current wars.
Why so many suicides? What could the soldiers and veterans with PTSD no longer integrate, and what could those who committed suicide no longer bear? Does it have something to do with being accomplices to the virus of death spread through never-ending — but very profitable — wars? Is it the moral prostitution of serving, and killing for, the pimps of war?
The Wikileaks brought to mind not only my own experiences, but also some well known words from J. Robert Oppenheimer, innovator of the atomic bomb. What he said when the bomb successfully detonated on July 16, 1945, was “It worked!” Later, when asked for his gut reaction, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita’s words from Lord Vishnu: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Part of the reason soldiers have trouble integrating their war experiences – possibly the most powerful experiences in their lives – is because they know that in serving their country, they too became Death, the destroyer of worlds, sometimes including the inner world of their integrity. No two soldiers have ever had the same experiences in war, yet the most poignant stories from soldiers of all wars form a genre with deep family resemblances among the tales they tell.
Soldiers don’t get to choose their wars, but once they enter them, most serve willingly and well. My own experiences ended forty-three years ago. I was a combat photographer and Press Officer for the Army. There are many powerful memories, and I would neither trade nor repeat the experience for anything. But I had repressed one story, resurrected by the combination of Wikileaks and Oppenheimer’s statement about becoming Death.
I became part of that Death through a mistake and a coincidence. It’s a simple story, but a useful metaphor. I learned one day – it was 1967 in Vietnam – that one of our artillery batteries had missed its target by about three miles: someone transposed a couple of map coordinates. Instead, our artillery shells had hit a hamlet, a small village. It wasn’t dramatic news: wars have as many mistakes as civilian operations, though with more blood. I had forgotten all about it until, two months later, we drove through that hamlet on the way to another combat operation. Several houses had been destroyed, a few trees shredded. Then we drove past a thatched roof home that had taken a pretty direct hit. Out in the yard were a mother and her two young children. Her daughter was blind, her son had lost most of his left arm. The three of them were playing: laughing, dancing and playing, oblivious to our convoy of killing machines. Here was a small, local triumph of life over death. The life that came through them was more powerful than the death that came through us. The woman and her children were embodiments of life’s exuberance and hope. We – our soldiers, our artillery, our Army, our country – had become Death, destroyer of worlds. Yet this young mother and her two children laughed, danced and played as though our killing and maiming could not, in the long run, win.
After losing our wars – then in Vietnam, now in Iraq and Afghanistan – soldiers are sent home to a world where people aren’t trying to kill them. But our society can not contain the passions of war, or come anywhere near war’s emotional, often seductive, power. What’s left over stays inside the soldiers, where its destructive power often festers in their bodies, minds and souls. The DNA of war has been implanted in them. Sometimes the offspring can be tamed. But sometimes their center cannot hold, and the soldiers we treat like things come apart.
General Smedley Butler was a General in the Marine Corps and one of only two Americans to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on two different occasions. In 1934 a group of wealthy industrialists, including Prescott Bush, offered him a fortune if he would gather a volunteer army, take over the White House and be installed as the U.S.’s first fascist dictator. Instead, he told the story to Congress, but to no avail. The quotation, “The flag follows the dollar and soldiers follow the flag” came in a speech, and in Butler’s 1935 book, “War is a Racket.”