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by Bruce Patterson, January 1, 2014
Capitalism has destroyed our belief in any effective power but that of self interest backed by force.” — G.B. Shaw
I’m channel surfing when I happen upon some congressional hearings dealing with the systematic cover-up of the rape of female soldiers within the military. 3,553 alleged sexual assaults were reported to Defense Department between 10/12 and 6/13 — the number representing the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” Shoulder-to-shoulder in the first row of seats behind the witness table, a half-dozen Pentagon Generals and Admirals sit at attention, their eyes forward, chins up. Decked out in dress uniforms, their chests are covered with ranks and files of skinny rectangular rainbow ribbons; so many ribbons stacked up they seem to disappear over their shoulders and under their lapels. Judging by the salad these crewcut stuffed suits are sporting, General Dwight D. Eisenhower had been a bum.
Well I zapped the channel with my remote control like I was firing an anti-personnel missile from the console of my predator drone. Last thing I wanted to hear was these guys explaining how they’d done their best to protect their female troopers but, yes, they could — and are — doing better, their attentions now focused on building on the “significant progress” they’ve made already. Exhibit one: just look at how many female troopers now feel free to come forward with their complaints.
I won’t delve into the specifics of the issue of rape within the ranks (see last year’s documentary The Invisible War). But I will say I’m not surprised. I was in the army (airborne infantry) from 1966 till ’69 and back then the American Armed Forces were advertising themselves as America’s shining beacons of racial integration and equal opportunity. While our ranks were certainly integrated, there was also a color line as plain as day. Above the level of platoon sergeant (E-6 or E-7) there weren’t many people of color in the NCO ranks, and the officer corps was virtually all white; Southern and Midwestern thick-sliced country white bread mostly. This while the various barracks I passed through always included a rainbow of ethnicities. I bunked with Guamese and Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Samoans, Chicanos, Southern blacks, mostly stone country, and un-Southern blacks, most all stone ghetto.
What was the position of women within the military back then? Shee-it. They were segregated for their own protection; they were non-combatants in organizations dedicated to combat (sissies need not apply). I think it’s telling that while no American job in Vietnam was worse than being a nurse in a combat field hospital, and that nearly all of these were very young white women — PFCs and Spec 4s — they’re never included in the nostalgic military hero worship on display everyday on TV. Whether it’s because we as a society honor killers above healers, or men above women, or both, is for you to decide.
The military chain of command is an authoritarian pyramid. Each stone is a fiefdom and, within their fiefdoms, every commander reigns supreme. If a specific commander fails to protect the female soldiers under his command from harassment, physical assault and even rape, he’s not going to advertise the fact (the nation’s newspapers won’t even do it). If for decades the Catholic Church could give aid and comfort to known child molesters and get away with it (when the powerful are at play, City Hall sleeps), why not rapists in the military? The Pentagon is a hell of a lot more powerful than the Catholic Church and it, too, has its Sacred Cow status to uphold. Only nowadays they call that bloated bovine carcass public image: THE US NAVY: a Global Force for Good.
In Vietnam when some stranger in your platoon or company got killed you said he’d gotten zapped. But if it was a holemate or a friend, then he’d been wasted. Not wasted because we were fighting a lost cause — I’d been in the bush two months before the opening of the VC’s Tet Offensive of 1968 exposed the lies we were getting fed about how “our victory is at hand” — but wasted because war is built on bullshit. It’s one thing to be living in the Mother Country and seeing your violent overseas engagements as humanitarian enterprises and selfless exercises in self-defense, and another thing entirely to go and fight. We were in Vietnam to kill Vietnamese and, thanks mostly to our indiscriminant use of massive amounts of “airpower,” we were doing an excellent job. But were we destroying them (and the Cambodians and Laotians) in order to save them? Were we, out of the goodness of our hearts, laying waste to their countries in order to bring them freedom? Try telling that to a hysterical young woman clutching to her breast her headless baby.
Wasted was the right word for the dead. Yet none of us could have predicted just how right we’d turn out to be. It seemed impossible that we as a society wouldn’t learn anything after millions slaughtered in a lost cause. The recently deceased Vietnamese General Giap lapped all of the battlefield generals we Americans, the French and the Japanese threw up against him, and our well-earned military defeat should have been a learning experience. Lesson number one: we never had a chance. We never deserved a chance, either.
I remember when “the treatment” Vietnam returnees got back home was attributed to the fact that we’d lost the war. Defeat is an orphan, you see, and Victory has many fathers. Well then the same must go for the vets back from Iraq. Clearly we lost that war, too. Two Trillion dollars (including interest) spent for what? Nation Building?
How about the vets back from Afghanistan, assuming the last of them ever come back? What have they won but their blood and guts? They were given tasks so impossible to fulfill they were bound to fail. Beginning with our leadership’s failure to see that, if you wish to “pacify” the Afghani mountain warrior tribes, you’d best ask their permission first. It ain’t gonna be enough to buy off their warlords and village chieftains, either. Like who is Afghan President Karzai but our man in Kabul? What is Kabul but the contemporary version of what used to be called Saigon? Having all of the military reach of Saigon’s President Diem and Madame Nhu, Karzai is just about as powerful, monomaniacal and reliable, too. The bottom line is that everybody but the Americans knew (even the English knew) that you didn’t mess with the Afghanis. The same as, back in 1965, everybody but the Americans knew better than to violently insert themselves into the middle of Vietnamese affairs.
If all of the wars the US has engaged in since the end of the “Cold War” can be called attempts to “reinvent war for the 21st Century,” then all our dazzling peacock-plumbed generalissimos have really accomplished is to become experts at producing war profiteers, porkbarrel, gleeful NYC bankers, black marketeers, gunrunners, mercenaries, lobbyists, body counts and military defeats. Prisoners of their religious faith in the sacred invincibility of absolute military supremacy on land, in the sky, in space and at sea, our Masters of War (About 50 years ago Bob Dylan nailed them in his song by that name) are like men struck blind and forever wandering inside a giant empty ammunition bunker booby-trapped with stumbling blocks large and small.
* * *
In a weedy little cemetery shaded under tall ponderosas, I come upon a headstone and read its epitaph:
OREGON TRAIL, 1852
SOPHRONIA CAROLINE HOBSON BOYLES
SEPTEMBER 1821 JUNE 19, 1909
WIFE OF CIVIL WAR VETERAN
MOTHER OF TWO CIVIL WAR VETERANS
* * *
The message is totally unexpected and it hits me in the gut; memories fly like bats. For uncounted generations half-starved Irish boys had climbed aboard English ships and gone off to fight in wars in exchange for, when they got lucky, three hot meals and a warm, dry cot. And for every one of Ireland’s Wild Geese there was a mother and sisters, aunts and cousins, women and girls left behind in the mire. The women were left behind to live and die as cattle, or to escape aboard coffin ships and sail into the Diaspora. It was voyage I suspected Mrs. Hobson/Boyles might have taken. If so then she’d probably escaped the worst of Ireland’s Great Hungers. Trekking to the seaport with her possessions slung in a bag over her shoulder, the rain beating down on her, the salt wind cutting, she passed the bundled corpses of babies lying likes rags on the trail.
Walking away, I wondered if Mrs. Boyles had dictated her epitaph. Or was it her husband and sons who’d decided to remember her in that way? Since Mrs. Boyles had died at age 87, there was a fair chance she’d out-lived them all and so wrote her epitaph aiming to honor their memories. Although, judging by the wording, it seemed a good bet that none of them had died in the War Between the States.
Into the marble was carved a pretty portrait of a prairie schooner. Yet there was no image of either the Stars and Stripes or the Stars and Bars. Since Mrs. Boyles had been 31-years-old in 1852, I imagined she’d come out west with her husband and growing boys. The early date of their arrival meant they’d probably come from Missouri or from some other Slave State. Since her husband and two sons had left her alone in a mining camp (Scissorsville, RIP) so they could get themselves back east to take a side in the conflict, it seemed highly unlikely that they were Abolitionists out to emancipate the slaves. Most militant Abolitionists were Christian pacifists, for one thing, and they were only a small minority of Northerners for another. The lack of a flag on her tombstone I took as more evidence that her family had flown the Stars and Bars.
If so then Mrs. Boyle’s men folk knew full well the sting of total military defeat. No doubt, through them, Mrs. Boyles felt some of the sting herself. She didn’t suffer like the women and girls scrounging in the ruins of the South, certainly, what with the scorched earth, the rustled or massacred livestock and their money turned into worthless bits of paper. But surely Mrs. Boyles empathized with them and shared some in their heartbreak.
Yet, what if I’m wrong and her men folk had fought as Abolitionists? Since exchanging chains of iron for chains of copper doesn’t count as emancipation, then they too had fought in vain. For what profit is there in winning a war on the battlefield when you lose its spoils? Since losing the fruits of victory amounts to losing the war, clearly the Civil War wasted not just the defeated but the victors; not just the dead but the survivors.
Recently it was decided to put American girls and women into combat. No discussion, no national debate, just git ‘er done and now it’s done. Out of deference to their husbands and ancient tribal tradition, American women have always willingly turned over their growing boys to serve as cannon fodder whenever and where ever the men folk deemed it necessary. Since we’re pouring our national treasure into reinventing war for the 21st Century (all guns, no butter), it’s only fair that mothers should offer up their daughters as well. What better way to make real women out of them? What better proof of America’s commitment to gender equality? Since war is built on bullshit, why not expand our horizons? It’s not like women know nothing about war.
FOOTNOTE: In the Yorkville cemetery leans the eroding headstone of a woman of Mrs. Boyle’s generation. Her epitaph reads: She done all she could.