Friday, 11 November 2011

War ~ U.S. Iraq War Veterans speak out ~ as have Howard Zinn and Robert McNamara

War is a painful business in which all manner of horrendous loss is unavoidable.       
     The pain soldiers experience in wartime duty is not commonly aired on the news, especially when that war is still being fought - it's too messy and uncomfortable, especially for those authorising and leading those wars - as well as those who are paying for it, largely the taxpaying public.  
     But in a personal sense it's far more messy and uncomfortable for individual soldiers to publicly speak out against the very war in which they have been involved, speaking from direct personal experience of what went wrong - that takes guts and a very strong commitment to a sense of justice greater than themselves; this means everyone - including the people they've been dominating and controlling.

Here is what we have NOT been shown on the television news:

IVAW stands for 'Iraq Veterans Against the War'.  It is a group of veterans who are committed to speaking out with the intention of stopping the war - what courage!  I wish you courageous men and women strength and success.

Two other notable war veterans have also examined their wartime experience and spoken out about the destructiveness of war with similar rigour and determination: these men were Howard Zinn and Robert S. McNamara.  Better ways of resolving international conflicts must be found.
Howard Zinn, who featured in my previous article, spoke eloquently about the complexities of war and the impossibility of achieving anything constructive without overwhelming destruction and loss to all parties.  I have his book "Terrorism and war", published in 2002, in front of me.  He said 
In war the evil of the means is certain and the achievement of the end, however important, is always uncertain.  That is, war always sets off a chain of events that are unpredictable.  For instance, in World War 2, you could not be certain that you would defeat fascism.  You might be fairly certain that you could defeat Hitler and Mussolini, but you could not be certain that you would be doing away with all the elements of fascism, with militarism, racism, imperialism, and violence.  In fact, after 50 million deaths that did not happen.  Considering these issues, and thinking about the prospects of the human race given the horrifying technology of war, persuaded me that there could be no longer really be a war we could call just.  I decided that whatever world situations we faced, whatever act of aggression we faced, we had to come up with a solution other than the mass killing of human beings.  (page 22-23)
His anti-war stance was influenced by his wartime service in the air force as a bombardier.  He had gone to war to fight fascism, so he is not saying this lightly.  After the war he went back to some of the areas he had bombed and faced up to what happened on the ground as a result.  In the Wikipedia article linked to above he is quoted as having written:
I suggest that the history of bombing—and no one has bombed more than this nation—is a history of endless atrocities, all calmly explained by deceptive and deadly language like 'accident', 'military target', and 'collateral damage'".[12]
On page 16 he says:
We have to broaden our definition of terrorism, or else we will denounce one terrorism and accept another.  And we need to create conditions in the world where the terrorism of sects and terrorism of governments are both opposed by people all over the world.  [...]  You hear journalists and politicians talking about globalisation and the free flow of markets.  But they don't talk about international solidarity of people.  They don't say that we should consider people everywhere as our brothers and sisters - that we should consider children all over the world as our children.
Here you can see this mild-mannered and thoughtful man for yourselves:

Robert S. McNamara, whose seven year tenure as U.S. Secretary of Defense put him in a pivotal role in the Vietnam war, spoke out against it with considerable candour later in life.  Much of this is recorded in his documentary film:
  • "The Fog of War", and 
  • also in his book "In retrospect: the tragedy and lessons of Vietnam".  
He admitted that his strategy in Vietnam was wrong.  He was highly intelligent and conscientiously did not flinch from telling the hard truths as he saw them.  I admire him for that.

It is fair to note that during his involvement in the Vietnam war he did hold the middle ground between defence force chiefs, who wanted to bomb Vietnam with nuclear weapons, and ever-swelling public opinion against the war.  The question of what could have happened if the defence chiefs had been given free rein by a more easily influenced Secretary of Defense doesn't bear thinking about as the consequences would certainly have been cataclysmic.  We might none of us be here today.

By the time he was himself advising a sharp reduction in military involvement in Vietnam, President Johnson was no longer listening to him and he resigned.  American military involvement continued there until 1973 and the war itself dragged on until 1975.

However disastrous his policies in Vietnam were he faced up to it and and spoke out about it.  He seems to have spent the rest of his life doing what he could to redress the balance, devoting much time and effort to alleviating poverty while he was president of the World Bank, and after that to developing thinking about how catastrophic armed conflicts could be reduced or avoided:

Wikipedia notes that:
McNamara served as head of the World Bank from April 1968 to June 1981, when he turned 65.[28] In his thirteen years at the Bank, he introduced key changes, most notably, shifting the Bank's focus towards targeted poverty reduction. He negotiated, with the conflicting countries represented on the Board, a spectacular growth in funds to channel credits for development, in the form of health, food, and education projects. He also instituted new methods of evaluating the effectiveness of funded projects. 
The obituary on the Arms Control Association website gives more insight into his standpoint on nuclear arms, which also shifted over the years.

His book "Wilson's ghost: Reducing the risk of conflict, killing and catastrophe in the 21st century", (published in 2001, 2003) which was co-written with James G. Blight, is probably less well known than "In retrospect".  On the back cover the afterword states:
The 20th Century was the bloodiest in human history; over 160 million people died in wars and other armed conflicts.  And as we've seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United States itself, the 21st century has gotten off to a similar start.  'Wilson's Ghost' is a manifesto for ending this terrible human carnage, a call to action made especially urgent as America has embarked on an open-ended war on terrorism. [...]
This is sobering reading.  The Wilson referred to in the title is President Woodrow Wilson, whose post World War 1 efforts to establish fair and reasonable common ground-rules for international relations failed to gain sufficient votes to become reality and has not been matched by anything similar since.

Here are four clips of McNamara speaking; three are excerpts from 'The Fog of War'.  Please note that none of these are nice and many may find them distressing.  Having said that, unless we learn from history, we are likely to be doomed to repeat it - even more violently than before.  I'll let him speak for himself:

So what can we do about all this?  The first and most vital thing we can do is to learn more about these topics from those who have the wisdom of experience.  This can make us more able to see political power manoeuvring for what it is, and more able to formulate our own opinions and to voice them clearly.  Ignorance so readily produces the fear and divisions in which violence and hatred can take root.  If we know our history and are well informed we can provide a degree of the stability and good sense that is so much needed in the world today.

Recommended materials:
  • "The Fog of War" (2003): The film documentary mentioned above is packed full of history and insightful comment.  It is available on DVD.  It's one of the most helpful documentaries I've seen on any subject, and encouraged me to find out more about this very complex and difficult subject. 
  • Madeleine Albright's book, "The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on Power, God and World Affairs" (2006) as discussed in my earlier article which I have linked to here.  This book is first rate and easy to read.
  • For New Zealanders looking for more about this country's involvement in wars I highly recommend Michael King's book "New Zealanders at war".  (Revised edition published in 2003)
  • Those looking for information on trauma and PTSD may find useful references in my earlier article entitled Trauma ~ comments and links.
Today is Remembrance Day,  a memorial day observed in Commonwealth countries since the end of World War 1 to remember those in their defence force who have died 'in the line of duty'.

I remember all those caught up in the holocausts of war in all its horrifying guises. 
I remember my great grandfather's brother who died in France who left behind a fiancée.
I remember my great grandfather whose military career took him to many places on the globe, for the sake of the Empire, and then after his retirement, maintaining law and order in his home town.
I remember those who strived for peace in other ways, the conscientious objectors, who refused to kill: I remember my father.
I remember those who spoke out and supported them through the pacifist movement: I remember my grandmother.
I remember those who went to war and did not die but were deeply affected by their experiences and carried life long burdens as a result:
I remember my grandfather who almost lost his life in France, during World War 1, and was so upset with his son and wife for their refusal to join the war effort during World War 2;
I remember my other grandfather who willingly went to war as a military doctor for the duration of World War 2 - and was never the same afterwards.
I remember my other grandmother, who spent those long years as a sole parent, managing her young family and coping on her own, and then coped with my grandfather on his return. 

Echoes of these resound down through the years and the generations that have followed.
Yes, I remember.
It has rained solidly all day.  Even the skies weep.

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