Monday, May 30, 2016

Preponderance of War

Two years ago, I was working my way through several books about the Battle of the Little Big Horn. All were of great interest, but what drew all the perspectives together for me was a more recent text that I came across a year or so later. It was late September (2015) in The Wonder Book Store, one of my favorite spots to visit with my sister Peg and nephew Dan in Frederick, Maryland. In keeping with the season, Wonder Book had a display table featuring title after title in various shades of autumnal orange, where I found:
The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn:
A Lakota History

by Joseph M. Marshall III

I appreciated the clarity of Marshall's history and some beautiful expressions of Lakota philosophy. For this post, however, I'm thinking of a most curious rationalization of a community's "need for war." I can't help thinking about the warmongering sentiment of those elders and their apparent readiness to sacrifice their offspring to the gods of war:
60: "The ultimate proving ground was warfare. A man who consistently demonstrated courage and good sense during the stress, chaos, and confusion of battle would likely do the same off the battlefield. Lakota society had long ago learned the necessity of the warrior. Life was not worth living unless you were compelled to defend it now and again, according to many elders."

A month later, when visiting my brothers Dave and Bruce, another echo -- negative this time -- of humanity's "need for war" caught my attention:

The Notebooks of Lazarus Long
by Robert A. Heinlein
"The second - best thing about space travel is that the distances involved make war very difficult, usually impractical, and almost always unnecessary. This is probably a loss for most people, since war is our race's most popular diversion, one which gives purpose and color to dull and stupid lives. But it is a great boon to the intelligent man who fights only when he must -- never for sport."

Then came December (2015) and a somber day for reading
Voices From Chernobyl:
The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

by Svetlana Alexievich
complete with some welcome skepticism of the "need for war":
"And suddenly I catch myself filming everything just the way I saw it filmed in the war movies. And then I notice that the people are behaving in the same way. They're all carrying themselves just like in that scene from everyone's favorite movie, The Cranes Are Flying -- a lone tear, short words of farewell. It turned out we were all looking for a form of behavior that was familiar to us. We wanted to live up to the moment, and this is what we remembered. The girl is waving to her mom in a way that says, 'Everything's fine, I'm brave. We'll win!'

. . . And I imagined myself making that same gesture: we'll win! We're warriors. As far back as I can remember, my father wore military clothing, though he wasn't in the military. Thinking about money was bourgeois, thinking about life was unpatriotic, the normal state of life was hunger, They, our parents, lived through a great catastrophe, and we needed to live through it, too. Otherwise we'd never become real people."

from "Monologue About War Movies"
Sergei Gurin, cameraman
in Voices From Chernobyl (109)

"A feeling of oppression but also of carrying out a necessary task -- that lives within us, the need to be where it's difficult and dangerous, to defend the motherland. Did I teach my students anything but that? To go, throw yourself on the fire, defend, sacrifice. The literature I taught wasn’t about life, it was about war: Sholokhov, Serafimovich, Furmanov, Fadeev, Boris Polevoy. . . .

. . . We already felt like it was wartime. It made a lot more sense when there suddenly appeared lines for bread, salt, matches. Everyone rushed to dry their bread into crackers. This seemed familiar to me, even though I was born after the war. I could imagine how I’d leave my house, how the kids and I would leave, which things we’d take with us, how I’d write my mother. Although all around life was going on as before, the television was showing comedies. But we always lived in terror, we know how to live in terror, it’s our natural habitat."
from "People's Chorus"
in Voices From Chernobyl (140)

[see previous posts "May Day Parade" & "Ammonia Avenue"]


Finally, over Spring Break, I read Chinua Achebe's classic novel of the old world versus the new -- Things Fall Apart. While not quite the same as the "need for war," what I couldn't help noticing in this story of late 19th Century Nigeria was a preponderance of guns. Whatever elements of Western colonialsim the Ibo tribe may have spurned, they did not hesitate to embrace the gun:
" . . . Ezeudu was to be buried after dark with only a glowing brand to light the sacred ceremony.

But before this quiet and final rite, the tumult increased tenfold. Drums beat violently and men leaped up and down in frenzy. Guns were fired on all sides and sparks flew out as machetes clanged together in warriors' salutes. The air was full of dust and the smell of gunpowder. . . .

. . . Darkness was around the corner, and the burial was near. Guns fired the last salute and the cannon rent the sky. And then from the center of the delirious fury came a cry of agony and shouts of horror. It was as if a spell had been cast. All was silent. In the center of the crowd a boy lay in a pool of blood. It was the dead man's sixteen-year-old son, who with his brothers and half-brothers had been dancing the traditional farewell to their father. Okonkwo's gun had exploded and a piece of iron had pierced the boy's heart." (123 - 24)
Live by the gun, die by the gun. On this day of gun salutes, may I suggest that the "need for war" has seen its day on this planet. It is time to find something else to live for, something else to make us strong, something else to make us proud.