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War Is Betrayal

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Posted on Jul 13, 2012
markusram (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Chris Hedges, Boston Review

This piece originally appeared in the Boston Review.

We condition the poor and the working class to go to war. We promise them honor, status, glory, and adventure. We promise boys they will become men. We hold these promises up against the dead-end jobs of small-town life, the financial dislocations, credit card debt, bad marriages, lack of health insurance, and dread of unemployment. The military is the call of the Sirens, the enticement that has for generations seduced young Americans working in fast food restaurants or behind the counters of Walmarts to fight and die for war profiteers and elites.

The poor embrace the military because every other cul-de-sac in their lives breaks their spirit and their dignity. Pick up Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or James Jones’s From Here to Eternity. Read Henry IV. Turn to the Iliad. The allure of combat is a trap, a ploy, an old, dirty game of deception in which the powerful, who do not go to war, promise a mirage to those who do.

I saw this in my own family. At the age of ten I was given a scholarship to a top New England boarding school. I spent my adolescence in the schizophrenic embrace of the wealthy, on the playing fields and in the dorms and classrooms that condition boys and girls for privilege, and came back to my working-class relations in the depressed former mill towns in Maine. I traveled between two universes: one where everyone got chance after chance after chance, where connections and money and influence almost guaranteed that you would not fail; the other where no one ever got a second try. I learned at an early age that when the poor fall no one picks them up, while the rich stumble and trip their way to the top.

Those I knew in prep school did not seek out the military and were not sought by it. But in the impoverished enclaves of central Maine, where I had relatives living in trailers, nearly everyone was a veteran. My grandfather. My uncles. My cousins. My second cousins. They were all in the military. Some of them—including my Uncle Morris, who fought in the infantry in the South Pacific during World War II—were destroyed by the war. Uncle Morris drank himself to death in his trailer. He sold the hunting rifle my grandfather had given to me to buy booze.

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He was not alone. After World War II, thousands of families struggled with broken men who, because they could never read the approved lines from the patriotic script, had been discarded. They were not trotted out for red-white-and-blue love fests on the Fourth of July or Veterans Day.

The myth of war held fast, despite the deep bitterness of my grandmother—who acidly denounced what war had done to her only son—and of others like her. The myth held because it was all the soldiers and their families had. Even those who knew it to be a lie—and I think most did—were loath to give up the fleeting moments of recognition, the only times in their lives they were told they were worth something.

“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’” Rudyard Kipling wrote. “But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.”

Any story of war is a story of elites preying on the weak, the gullible, the marginal, the poor. I do not know of a single member of my graduating prep school class who went into the military. You could not say this about the high school class that graduated the same year in Mechanic Falls, Maine.

***

Geoff Millard was born in Buffalo, New York and lived in a predominately black neighborhood until he was eleven. His family then moved to Lockport, a nearby white suburb. He wrestled and played football in high school. He listened to punk rock.

“I didn’t really do well in classes,” he says. “But that didn’t seem to matter much to my teachers.”

At fifteen he was approached in school by a military recruiter.

“He sat down next to me at a lunch table,” Millard says. “He was a Marine. I remember the uniform was crisp. All the medals were shiny. It was what I thought I wanted to be at the time.

“He knew my name,” Millard adds. “He knew what classes I was taking. He knew more about me than I did. It was freaky, actually.”


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