See the phantoms filling the sky around you. They astound you, I can tell,
these inhabitants of hell. Poor wretches whom the Hand of Heaven ignores. Beware,
beware, beware, lest their dreadful fate be yours!
~ the ghost of Jacob Marley in Scrooge, 1970
For most of us our favorite passage in A Christmas Carol is when Ebenezer Scrooge finally wakes after his third and final visitation. It’s been a night filled with torments, and the fear of death still clings to the air. He can still hear the cackling of the riffraff as they pick his cold pockets, and exult in his lonely passing with crude japing.
What is fun about the 1970 musical version of the Charles Dickens classic is that we never for a second believe his redemption is fleeting. No, actor Albert Finney is leaping about the room, a man childlike in his rebirth. The terrors of the night, facing his past, his present and future self – first innocent and lovely, then corrupted and twisted by material gain, then a solitary corpse in hell – have spawned a great metamorphosis in Scrooge, and we delight in his delight as he reconstructs relationships with city dwellers and family, and we know, as certain as it is Christmas Day, that he is a changed man.
For a second let us imagine that we could, too, be so transformed in such a way about how as a country, we approach war – enough to resist bad policy and unnecessary conflict from now on. For the last decade we have accepted a state of national security that is both aggressive and expansive. This domestic and global militarism often needs no justification save for 9/11, and the constant threat of radical Islamic extremism, and on the far eastern side of the world, the so-called red menace in China and nuclear North Korea.
On a brighter note, all recent polling of the American people show a wariness of war, mostly because the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have drained both blood and treasure. Those wars have exposed Washington’s high-handed expectations as largely unattainable, despite trillions in direct and indirect costs to the American taxpayer.
So, when President Obama announced airstrikes on Syrian government targets, the American people loudly opposed it, and Washington largely backed off any pretense of a new war front in that country.
We don’t know yet if Syria was a "one off" in the sense that the potential conflict was too soon on the heels of our long, seemingly unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Has the American public really wised up to the futility of war, or is it, as other writers and commentators have assessed, merely "fatigued" by it?
The problem is, as author Aldous Huxley often suggested in his so many prescient thoughts on the power of television and the media, the American public is so distracted by superficial shiny things that it just doesn’t put the energy into learning about war and what happens to a country when war becomes a way of life. It doesn’t dwell on our own loss of humanity as we alter and destroy the lives of the innocents overseas. It doesn’t consider the blowback from drone strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen, or the cost of taking care of a generation of veterans with traumatic physical and emotional injuries for the rest of their lives.
But we watch our sports and parse the games, the players’ records and off-field dramas with a surgeon’s precision. We debate reality show foibles and speculate over post-baby bodies and Royal Family romances. We love politics, but as if it were another professional sport – Republicans versus the Democrats – their elections, who is verbally spanking who in the press conference.
So maybe it is time for a visitation. Not by actual ghosts of course. No, we need to read. America doesn’t do enough reading, besides stuff that makes us feel good and in ‘the zone,’ and stuff that just reinforces what we believe anyway (case in point, the top three selling non-fiction books right now are by Charles Krauthammer, Bill O’Reilly and Brian Kilmeade).
So on this Christmas Eve I suggest a reading three books about war, published in 2013, representing the wars past, the wars present and the wars yet to come. It would be too fantastic to suggest a Christmas morning of true epiphany, but ‘tis the season of magic and hope and birth, one can only wish.
Ghost of Wars Past
Kill Everything that Moves, The Real American War in Vietnam, by Nick Turse, 2013.
Turse was a doctoral student at Columbia University working on his dissertation when he stumbled on a huge, strange cache of files in the National Archives. Reams of government documents, interviews, letters, transcripts – all describing in detail the tactical policies that led to millions of Vietnamese civilian deaths during the Vietnam War from 1964 -1973. Turse knew he had a story, and was eventually dispatched by his publisher to seek out the survivors of the many described massacres still living in the Vietnamese countryside.
What he found is more than a revelation, but the seeds of our future misbegotten wars. The American atrocities against Vietnamese did not begin and end with the My Lai massacre, Turse contends. With meticulous footnoting, he shows how top military officials were able to cover-up evidence that overwhelming force and firepower used by American military, the constant drive for "body counts," and loose interpretations of the rules of engagement, had led to more massacres than the public ever knew.
If we had been more aware of this human carnage left behind in Vietnam, we might’ve been more leery about our "liberation" efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan decades later. We know now such "population centric" policies come at a very high price. Thanks to industrious reporters like Turse, we know more. The question remains – what we do with this knowledge of the past, moving forward?
Ghost of Wars Present
Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, By Jeremy Scahill, 2013
No one is better at framing the post-9/11 global battlefield than Jeremy Scahill. Since writing about the rise of Blackwater as Global War on Terror mercenaries, he has been professionally obsessed with peeling back the layers of executive actions, covert military and intelligence ops, and the gray areas between the official story and what is really happening on the ground. What he’s found is a "shadow war," in which specialized forces ordained during the Bush Administration (Joint Special Operations Command) are given authority to hunt, interrogate and kill targets wherever they please, in secret, for the last decade of the war. This has eventually led to a state in which, as conventional forces draw down from the two major theaters (Iraq and Afghanistan), Special Operations emerge as the primary military arm of the US government and drones become the weapon of choice.
"Today, decisions on who should live or die in the name of protecting America’s national security are made in secret, laws are interpreted by the president and his advisors behind closed doors and no target is off-limits, including US citizens," writes Scahill. To be sure, as officials acknowledge a drone strike in Yemen on Dec. 15 killed between 9 and 12 people headed to a wedding (the government says they were militants, but not the intended target; Yemenis on the ground say they were all civilians), the dirty wars continue, but will we heed their warnings?
Ghost of Wars Yet to Come
They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars: The Untold Story, By Ann Jones, 2013
For years under the Bush Administration, reporters were not allowed to document, film or take pictures of the returning coffins of American servicemembers coming into Dover Air Force base from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a metaphor for the times: keep the people far removed from the realities of war so that they will continue to send their children into the war machine. Longtime human rights advocate and war correspondent Ann Jones takes us through the harrowing passage of when a soldier is mortally wounded, how his remains are tended in theater, and what happens to them when they get to that vaunted way station in Dover. Not for the squeamish, her book details the emotional impact on surviving soldiers and Marines – the doctors, nurses, mortuary affairs staff. It’s not good. Many have PTSD and are unable to fully function at home, in the civilian world.
She also follows soldiers who are gravely wounded but come home to a lifetime of struggle, for themselves and their families. This is our future. Called "heroes" and "warriors," these men and women are often forgotten by the system once they’ve made their sacrifices. But hundreds of thousands of them will need our help for generations to come. Were we ready for this? No. But by our acquiescence to the wars, we signed up for it and it is our burden as a society now.
As Albert Finney belts in the 1970 Scrooge: "I will start anew, I will make amends, and I will make quite certain, that the story ends on a note of hope, on a strong amen, and I’ll thank the world, and remember when, I was able to begin again!"
Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that, too?
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