March 21, 1991

A Sanitized War

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

John McCrae

If you drive south from San Francisco on US128 you pass the National Cemetery with its neat rows of crosses. It bears the same relationship to what happens in war as the neatly stacked packages of meat in the supermarket cooler bear to the sounds, sights and smells of a slaughterhouse. The truth about both remain hidden because they disturb the delicate sensibilities of the public.

I deplore the sanitization of killing. War is killing and it is never neat.

In contrast to the person who buys meat at the market, the hunter who kills a deer and guts it is aware of what he is doing. He is a predator in the act of killing his prey. While his action is no more noble than a cat killing a mouse or a salmon eating a sardine, it is often considered somewhat superior to the vulture that eats something that is already dead. Most of us are vultures --scavengers. We hire others to do our killing for us. I have no objection to that either. Why not have someone else do the killing? What I object to is the illusion that, in the process of eating our carrion, we are somehow engaged in a noble occupation; particularly if the carrion happens to be the psoas muscle(fillet mignon) of a cow.

I am not disgusted by killing or blood. What I object to is unnecessary killing; going beyond what is needed for survival or defense.

It's hard to see that nice young man in uniform, holding his baby, as a killer. It's also hard to see the pussycat, who sits on my lap and purrs, as a killer --but she is. Not only is she a killer, but she toys with her prey before she kills it. I know that my cat kills for fun. Killing is programmed in her genes. Our soldiers are predators --professional killers in wartime. Those of us who cheer them on get a vicarious thrill out of their exploits.

I wonder about humans who really enjoy killing. Somehow they have not been civilized enough; taught that their killer instincts should be controlled for the common good. Most of us have killer instincts which can either be nurtured or repressed.

There are some who enjoy not only killing, but causing suffering. They enjoy exercising their power by killing and causing pain. The sadists in war are always played up when we talk about the enemy. We would like our own sadists to not exist. During the Vietnam war, Lt. Calley upset our image of us as good and them as bad. But it ain't so. War gives sadists a free rein on both sides of a battle line.

The idea that it is possible to bomb a city without causing death and suffering is an unbelievable hypocrisy. The term "surgical strike" has some validity to those of us who know how painful surgery can be. To most, surgery is thought of more as sculpture than butchery. But it ain't that way at all! It's bloody and it's painful.

Some believe that if the public saw the carnage(from carnis, the Latin word for meat) of war, they would abolish wars. I doubt it. It might work for one generation, but the next generation would be immune. It is the nature of predators to enjoy killing.

Soldiering can be fun; a game, like bullfighting until the toreador gets gored. Even then it can be even more fun for the spectators. That is what many come to see.

A long time ago, I watched a boxing match on TV between Tiger Jones and a tenth rate fighter whose main talent was that he could absorb anything that any fighter could dish out: he had no brains to scramble. After eight rounds, all of which Jones won without question, it became obvious that for Jones to knock his opponent out he would have to kill him. I think that Jones was capable of it, but he was not so inclined. To the loud boos and catcalls of the crowd, Jones toyed with him for the rest of the fight. From that point on, I had great respect for Tiger Jones and great contempt for fight fans. I stopped watching the fights.

Make no mistake about it, professional boxing is not a sport for its participants --it's a living. A way of earning some daily bread. How else can a poor but agile young gladiator get paid more than a million bucks for 15 rounds, win or loose? Soldiering in a war is similar, but not nearly as lucrative. We are the spectators --the blood thirsty fans.

The Iraq affair was mostly an air war. It was neat because the airman never sees or smells what he has killed. The infantryman knew that he killed, the airman didn't. For the flyer it's like a game in an arcade that is played for keeps. The difference is that the enemy can shoot back and usually does.

So now one more war is over. I supported it. I thought that it was probably a necessary war and that, in the long run, there will be much less suffering and carnage because of it. But it was not a clean war. It was a war like any other: bloody, dirty and brutal. Let's not glorify it!

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