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Monday, May 31, 2010

Does Anyone Remember the Elephant Any More? Memorial Day Thoughts...

The other day on PBS I was watching Jon Meacham lament that so few of us remember that Memorial Day is not for barbecues and picnics; it's for remembering our war dead. He went on to ask: why does the burden of military sacrifice weigh heavily on so few?

But what interested me most about the program was the segment about the three Lemke brothers of northern Wisconsin, who are about to deploy a year-long mission in Iraq, where new soldiers are still needed for missions despite the troop drawdown.

The interview with the brothers didn't really fit the tone of Meacham's lament. They kept saying how much they were looking forward to the deployment: they would finally be getting their chance to see more of the world. At least on the face of it, they seemed in high spirits. It was left to their mother and youngest sister (she was worried about them not being there for her birthdays) to convey a sense of dread about the risks a military mission entails.

Given the subject of this blog, I started to think of reasons why "seeing the elephant" has shifted away from the grim sense of foreboding it carried from the Civil War onwards, to emphasizing the adventure side of military service:
1) What I would call false consciousness: The military has always been, and remains, very good at propaganda--and perhaps has gotten even better at it now that it has to recruit volunteers.
2) The move toward high-tech, asymmetrical warfare: We tend to engage in conflict nowadays with combatants who don't possess the same kinds of weapons, which lowers the risk to soldiers albeit not to civilians.
3) Following from 2), the shift towards leading an occupation vs. engaging in traditional combat: The Lemke brothers' battalion will be in charge of clearing routes for coalition forces, when they may encounter improvised explosive devices (IEDs) such as roadside bombs. That is definitely a risky business--but nothing like the bloodshed faced by Civil War soldiers (let alone soldiers in the two world wars as well as Vietnam).

Question: Do you agree that the "elephant" is losing its irony for soldiers, and if so, why?


Peter said...

The grim aspect tends to increase as a war goes on, though? The first major battle of the civil war, Bull Run, actually attracted crowds of civilians. "The wealthy elite of nearby Washington, including congressmen and their families, expecting an easy Union victory, had come to picnic and watch the battle. When the Union army was driven back in a running disorder, the roads back to Washington were blocked by panicked civilians attempting to flee in their carriages" (wikipedia). It literally started with expectations of a picnic.

ML Awanohara said...

But it was the civilians who were expecting a picnic--not the soldiers? Even if we go back to the Trojan War, we see that Odysseus/Ulysses was reluctant to join. When his wife's father, Menelaus, came to recruit him, he pretended to be insane: was in the fields sowing crops, apparently oblivious to his surroundings. Palamedes saw though Odysseus's deceit and placed his son, Telemachus, in the path of the plow. When Odysseus steered away from the baby, his fake insanity was exposed. Odysseus never really forgave Palamedes for unmasking his deception. (During the war, he framed Palamedes as a spy, and the Greeks had him stoned to death.)

As it happened, Odysseus proved a brave warrior during the Trojan conflict--the Trojan horse was his idea. He also thrived on the adventure: it took him all of ten years to get back to Ithaca, for heaven sakes!

By contrast to warriors of previous centuries (even as recently as Vietnam), American soldiers of today are in a more privileged position, for the reasons mentioned above. They are professionals--and granted, they've chosen a profession that carries higher risks than many others, for which they deserve credit. But many of them will never "see the elephant" in the same way as someone recruited to serve in, say, the Civil War or in WWI (for me, those are two of the most horrendous examples). And perhaps for that reason, they can look forward to the adventure war offers.

Anyway, that's my impression. I'm open to being proved wrong about this!

Peter said...

I think you're right that direct exposure to violence has fallen. Books like Lawrence Keely's 'War Before Civilization' (OUP) show that older pre-historical societies tended to be much more dangerous and violent on a routine basis than we take for granted today, even couting in huge episodes of butchery like the world wars. Chances of violent death in medieval France or England for everyone, not just soldiers, was far higher.

But I'm not sure looking forward to war without grim foreboding is just false consciousness. Much has to do with small group dynamics - camaraderie, reputation and so on. Compared to a relatively atomized, individualized civilian society, that sense of high stakes collective effort can be attractive for many people. It's not so much adventure as shared adventure which is the key thing - and something which validates all the boring months and years of training. "Seeing the elephant" in this case may not be danger, as such, but doing something tough enough to be meaningful.

ML Awanohara said...

Yes, I think you've hit the nail on the head when you say that "seeing the elephant" has always meant doing something tough enough to be meaningful and that it often involves a shared adventure. This is where long-term expats and military people have something in common. Both groups feel a let-down when they come back to their countries and try to resume a so-called normal life.

Sebastian Junger has documented this very well in his new book, War. He followed a platoon of American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan for something like six months. While they didn't necessarily like each other, they would all die for each other--and that sense of being part of a team where loyalty was valued above all else was something that all of them thrived on and couldn't find in civilian life.

I watched Junger's riveting interview with Charlie Rose the other night: I'm still mulling over many of the points he made.

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