“Well, it’s one, two, three. What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me; I don’t give a dam; Next stop is Viet Nam. And it’s five, six, seven open up the pearly gates; Ain’t no time to wonder why. Whoopee! We’re all gonna die”.
That song by Country Joe and The Fish was my introduction to war. It made me laugh and it gave me the cheap thrill of having an opinion without having to trouble with actual thought. Another song of that time asked, “War; what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”
I was in high school then and memorizing facts about wars: The French and Indian, Revolutionary and World Wars. I filled blue books with wordy essays about the causes, winners, losers and political implications. Now, more than 30 years later, I remember few of the facts, but more troubling I still know little about why we really go to war.
This weekend is ripe with war’s resonance. July 4th we celebrate the American colonists bold declaration of their independence and their willingness to kill for it. On these same few days, later in our history, was the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the bloodiest battles of our Civil War. This is the 150th anniversary. We alternate fighting others and ourselves, but the constant in this is that we fight.
I’ve always liked the idea of pacifism but it’s not my truth; I fight too many things. I hate that war is about killing but what else could it be? We talk about rules and conventions but isn’t the point to hurt the enemy so badly that they quit? No one surrenders because the other side has a better idea; we quit when the losses are too great.
In his book, The History of Warfare, John Keegan explains how man’s proclivity for violence evolved, and the benefits accruing to mankind from war. He writes about war’s contributions to agriculture and the relationship between the domestication of animals and the needs of war. Keegan explains that before anyone ever rode horses they were just food like cows or pigs are today. It took years of breeding for horses to support a rider.
Similarly early horses were not tractable—they couldn’t be harnessed for work--until they were bred for warfare. So even My Friend Flicka and the summer season at Saratoga owe something to war. Keegan’s list is extensive: advances in medicine and science, and the developments of metallurgy are among the secondary gains of war. Of course, the moral gains and losses are another matter.
In our American wars we often fight in the name of democracy. But democracy is not a condition, it’s a process. And like any process or progress it’s often achieved by taking three steps forward and two steps back. In some instances a particular war may represent a step forward but in another case it may be a step back. What is troubling is that we can’t know which it is until we have the benefit of perspective, of time passing. That’s what makes war and the political process terrifying and exhilarating. We have to make our choices based on the past and what we imagine of the future.
What we are missing is the courage to say that we don’t know.
The rhetoric of war—pro and con—allows us to shortcut having to think, and to escape living in the vast expanse of the imperfect present. It’s so much easier to be for or against than to sit with the messy, heartbreaking gray of war’s reality. But posturing any absolute truth makes us all prisoners of war.
This weekend, in the midst of picnics and parades we need a moment to honor this imperfection, and while surrounded by red, white and blue we need to leave some room for the gray.