“THAT’S RIGHT! THAT’S RIGHT!”
or Things They Don’t Say About War on the Ten O’ Clock News
by Gene Franks
Author’s Note: Sept. 16, 2001. This piece appeared originally in Pure Water Gazette #34, published in early 1991 even as Bush the Elder was entertaining the nation with the televised drubbing of the demonized Iraqis. I revised it and put it on the website a few years later when Bill Clinton was performing sanitized-for-TV slaughter of the Serbs in an effort to distract us from one or another of the flaws in his character. Now, I’m revising it slightly and posting it again only five days after the Sept. 11 New York/Washington catastrophe, at a time when George Junior still hasn’t been told that there are multiple R’s in terrorist but has the whole thing figured out well enough to tell us that we are good and “those folks” are evil and that they can run but they can’t hide.
I believe that if you pay close attention to the real purposes of war presented in the discussion of the Iron Mountain Report you’ll get an inkling that there is really a lot more to the war we’re about to rush blindly into than good vs. evil and teaching the “terrists” a lesson they’ll never forget. I believe you’ll also see an almost spooky resemblance to the never-ending war being waged in George Orwell’s 1984.
If every mother cut off her son’s right-hand index finger, the armies of the world would fight without index fingers. And if they cut off their sons’ right legs, the armies would be one-legged. And if they put out their eyes, the armies would be blind, but there would still be armies: blind armies groping to find the fatal place in the enemy’s groin, or to get at his throat.–Hector, the Trojan hero, in Jean Giraudoux’s play, The Trojan War Will Not Take Place (often called Tiger at the Gates in English).
In a book called A Whack on the Side of the Head by a certain Roger von Oeck, I read a story about two men who went to a Sufi judge and asked him to act as arbitrator to settle an argument they were having.
The plaintiff presented his case eloquently and persuasively. The judge, obviously impressed, nodded his head in approval and said, “That’s right, that’s right.”
The defendant protested, of course, that the judge had not yet heard his side. The judge agreed to let him speak, and he, too, was eloquent and persuasive. When he finished, the judge said, “That’s right, that’s right.”
When the court clerk heard this, he jumped to his feet to protest. “They can’t both be right,” he said. The judge looked at the clerk and said, “That’s right, that’s right.”
We usually lack the judge’s ability to see the merit of what seem conflicting truths. Things are black or white, right or wrong. A strange duality flaws our thinking and gets us in trouble. We have blind spots in our thinking that often lead us to absurd conclusions that exclude other viewpoints. Our rationalizations about war are striking examples.
Anyone will tell you that war is odious. Even congressmen who vote to wage war do so with a message of peace on their lips. War is the ultimate atrocity. We all hate it. That’s right, that’s right.
Nevertheless, during the half century plus that I’ve been on earth, my country, while spewing a constant message of peace and goodwill, has been at war every minute. Even during the brief respites from active destruction, we are always at war, devoting a giant share of our resources, our skills, and our attention to preparation for war (or “defense,” as we prefer to call it). In fact, in the history of the world, peace has never existed. Peace is only a theory.
The reasons our minds have conjured up to explain why we participate in organized violence range from simple to complex, but they are all superficial. It is only recently that governments have felt the need to justify wars. Before the media began poking its nose into their affairs, governments pillaged and plundered with no pretext at all, or at most with an occasional word about converting infidels or restoring national honor. Now, with a TV crew standing ready to record the action and interpret it for us every time a bomb explodes or a general farts, we need a more complex set of justifying slogans to keep our minds at ease.
For the Persian Gulf conflict waged during the Bush the Father years, our favorite superficial reasons were the old standbys about liberating oppressed people and nipping potential aggressors in the bud. These always work, and most people seem to believe them, although it should be obvious that we could find plenty of oppressed people to help in Wichita, Kansas. And certainly the “do unto others before they can do unto you” strategy could be just as reasonably used to justify nuking the French or machine-gunning the crafty Mexicans who are always sneaking in from the south.
The growing number of people who are dissatisfied with the first order of superficial reasons oppose the war and protest against it with an alternate set of slogans. The most common superficial reason of this order is that we are fighting for oil. While I agree that many of the clever guys in the back rooms who control our national policies believe that we are fighting for oil and to stimulate the economy, these are, none the less, superficial reasons–symptoms, not causes. If we weren’t fighting for oil, we’d be fighting for control of the pogo stick market.
Beneath the first few levels of superficial reasons for war that get air time on the Ten O’ Clock News, there is an entire substratum of more complex superficial reasons for war. Though the public normally does not hear these, they are commonplace among the behind-the-scenes experts (the Back-Room Boys, as Dr. Seuss calls them in the anti-war classic, The Butter Battle Book) who whisper government policy into the ear of Tweedledum or Tweedledee or Wimp or Shrimp or whoever is currently our elected official.
To the Back-Room Boys, war is merely a means toward the fulfillment of higher purposes. Sacrificing a few thousand pawns does not bother them if it helps us win the game. They take a far more Machiavellian view of war than the TV-fed public could possibly imagine.
The Back-Room rationalizations for war are most succinctly explained in a small book called Report from Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace that appeared in 1967. Iron Mountain, as I’ll call it, is the report of a secret, select panel of 15 experts from a variety of backgrounds who were asked during the Kennedy years to study and report on the question of whether the world as we know it could continue without war. To allay suspense, I’ll tell you now that their answer was a resounding No.
Our government neither sanctioned nor forbade publication of the report. The group itself voted against publication, but one of its members published it anonymously. The copy I have is a 1967 Dover 4th printing, so it must have had some circulation, although I’ve never talked to anyone else who has read it. The group called itself “The Iron Mountain Boys” after Iron Mountain, New York, where their first and last meetings were held. They worked from 1963 to 1966 with full access to government resources.
For most of us, the mere discussion of whether or not peace is desirable is an absurdity. We all love peace. We long for it. That’s right, that’s right. Yet most of us think of peace as merely a state of no war in which everything else would continue as it is. And we non-native Americans conveniently forget. for example, that our own ultra-high standard of consumption and opulent lifestyle are possible only because our ancestors waged war against the native inhabitants of America. Although we have learned to speak of this vast war of conquest in terms of “colonization” and “settlement” and of its perpetrators as “pilgrims” and “settlers,” and of their motives as “opportunity” and “religious freedom,” to the native Americans our European ancestors were nothing more or less than an army of cutthroats who took what they wanted by cunning or violence. Saddam Hussein did not invent conquest.
Before we denounce the Back-Room Boys as heartless monsters, consider that without blinking an eye we participate each day in cold-blooded sacrifice of human life for the sake of expediency. For example. we could easily prevent tens of thousands of horrible deaths on the highways by reducing the speed limit to 30 miles per hour. Would we be willing to drive 30 to save thousands of lives? Not likely. Yet we say that live is sacred and priceless.
Measured by the well-intentioned motives we usually attribute to ourselves, Iron Mountain is an outrageous document. It speaks frankly and matter-of-factly of startling ideas that we have not been prepared to face by the cartoon version of reality we get from the media. Here are a few basic Iron Mountain, assumptions that most of us will find hard to accept:
Most medical advances are problems, not progress.
Public posturing by politicians notwithstanding, poverty is necessary and desirable.
Standing armies are, among other things, social welfare institutions that serve functions similar to nursing homes and mental hospitals.
The main purpose of space programs and ultra-costly weapons is neither defense nor the advancement of science; it is the wasteful spending of vast sums of money.
The military draft is only remotely related to defense.
Organized repression of minorities and perhaps the reestablishment of slavery would likely be necessary products of genuine peace.
Deliberate intensification of water and air pollution could be vital steps in a program leading to world peace. [Our great industrial polluters should perhaps get the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting peace by heroically trashing the environment?]
Universal test-tube procreation would have to be an inevitable feature of a world at peace.
Government “budgeting” of lives to be destroyed by warfare is a high priority for maintaining prosperity.
Another shocking and disheartening assumption of Iron Mountain is that war is not a function of political systems, but that societies and political entities are formed for the purpose of waging war. Although it is a universally accepted social cliché that war is subordinate to the social system, the truth is that “war itself is the basic social system, within which other secondary modes of social organization conflict or conspire. It is the system which has governed most human societies of record, as it is today.”
The following is of special interest in the context of our recent Gulf Wars:
“Threats” against the “national interest” are usually created or accelerated to meet the changing needs of the war system …. Wars are not “caused” by international conflicts of interest. Proper logical sequence would make it more accurate to say that war-making societies require–and thus bring about–such conflicts …. Most of the confusion surrounding the myth that war-making is a tool of state policy stems from a general misapprehension of the functions of war.
The “misapprehensions” include defense against attack and the advancement of political and economic “national interests.” These are the visible, or ostensible, functions of war, and if they were the only functions, “the elimination of war would indeed be the procedural matter that the disarmament scenarios suggest.”
The Functions of War
The most obvious and spectacular function of war is economic. War is to the general economy even better than perpetual Christmas would be to retail merchants. War is an unequalled stimulator of the economy because it is superbly wasteful.
Massive waste is essential to keep the nation’s economy pumped up, and nothing wastes like war. Like Christmas, it creates artificial demand for otherwise useless items, and, as one writer explains, it “solves the problem of inventory,” which means that you never finish the job: as soon as you have enough Formula X missiles, you declare them obsolete and go to work producing Formula Y missiles, and since the enemy also has missiles, you have to build anti-missile missiles, and since the enemy has anti-missile missiles, you have to build anti-anti-missile missiles. Iron Mountain views war as not only as an unequalled economic stimulator, but also as a sort of giant balance wheel, which allows the Back-Room Boys to fine tune the economy by controlling defense spending. For example, employment figures can be manipulated by adjusting defense spending. War is the great controller of the nation’s economic metabolism.
One obvious political function of war is the establishment and enforcement of national sovereignty. “The elimination of war implies the inevitable elimination of national sovereignty and the traditional nation-state,” says the report. It is by war that we enforce our boundaries. Patriotism and national stability have their roots in war. “The historical record reveals one instance after another where the failure of a regime to maintain the credibility of a war threat led to its dissolution …. The organization of a society for the possibility of war is its principal political stabilizer.”
Sociological functions of the war system include the control of delinquent and hostile social groups, both through police action (police activity is merely one segment of society waging war against another) and military service. Armies also offer jobs for the unemployed. War has been traditionally the main motivating factor in assuring allegiance to the political system. “Allegiance requires a cause: a cause requires an enemy.” War breeds patriotism and patriotism breeds war–a perfect, self-sustaining system. Social cohesiveness erodes and societies crumble unless people can be made to believe that a formidable external menace, a life-and-death enemy, exists.Equally important politically is war’s function as “the last great safeguard against the elimination of necessary social classes.” War promotes the separation of classes and assures that there will be “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”
The ecological function of war seems so obvious that elaboration is unnecessary. Organized violence together with the disease and famine that often follow it have through the ages been our most effective tool for destroying surplus members of our species. In addition to all-out wars of mass destructive scope, people have throughout history experimented with smaller wars against selected segments of their societies for the purpose of limiting their numbers. These have been far less effective than all-out war. Examples are infanticide, sexual mutilation, monasticism, forced emigration, and extensive capital punishment. Currently, abortion, war against the unborn, is openly promoted as a population limiter.
One of the many ironies involved in thinking of the life-destroying properties of war as our main life-preserving tool in the overall picture of species survival is that nuclear weapons, which threaten us with extinction, are becoming increasingly necessary if war is to limit population significantly. Improved sanitation, nutrition, and medical advances now protect armies more effectively against disease mortality, so more destructive weapons are needed. For example, during Napoleon’s Peninsular campaign, 400,000 of the 460,000 French casualties were from disease, but in World War II only about 16,000 of the 300,000 Americans who perished died from disease. Iron Mountain concludes that conventional weapons will almost certainly prove inadequate in future wars “to reduce the consuming population to a level consistent with survival of the species.”
The cultural and scientific functions of war are equally obvious. From the Iliad on, war has inspired countless artistic masterpieces. Have you read any great epic poems about peace? Scientific research and medical technology have profited immensely from the war system. The transistor radio, steel-frame buildings, and the concept of the assembly line are typical war-inspired advances. Even the power lawnmower has its origins in war It developed out of a revolving scythe designed by Leonardo da Vinci for the purpose of lopping off enemy heads when pulled by horses through their ranks. War has contributed most heavily to medical technology. “The Vietnam war alone has led to spectacular improvements in amputation procedures, blood-handling techniques, and surgical logistics. It has stimulated new large-scale research on malaria and other tropical parasite diseases; it is hard to estimate how long this work would otherwise have been delayed, despite its enormous nonmilitary importance to nearly half the world’s population.”
I’ll mention just a couple of the more interesting lesser functions of war covered by the report. One is “war as a general social release,” which is explained as necessary for “the dissipation of general boredom, one of the most consistently undervalued and unrecognized of social phenomena.” As such, our Gulf Wars might be viewed as something to fill TV time between the Super Bowl and the onset of the pro basketball playoffs. The start date depends on the TV ratings of the Winter Olympics. Another lesser function of war is as a “generational stabilizer,” which “enables the physically deteriorating older generation to maintain its control of the younger.” Finally, there is the important function of war “as an ideological clarifier,” which is needed to screw our heads back on straight when we start to become deluded into thinking there might be ways to look at things other than the ways we have been taught. Dualism, us vs. them with no room for compromise, “characterizes the traditional dialect of all branches of philosophy and of stable political relationships.” Iron Mountain concludes: “Except for secondary considerations, there cannot be, to put it as simply as possible, more than two sides to a question because there cannot be more than two sides to a war.” That’s right, that’s right!
Substitutes for the Functions of War
The Iron Mountain researchers were able to find no “peaceful” endeavors that could waste resources as effectively as the military. Maintaining readiness for war fulfills the need for “planned annual destructions of at least 10 percent of the gross national product” and does so while operating outside the normal supply-demand system. Substitute suggestions usually center on vast expenditures in health, education, housing, transportation, and alleviation of poverty; these are rejected as inadequate because they are far too cheap. The most promising substitute is the establishment of a grandiose and unimaginably expensive space research program. “Space research can be viewed as the nearest modern equivalent yet devised to the pyramid-building, and similar ritualistic enterprises, of ancient societies,” yet it is unlikely that governments could “sell” people on such expenditures without some real or imagined threat to their security. Seen in this light, the defense strategy commonly called Star Wars might be viewed as a transitional effort to shift from massive military to massive non-military spending.
In the area of politics, the end of war would equal “the end of nationhood as we know it today.” No suitable substitute has been devised, and most suggestions, such as maintaining order by means of an international peace force, border on merely substituting one form of war for another. There have been experiments with imaginary external threats (e. g., bogus flying saucer reports), but so far nothing works as well as Saddam Hussein.
In sociology, a suitable control function might exist in slavery, “in a technologically modern and a conceptionally euphemized form.” Slavery relieves unemployment and provides a niche for social misfits. It could easily be argued that we are moving toward widespread slavery “in a technologically modern and a conceptionally euphemized form” through debt. College students, for example, who incur massive debts and spend the rest of their lives working to pay them are in a very real sense indentured servants–slaves of our very demanding economic system.
In terms of motivation, a typical Iron Mountain suggestion is the deliberate intensification of environmental pollution to create a genuine non-human enemy to do combat with. The development of “blood games” to control individual aggressive impulses is also suggested, but its effectiveness would be limited.
As for ecology, the solution is easy: simply limit procreation to artificial insemination. The tough part is getting people to accept it. It would likely involve universal administration of a variant on “the pill” via public water supplies and essential foods. If people will accept mass drugging of the water with a powerful toxin like fluoride because they are told it will lessen tooth cavities, they might be convinced to accept contraceptive treatment of municipal water.
The Iron Mountain panel concluded that the world would probably survive even if no peaceful substitute could be found for war’s stimulation of culture. As for science, grandiose space projects and massive eugenics programs might serve man almost as well as war.
The overall conclusion?
The war system cannot responsibly be allowed to disappear until 1) we know exactly what it is we plan to put in its place, and 2) we are certain, beyond reasonable doubt, that these substitute institutions will serve their purposes in terms of the survival and stability of society …. The war system, for all its subjective repugnance to important sections of “public opinion,” has demonstrated its effectiveness since the beginning of recorded history; it has provided the basis for the development of many impressively durable civilizations, including that which is dominant today.
Bill Gets a Job
I’d like to leave the gruesome subject of war for awhile to tell you a story about a young student named Bill who worked in a shoe store just off the Yale University campus. Bill sometimes boosted his income by taking odd jobs around the university. One day he called about a one-evening job advertised in the school paper by Yale’s Psychology Department. He was pleased to learn that they could use him that very evening, so he called his girlfriend and made a date to blow his earnings on beer and bowling as soon as he finished.
When Bill arrived at the Psychology lab, be met Bob, who was to work with him, and together they were introduced to a professor with a long, complicated name. Bill forgot his name right away, so he just called him the Prof. The Prof said they were to be in an experiment to find out if punishing a pupil for his mistakes could have a positive effect on the learning process. A computer had already assigned their roles: Bob was the learner, and Bill would serve as teacher, checking Bob’s answers and administering punishment as required. It sounded like fun.
In the test room, Bob was given a long list of paired words to study briefly–words like blue sky, ink pen, and bowling ball. Bob was to be given a multiple choice test and punished if he chose ink blot or tennis ball rather than the correct response. When Bill saw the punishment apparatus, he was glad he was the teacher. Bob was strapped into an electric chair and an electrode was attached to his forearm. Bill was seated at a console with a simple set of controls. He was told to administer a shock by pushing a button at each incorrect answer and to increase the shock by 15 volt increments, as clearly marked on a big green knob, each time that Bob answered incorrectly. The Prof made a couple of lame jokes about this being an “electrifying experience” and they got underway.
Bob got the first two questions right, then he chose dead duck rather than wild duck and Bill gave him a shock. Bob winced and everyone laughed. Bill turned up the juice by 15 volts and the test went on.
Bob didn’t laugh anymore. He grunted when he got the 30 volts, and after the 75-volt shock, Bob cried out, “Hey, man, I don’t want to do this anymore. Get me out of this thing!”
Bill looked at the Prof, who said calmly, “Please go on.” Bill reluctantly pushed the button. At 150 volts Bob was begging to be released. Bill looked at the Prof, who only said, “The experiment requires that you continue.”
Bob’s answers obviously were getting worse. He was in pain and could no longer remember even the correct answers he had given earlier. After the 315-volt shock, he screamed out violently that he wanted out. He said that he could not take any more. Bill asked the Prof for permission to stop, but the Prof said sternly, “Whether he likes it or not, he must go on until he learns all the word pairs correctly. It is absolutely essential that you continue.” Bob felt like walking out, but he pushed the button.
By this time, Bob was so upset that he stopped giving answers to the questions. Bill assumed they would stop the test, but the Prof explained that no answer was an incorrect answer and he had no choice but to push the button. From that point, Bob sat in a daze and did not appear to hear the questions. He shrieked in agony with each shock. When Bill asked for permission to stop, the Prof said, “You have no other choice. You must go on.”
Bill stuck with the experiment until the end. He gave Bob the 450-voit shock, but he wasn’t proud of himself. In fact, he left the test lab quickly and picked up his pay from the secretary. He didn’t want to talk to Bob again.
In the weeks that followed the test, Bill thought a lot about it. He wished he could do it over. He thought of a dozen speeches he would make to the Prof. They all ended with “Take this job and shove it.”
It was almost a year later when Bill saw a long article in the school newspaper about the research he had participated in. It was his turn to be shocked. The article said that Dr. Stanley Milgram of the Yale Psychology Dept. had completed an extensive experiment which tested over 1,000 subjects at Yale and was repeated in Italy, South Africa, Australia, and Germany. The purpose of the experiment, Bill was surprised to learn, had nothing to do with learning: it was to assess the degree to which normal individuals like himself would submit to authority. It was he, Bill, who was being tested, not Bob. Bob, the article said. was an actor hired to play the role of learner, and the “electric chair” was a sham; it wasn’t even hooked up. The test was to see if the Prof, using nothing more than a stock set of authoritarian clichés, could turn a decent guy like Bill into a dehumanized torturer. The fact was that Bill did have a choice; he could have stopped at any time. But he went all the way to the 450-volt maximum.
The article also said that before the experiment was administered, Dr. Milgram had outlined the research to 39 psychiatrists and asked them to predict the outcome. The consensus of the psychiatrists was that most of the subjects would not go beyond 150 volts, and they predicted that only 4% would reach 300 volts. Only a pathological fringe of about 1 in 1,000 would do what Bill had done, administer the highest shock on the board. The result was a surprise to everyone. Over 60% of the 1,000 plus subjects tested at Yale obeyed the Prof to the very end, as Bill had done. In Italy, Australia, and South Africa, the percentage of obedient subjects was somewhat higher, and in Munich, 85% gave the 450-volt shock!
I’ll explain now that Bill and Bob are fictitious, but the rest of the information is factual. The study in question was done and the results were as reported. I wasn’t telling the truth when I said I was “leaving the gruesome subject of war,” because Bill’s dilemma is exactly that of the vast majority of our Persian Gulf soldiers. In fact, the Yale research is used to bolster the central argument of Arthur Koestler, one of the most challenging thinkers of our time, in his book Janus.
The popular view is that war results from our overly aggressive nature. Our pent-up aggressive instincts are fanned to a fiery outburst by living in a world that is drunk on violence. That’s right, that’s right. Koestler disagrees. War, he says, does not result from an excess of aggression, but an excess of devotion. Bill did not push the button because he hated Bob or because he needed to release pent-up aggressiveness. He did it from misguided loyalty to the Prof, a symbol of authority. Only a tiny fraction of the 60% of Americans who pushed the button until the bitter end were Rambo-like lunatics bent on doing violence to Bob. Most, like Bill, were ordinary, good-intentioned people who simply were unable to say no to authority.
Koestler writes: “Anybody who has served in the ranks of an army can testify that aggressive feelings toward the enemy hardly play a part in the dreary routines of waging war. Soldiers do not hate. They are frightened, bored, sex-starved, homesick; they fight with resignation, because they have no other choice, or with enthusiasm for king and country, the true religion, the righteous cause–moved not by hatred but by loyalty. To say it once more, man’s tragedy is not an excess of aggression, but an excess of devotion.”
Our “excess of devotion,” Koestler says, is no mere coincidence. It results from the way our brains have evolved. Briefly stated, we are defective creatures, unable to perceive and deal with certain aspects of our environment because of short-circuits in our brain function which cause us to use limbic, “old brain,” thinking where logical neocortex decisions are needed. Although we have developed remarkable intelligence in some areas, we are bumbling morons when it comes to thinking for ourselves in the face of authority. The tragic flaw of our species, a flaw which gives us only a modest chance for survival, is that we are blind followers of the leader.
In regard to the Yale experiments, Koestler writes: “That humane people are capable of committing inhuman acts when acting as members of an army or a fanatical mob has always been taken for granted. The importance of the experiments was that they revealed how little was needed to push them across the psychic boundary which separates the behavior of decent citizens from dehumanized SS guards.”
The Gazette’s Conclusions on War
You will find no pat answers, but here are some miscellaneous thoughts about war:
1. War is much overrated. It is no big deal. It is one of 27,461 ways nature has devised to rid the world of excess people, and everyone who dies in war would eventually die from something else. Nevertheless, for some reason, since the time of Homer, war has always sold papers.
2. The Feb. 10, 1991 Denton Record-Chronicle devoted almost the entire front page, complete with computer illustrations, to a Marine Gulf War operation in which a handful of lives were lost. A brief story hidden on page 10A of the same issue said that as many as 1 million Sudanese are expected to starve to death this year. In terms of lives lost, tobacco is the most toxic substance on the planet, yet it is only recently that the government has caught on that persecuting tobacco producers can be a significant source of income and has developed a stance of belated righteous indignation. We tolerate the ravages of alcohol, and it is even politically incorrect to speak against it. War is hell. That’s right, that’s right. So are slow, agonizing starvation, delirium tremens, and being crushed by a truck. No one ever writes epic poems about lung cancer.
3. The sexual urge, hunger, and thirst are built into our genetic code to get us here and keep us going. It is likely that we are also programmed with an urge for war as a survival tool to limit our numbers. This is a grim thought.
4. Actor Dennis Weaver said, “For there to be lasting peace, the hearts of people must be changed, and the only heart we can directly change is our own. Peace is not something we can graft on from the outside; it must be grown from within.” This should be obvious. Peace imposed from outside is just another form of war. Therefore, make peace first with yourself. Then with those around you. Eliminate cruelty from your diet. Cultivate your garden. Visualize peace.
5. The prospect for peace seems dim as long as Bill is a pushover for every authority figure that pops up. This is the Catch 22 of all planning for peace: Bill can be an anarchist or a wimp, and we get war either way. Perhaps the ideal was best stated in a Frank & Ernest cartoon: “Question authority, but raise your hand.”
6. The Iron Mountain Report sucks. It is also bogus in the sense that it was probably not even prepared by a presidential commission but was ghost-written as a spoof on “think tank” reports by a writer named Leonard Lewin. The matter has been debated and litigated. The authenticity does not matter, because whatever its origin, Iron Mountain reflects well the beliefs of the “back room boys” who do our thinking. We must not surrender to its negative conclusions. I reviewed it in detail because it is thought-provoking. Not one on the back room boys who decided that “poverty is necessary and desirable” was poor. And if war is so great for the economy, why, after decades of unprecedented military spending, is our economy hopelessly in the red? If waste is really needed, I have great faith in American politicians to provide it aplenty, with or without war.
Bogus or genuine, Iron Mountain is what we get when we delegate our thinking to experts.
7. Talk of war breeds a conformist fervor that is hard to resist. Just ask Bill, and just ask the 98 U.S. Senators who opted in Sept. 2001 to sign on to the insane coronation of Bush Junior. Not a single U.S. senator had even the courage to ask for debate of the issue. Only two senators had the courage to oppose the Tonken Gulf Resolution which gave President Johnson the king-like authority to plunge the United States into a bloody, pointless conflict that became a military and moral tragedy for America. We now know, through recently declassified documents, that even as Johnson went to Congress with tears in his eyes and gravity in his voice to ask for authority to wage war, he knew that there was no real Tonken Gulf crisis and that the initial report of an attack on a U. S. ship was in error. A two-day delay to examine the matter would have altered the course of history, but only two U. S. Senators had the courage to question the President.
8. Of all the great literature inspired by war, my favorite piece isn’t an elaborate Homeric celebration of the glories of battle, but a brief confession of a practical yet heroic act performed by a Greek foot-soldier/poet named Archilochus, who chose to thumb his nose at the Prof and save his own skin. Archilochus described his heroic act in a poem called “The Lost Shield.” To understand it, you should know that to the Greeks of the period it was a supreme disgrace, a breach of the honor code, to lose one’s shield and not one’s life at the same time. Archilochus’ poem begins:
Some Thracian strutteth with my shield;
I dropped it as I scurried from the field,
and goes on to point out that shields are cheap and replaceable and that he’s just glad to have escaped with his bones intact.
I have often found encouragement in Archilochus’ irreverent outlook. It is a sensible approach to life. I even once wrote a poem of my own in imitation of his. My poem was called “The Lost Hood Ornament,” and it celebrated my decision to have a laugh rather than go to war over the loss of a ram hood ornament from my mighty Dodge pickup. I found out that my Ram–in my poem, the symbol of my Texan machismo–had been slyly stolen from the hood of my truck during my sleep by a young Mexican-American neighbor. Truly a cowardly act, worthy of vengeance. My poem started,
Some bold Chicano strutteth with my Ram
He’ll likely trade it for a can of Spam,
and concluded that losing one’s hood ornament is not really the massive disgrace the redneck code has it to be.
Although this may not seem like the kind of thinking that made America great, it’s the attitude we’ll have to learn if we are to stop jumping every time the Prof says frog or flag or honor. And the next time our government starts beating the drums about how we have to go to war to teach whoever is the Saddam or Osama du jour a lesson, we’re going to have to learn that taking a few days to think things over and consider the real issues isn’t going to be an irreparable blemish to the national honor. Infinity is long, and “Infinite Justice,” as an overpaid national cliché writer originally chose to call the “war against terrorism,” can surely wait a couple of days. God, in whose name our we’re always killing people, has plenty of time.