Serving the Battle-God

There’s a poem that I have taught for years, a piece by the American author, journalist, and poet Stephen Crane. I’m reminded of it every time Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day rolls around; every time my Facebook feed is filled with “God Bless the Military” statements and sentiments. Here it is.

“Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind”

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom—
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Swift, blazing flag of the regiment,
Eagle with crest of red and gold,
These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
Make plain to them the excellence of killing
And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

I love this poem. Not only has it helped to clarify my own feelings about the military, but it has served as an incredibly useful teaching tool over the years. It’s become one of my favorite lessons, the one I look forward to and plan around. Even though it is probably the saddest thing I teach, both for subject matter, and because, no matter how well I teach it, whether my students understand it as I do or not — it doesn’t change the U.S. military. I can’t kill the Battle-God.

I lead my students through this first as though it were sincere: we skip the second and fourth stanzas, and I gloss over the specifics of the imagery; we focus on the apparent speaker, and who that person might be. It seems, based on the speaker’s attempts to comfort the surviving relatives — first sweetheart, then child, then mother — of soldiers killed in battle, that the speaker would be a military spokesman, the guy who writes the letter home or delivers the telegram that says “We regret to inform you . . .” I get my students to make a list of the kinds of things this familiar figure would say: Your loved one was very brave. He was a patriot, he was a hero. He died for a greater good, fighting for his country. He didn’t suffer. On the surface, it all seems to fit, and they get it quickly.

Then we go back and look more carefully at the images. In the first stanza, the lover throws wild hands toward the sky, and the affrighted steed runs on alone. So the man was shot while riding a horse into battle. But for me, the steed running on is a telling detail: I would think the horse, terrified by the sights and sounds and smells of the battle, and by the sudden violent loss of his rider, would run away from the fighting. But if the steed runs on — that implies it was already going that way. So perhaps this man was shot in the back while fleeing, perhaps even by his own side, killed as a deserter. I ask the students: doesn’t it seem strange that a military man would describe this scene so specifically to that dead man’s sweetheart — and then afterwards tell her not to cry, because war, which killed her terrified (and cowardly) lover, is kind?

Maybe I’m reading too much into that one. But look at the third stanza. Look at the details in the description of the father dying — see how painful and pathetic it is? And realize that this is, apparently, being described to that dead man’s child. His young child, because it is a “babe.” (I often think of the scene with Christopher Walken and the gold watch in Pulp Fiction, one of the most horrifyingly amusing scenes I know of in any movie.) I mime this for my students: I crouch down with my hands on my knees, and bounce as I say, in that cheerful sing-song we use to ask little kids if they want to see Santa Claus or ride the pony: “Okay, little boy, let me tell you about your daddy: he was shot in the chest, fell on his face in the mud, and died choking on his own blood!” Then I stand up and say, in an aggressively sarcastic tone, “Oh — and don’t cry. Because war is kind.” It’s effective.

After I take them through the fifth stanza, which I think of as ironically juxtaposing the humble, unimportant mother (whose heart is but a button) with the bright, splendid shroud of the son (I like connecting this to the American flag we drape over soldiers’ coffins, though Crane probably just meant the actual white winding sheet. There’s another one, too: the yellow trenches the dying man chokes in in the third stanza really should be a reference to the use of mustard gas in World War I — but Stephen Crane died in 1900, so, nope. Possibly a reference to yellow fever, since he did cover the Spanish-American War, where more soldiers died of disease than from bullets and bombs.) — a pair of images that lionizes the dead man and devalues the living, sorrowing mother — I have them look at the second and fourth stanzas, where the speaker changes and the tone changes. These stanzas, with their references to drums and glory and swift, blazing regimental flags, seem much more like the words of a pro-military warmonger, at first. I point out for them the irony in the comparison between the little souls, pointless (“The unexplained glory flies above them,” either the American flag, or the idea of gloriously dying in war, or both), valueless (“These men were born to drill and die,” and nothing else), and the line “Great is the Battle-God.” I ask them who the Battle-God is; though I have to get them past the idea that it is Ares — there is always at least one who is very proud to know this fact — since that is more symbolic than I need it to be. I ask them who is made great by battle — and who, in truth, is made greater when the losses in that battle are greater. Who rules over a kingdom of a thousand corpses? The answer I want is: the generals. The presidents. The ones who send the little souls to die, and are made famous by their ability to order men killed. I ask them how on Earth it can be said that slaughter is virtuous and killing excellent — and I help them recognize that there is really only one place in our world where it is possible to be an excellent killer, and it is a virtue to wipe out swaths of people as if they were lambs being slaughtered; that one place is, of course, war.

Yup. War is kind.

This poem, all in all, strikes me as a criticism of the military: not the soldiers, though they are certainly seen as fools or children who die for no good reason; and not the officers who would bring the sad news home to the survivors, if they are sincere in their desire to comfort — that’s the point of the list of common statements these people would use: there is no way that anyone would actually talk to a family member the way the speaker in this poem does, as he says quite the opposite of what we would expect: your lover is a coward; your father died in incredible pain; your son only matters because he died, and you don’t matter at all. But if those people, those officers, are knowingly lying about the experiences of those who died in war, there can only be one reason: they want that child, that babe, to grow up and — follow in his father’s footsteps. They want the family members to believe that those who die in war were heroes, every one of them, even though the officer telling them of this heroism knows the truth: these soldiers died for nothing, in great pain and fear, because the only thing that matters is that they die: their corpses make the Battle-God great. Those liars serve the Battle-Gods, and they make a new generation of little souls thirst for fight; they ensure that their destiny, which could otherwise be grand and great, as any human’s could be, is — to drill and die. This poem criticizes two groups: those who profit from the deaths of soldiers — the Battle-Gods — and those who lie to people in order to get men to agree to be soldiers, and to die for the aggrandizement of the Battle-Gods. The recruiters.

And that’s why I think of it every Memorial Day. Because that’s exactly how I feel about the military.

Those men and women who volunteer to fight because they want to protect innocent lives, because they believe in the cause, or in their country, I have great respect for, in some ways. There is no question to me that the willingness to die for the safety and well-being of another person is one of the most honorable qualities a person can have. I think it less honorable, but still virtuous, to be willing to fight and kill for the same cause — for the sake of other people. This is why I have great respect, too, for police and firefighters and other people who put themselves into harm’s way in order to protect the rest of us. They are brave, they are strong, they are noble and good.

That’s the good stuff. Now here’s the bad.

Our military is not always used to serve the greater good. It is sometimes, because the Army Corps of Engineers builds things, and because the military has been used for rescue missions, for relief missions, and, sometimes, for peacekeeping; I think the National Guard has been used more frequently and reasonably in this way, simply because it is the National Guard, and the U.S. hasn’t been invaded in two hundred years. The National Guard, and the Coast Guard, then become large bodies of well-equipped, well-trained people serving to keep people safe and happy. This is what the military should do, and the only branches that should still exist, in my opinion. Yes, some wars — World War II and the American Civil War, from the Union’s perspective — are actually fought for the greater good; but even those wars do not require a standing military like the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. We could send our National Guard to fight, if necessity required it; even better, maybe we could offer some genuine support, troops and materiel, to the United Nations. Imagine what they could do with the military might of the U.S. Then ask yourself why the U.N. doesn’t have that already.

Because our military is, and has always been, used to do harm. They are sent to foreign lands to kill and destroy, not to help people, but to serve the “national interest.” Not to keep us safe, but to achieve policy goals. Not to die so that others may live — but to make the Battle-God great with their corpses. And this is a crime, and a tragedy, without exception. I refuse to accept, for instance, that the millions who died in Vietnam served any greater purpose, for the United States. For the Vietnamese, one could argue that they died protecting their country from a terrible foe, a foreign aggressor who dropped millions of tons of high explosives, incendiaries, and poison on their country; perhaps that was worth all the murder, all the destruction, all the death. But for us? For the U.S.? What was that war but evil? The same for the war in Iraq, and the extended war in Afghanistan. Perhaps you could argue that Osama bin Laden needed to die for 9/11, but the argument is troubled by the fact that we made bin Laden, training him to fight the Soviets in the ’80’s, and by the fact that we invaded and destroyed Afghanistan but retain strong ties with Saudi Arabia, and with Israel, and with Turkey, and with dozens of other countries with histories of terrible human rights abuses.

Not to mention our own record in that area. How any nation that manned Abu Ghraib, that STILL maintains Guantanamo Bay, can claim to be protecting people or freedom or human rights, is beyond me.

Now it becomes a question of, not the greater good, but the greater evil. It is bad enough to attack a sovereign nation for your own political purposes, bad enough to kill for your ideals; but to use good people as your weapons to do that? Because those people who join the military for noble reasons, the ones who are willing to die for others, are the best of people, those who are willing to send those good people to their deaths, must be the worst of people. They are even more vile when they do it for selfish reasons, which is why Dick Cheney (Who knowingly lied us into war) is a worse man than George W. Bush (Who, for the most part, stupidly believed what he was told, and was otherwise knowingly selfish and arrogant), who is a worse man than Barack Obama. But all of them sent good people to die unnecessarily, and thus are they all villains.

But are even those people the worst?

I think it — let’s say naive — to join the U.S. military for honorable and noble reasons, in the modern era. Perhaps it made sense in the nation’s first century, though I personally consider the American Revolution a political war, not a war for the greater good (Yeah, we won our freedom from the British. So did Canada. How many people died for that one?), and the Mexican-American War and the Indian Wars were nothing but bad. But today, a thinking person cannot believe that joining the military will be all noble or all good. Because in this country, which does still have free speech and a free press, I think it impossible to believe the military only does good things, unless one possesses great skill in the most Orwellian of doublethink, or the deepest ethnocentric prejudices (“Everything we do is good, because ‘Merica!”).

Unless, of course, one is actively, aggressively, and successfully lied to, exactly when one is most vulnerable.

That’s why the worst people in the world, in relation to the U.S. military — if it is not the Battle-Gods themselves, that is — are recruiters.

That’s who Stephen Crane was criticizing in his poem: those who would lie to the family members, who would try to make war seem glorious and good when it is nothing but evil and suffering; those who knowingly manipulate and deceive, in order to bring fresh meat to the grinder, in order to aggrandize the Battle-Gods, to make their kingdoms — not a thousand corpses, but tens of thousands, a million. More.

The people who show up at high schools, particularly high schools with low graduation rates, with terrible college attendance rates, where the local community is economically depressed (Because I never once saw a recruiter in my own upper-class public high school, and I have not seen a single recruiter in the school where I teach now, which has a near-100% college attendance rate — but they were there every damn week in St. Helens, Oregon, which is everything I just described.), and stand there in clean, well-pressed uniforms, challenging children to perform feats of strength — as though it matters in the military how many goddamn pull-ups you can do, over how many people you can kill or how slowly you can die — and handing out prizes to those who “win,” and telling children who don’t know any better that: the U.S. Military is honorable, and glorious, and good; that it protects our freedoms and it makes the world safe for democracy; that joining up will make them better people, give them a better future, and offer them adventure and a wonderful life.

I would excuse those people if I believed that they actually thought what they said was true. And inasmuch as the military uses new recruits to bring in other recruits — which they do, in one of the more callous and appalling pyramid schemes I know of, as they actually offer promotions to those who can lure in larger numbers of fellow victims — I don’t blame the actual people who try to tell their friend that they should join up, too. They are naive children, who have been manipulated and lied to themselves. But that isn’t who mans the recruiting offices, or the tables at high school lunchtimes. Those are the older soldiers. The ones who know better, and who do it anyway. They are the ones who make the military seem good, so that good people will join, so that they can then be used, by evil men, to do evil.

Perhaps the most insidious and harmful part of this process now is the tendency of the military, since World War II and the G.I. Bill, to glorify the military as something other than a military: they make the military sound like a job, rather than an institution that creates death. With this, you have people signing up to serve in the military who don’t have noble reasons, nor evil ones; they just don’t know what else to do with themselves. This is perhaps the worst, because it is the easiest: for these people, you don’t even have to lie that much. The GI Bill is a real thing; the military does offer benefits to veterans; you can indeed learn skills that will serve you later in life. All those things are true. To talk about this, as a recruiter, you just have to ignore two things: one, the vast majority of soldiers do not do skilled work, and so will gain nothing of practical use — particularly not those who may after service have access to money for college, but have not one of the academic skills necessary to succeed in college, possibly because they blew off high school knowing they would just be going into the military at 18 — and two, you have to ignore that the reason the military exists is to kill, and the first job of any soldier is to die. If you can ignore those things as a recruiter, you can make the military sound just fabulous; if you can ignore those things as a recruit, you can look forward to your service. You can also see the military as a way to cure your ills, your laziness, your juvenile delinquency, your chemical addictions, your weight problem; all of these are put forward as valid reasons to sign up, and all of them have brought in new corpses for the kingdom. Hell: we even see military service as a way to get laid, because you get in shape and get a cool uniform and you get to be a badass — and women loooooove a badass in uniform with six-pack abs. Just watch Top Gun. That’ll prove it.

So that’s what I think about, when I see memes honoring soldiers. I think: Did you really sign up to protect freedoms? Or was it just that you couldn’t get a job? If you did sign up to protect freedom, did you think of fighting the Taliban in the hills of Afghanistan, quite literally on the other side of the world, and so removed from anything even remotely good for America that nobody even tries to justify the war any more beyond “You broke it, you bought it?” If you believed fighting in Afghanistan would be noble, who lied to you? And how hard did they have to work to convince you?

It all makes it very hard to look at a serviceman and say “Thank you.” I know it’s not their fault, and I know that many of them do have genuinely noble intentions in joining the military; some of them have noble intentions despite going into it with eyes wide open; and to those people, for their intent, I am indeed grateful, and I will salute them, and I will thank them. The same for those veterans who fought in the past, and those who died, for actual noble causes.

But most of the time, I just feel sorry for them, these little souls who thirst for fight, these men who were born to drill and die — or at least that is what they are told, by the Battle-Gods and their vile minions. All they are is more corpses for the kingdom.
Let me close with another poem, this one by a soldier who died, for his country, soon after writing this.

Dulce Et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


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