Jon Krakauer’s book Where Men Win Glory is one of the most thought-provoking I’ve read. On one level, it’s the story of professional footballer Pat Tillman’s life, ending at the hands of ‘friendly’ fire that the US Army did its best to obfuscate. It’s a heartbreaking story, made more tragic by the knowledge that dozens of soldiers (in the broader sense encompassing the navy and air force) die under similar circumstances every year.
Military Intelligence is often used as an example to describe the word ‘oxymoron’. To this, having read Krakauer’s meticulously reported book, I have to add “military precision”. The story of Jessica Lynch’s rescue from an Iraqi hospital was widely spun by the US government at the time. The part that was missing from the tale was the blundering that led to her capture, as well as the unnecessary death of numerous military personnel (some of them as a result of fratricide) that accompanied the sad episode.
Bruce Springsteen sang, “War, what is it good for?” To this one has to add a whole bunch of questions about the motivation of ordinary people who sign up for hardship and possible death. Through the example of Pat Tillman we see that it obviously is not money. Rousing rhetoric invoking patriotism seems to be quite effective. In fact, doubly so, because any dissenting views can be trashed as “unpatriotic”.
The rescue of Private Lynch and the death of a football star while in the service of his country are – furthermore – fabulous material if you’re wanting to manipulate a gullible populace into supporting a war effort. Krakauer quotes Hermann Göring:
“Naturally, the common people don’t want war … Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country.”
The way that many industries work has changed profoundly as a result of the internet and other technology. Yes, modern weapons are much more high-tech than they were 50 years ago, but the fact remains that soldiers, seamen and airmen (and women, in each case) can still expect to be killed, sometimes by their own side. The main differences between war in the 21st century, compared with the 11th century, is that death is inflicted at greater distance and is more likely to involve fratricide. It remains a brutal and crude solution to the problems of animals capable of reason.
Perhaps I’m an idealist; I can just can’t seem to get rid of the feeling that war is an anachronism. Surely there’s a better way of resolving conflicts?
“Yes, an’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?”