Monday, May 14, 2007

We can't have peace without the warriors

From beauty pageant contestants to high school essay writers to Sunday morning preachers, almost everyone says they want "world peace."

And that's certainly a worthy goal, but it always seems to me that the people who decry war are missing an important part of the current equation -- the warriors themselves.

The fact that we are reluctant to admit is this: War is hell, as William Tecumseh Sherman once said, but it can also be exhilerating and addictive -- especially when the bullets stop flying and those involved contemplate the experience later.

Very quickly in a combat situation, I've been told, broad and vague ideas of fighting for a "cause" are replaced by the more urgent need to aid and protect the fellow warriors to whom you've grown closer than brothers or sisters.

I was reminded of that recently when I talked with Col. Wesley Fox, a 43-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who will be participating in a charity golf tournament for returnees from Iraq on May 16.

Fox, a very pleasant and polite gentleman, fought in Korea and in Vietnam (where he received the Medal of honor for valor) and regretted missing the first Gulf War because he was teaching an officer's candidate class and the conflict was over so quickly he didn't get the chance to jump in. He's not crazy about the current unpleasantness in Iraq, probably because it is less a traditional "us vs. them" confrontation than an "us vs. somebody" game of hide-and-seek.

So is this a bad thing, that people like Wesley Fox seem to crave combat? Not at all, at least not in the turbulent world of the early 21st century. We should be, and are, thankful that we have Wesley Foxes who are willing to travel to far-off lands and risk their lives in our interests -- or, at least, what is perceived as our interests.

Nevertheless, it is simplistic and naive to depict everyone who enlists in the military in wartime as being politically or morally motivated. Some are, certainly -- but for many others, I'm convinced, it's nothing more than a chance to escape their mundane surroundings, travel to exotic places, and engage in an experience that will mark them for the rest of their lives. The fact that you might get killed or maimed isn't always relevant when you're 18 or 19.

Indeed, while U.S. casualties have been high in Iraq, it's still a relatively small percentage of those who are over there, especially compared to such bloodbaths as the Civil War or World War II.

And if you consider how many thrill-seekers leap into wars from the U.S., one of the richest countries in the world per capita, imagine those for whom the choice is going to battle (with its possible consequences) or continuing to exist in some squalid refugee camp with no indoor plumbing and no future. It's almost a no-brainer, and the reservoir of warriors in those countries is virtually unlimited.

Wars fulfill an important human need, or else we wouldn't have them. They may be conceived by national leaders for economic, political, religious or moral reasons, but they couldn't be carried out without young men (and, increasingly, young women) eager to fight in them.

We see the same mentality in our inner cities, where gang leaders find plenty of converts willing to go to war in their own neighborhoods. As hundreds of gangsta rappers have told us, life on the mean streets may be scary, but it's never boring.

If we really want "peace" (whatever that means), we need to try and understand that restless spirit that has fueled every war since ancient Greece and try to channel it into something that doesn't kill people and blow up things.

But what could that be? If I knew, I'd be on the best seller list. Athletics works for some people, political activism for others. Yet it's an uphill fight, because we continue to cherish and glorify war as a culture because it provides the peak moments of heroism that filmmakers and writers love.

When we stop needing war, if that ever happens, we can finally start talking about peace.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hope we'll hear more serious subjects like this in the future. The role of nonviolence in a war torn world would be worth some consideration. Your ability to remain a (successful?)newspaper columnist in a politically conservative area is a testament to your ingenuity. Or do people mostly ignore what you write?