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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

I grew up during the worst of the Viet Nam War era. As a kid I never knew why we were fighting. Communism isn’t a concept that a child can embrace as an enemy worthy of the most powerful nation on earth. That’s what we were taught in school; that America was the most powerful nation on earth and undefeated in war. Yet here we were, in a stalemate against this little country, a country smaller than the state in which I lived. I could never understand that as a kid. I couldn’t understand why we weren’t winning or why we were fighting in the first place. I wonder what little kids think today about our current belligerency.

We had high-tailed it out of Viet Nam long before I ever read anything by Kurt Vonnegut. I didn’t think much either way about Viet Nam, I didn’t really have to. I wasn’t going to get drafted to fight over there—the war was over. Most young kids today don’t have to think much about the war in Iraq; it doesn’t really have much to do with them. If kids do express an interest in the war it is most likely an opposing view—just ask military recruiters.

I was 17 when I happened upon my first novel of his, Breakfast of Champions. I found it funny and entertaining enough that I sought out more books by the same author. I think Slaughterhouse Five was next, but there could have been another one of his novels in between. Slaughterhouse Five was the first time that I ever stopped to consider the point of view of the vanquished; a literary device rarely used since The Persians by Aeschylus, a work I read later at university. A skeptic was born, at least a skeptical way of looking at what is often presented as reality was somehow facilitated by reading everything Vonnegut had written during my high school senior year.

Slaughterhouse Five had grave questions about WWII, a conflict most people view as the ultimate justification for war. Since then, the wars we have chosen to fight have had very questionable justification and even less purpose. Our present quagmire seems not only to have been instigated without justification, but our initial support—for those who did support it—was based on lies. Tens of thousands o people have died for a lie. “So it goes,” Vonnegut would say. Over four years since the initial invasion and we are up to our eyeballs in a conflict that just about everyone but our president knows we cannot possibly win—at least not without perpetrating genocide upon what’s left of the Iraqi population. How delusional would you have to be in order to think that democracy will somehow take root beneath so much bloodshed?

American kids keep dying at a steady rate in Iraq for a war that most of them are way too young to understand, and certainly too young to be fighting. Although the war was dreamed up by geezers like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, it is being fought by 18 and 19 year olds. As a character in Slaughterhouse Five remarks, “It’s a children’s crusade.” Wars have always been fought by children. WWII was no exception but the nation’s leaders were forced to send their children to fight. In the Iraq War it’s only the other people’s kids who are sent off to battle.

There is no draft in this day and age of the “All Volunteer” military; instead we use a kind of economic conscription to fill the ranks of the military which defers most young men and women with any other choices in life. We send kids over to fight, bring them back, and then send them over again—sometimes three and four times. The military takes soldiers from retirement and sends them to Iraq. Military tours have recently been extended from one year to 15 months. This is yet a further outrage to be heaped upon the injustice of the current make-up of the military stacked upon the untruthfulness of why we are in Iraq in the first place.

My skepticism led me to oppose this war (and the Gulf War) from the beginning. I didn’t believe the reasons we were given to invade Iraq, I didn’t believe the insanely optimistic predictions for a quick and inexpensive war, and I have absolutely no faith that we can in any way succeed in Iraq. You can partially blame Vonnegut for my skepticism, but my opinions are based upon what I know about the Arab and Muslim world—which I ironically learned while serving in the military. My predictions of what would unfold after we invaded turned out to be a lot more accurate than those of Wolfowitz and Cheney. We seem to have lost any sense of a collective memory in this country so no one seems to care what anyone said four years ago. After the invasion the Bush administration seemed to make a game out of coming up with new reason for why we had gone into Iraq as the reason they gave us initially proved to be false. In their way of thinking to bring up their mistakes was only being pessimistic.

In the battle of politics, those who oppose war generally lose out to those who believe in it. Our war in Viet Nam didn’t come to an end because of the protests against it; we just seemed to lose all sight of why we were there in the first place. The war in Iraq will come to a similarly ignominious end, but not until Bush leaves office and can blame the inevitable result on someone else. Bush had four years to prosecute the war the way he saw fit and the result has been a disaster. Now he just needs the rest of his term to transfer the mess to the next unfortunate president.

The Bush administration has taken our national security to an absurd level. It is as if America’s only raison d’être is to protect ourselves from any outside harm, and any and every moral compromise is justified to this end: torture, illegal search and seizures, wiretapping of U.S. citizens, not to mention a war on false pretexts.

I always thought that instead of invading Iraq we should have bombarded the world with good will after 9/11. We should have made a quixotic effort to end hunger in Africa, or teach the entire world how to read, or cure malaria, or just done something truly heroic to show to the world that the United States of America stands for decency. If anyone was hell-bent on our destruction after that they'd be some lonely terrorists, even among their own kind. Of course, this kind of plan never wins out over war. I'm just dreaming and the war people are realists...and look where their shitty plan has got us.

I would have to go along with what Vonnegut has to say about mankind (and our nation), “There’s only one rule that I know of: babies —God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

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