Sam Smith, 2011 – I was 34 when the draft ended. In the preceding years my own views had shifted from those of a cold war liberal to those of an ambivalent apathetic and finally to those of a situational pacifist. But whatever my personal beliefs, I was deeply and constantly conscious of the inevitability of the military’s involvement in, and power over, my life. The impact of this certainty on young men was profound and it led also to a sense of inevitability about the purposes for which the draft had been created.
My eldest son is 34. He was almost six when the draft ended. Our only conversation on the subject I remember took place a bit earlier. We were driving in the car and he, in a bit of precocious career planning, asked, “Dad, do they draft baseball players?” I was troubled to hear the fear and sense of inevitability being passed to yet another generation.
I knew about it because they had been passed on to me as well. Both my parents had lost brothers in World War I and my mother had also lost a cousin.
The fears, however were soon gone and my son joined a generation coming to maturity with war being only a distant, surrogated, and sanitized interruption to the regular programming.
In this parable of fathers and sons may lie an important part of today’s story: a generation raised to see war and its military instruments as an essential part of life confronting another to whom war and its accessories had become, for the most part, history.
Nothing has been so moving and heartening as the young students walking out of high schools and middle schools to protest this war and the millions in the streets marching while there was still time to do something about the madness rather than as a belated expression of regret. For these seem manifestations of a changed consciousness in the human spirit, one of those moments when the weak and many leap ahead of the powerful and the few and alter history forever.
I have seen this once before – during the civil rights movement, a rebellion not just against the specifics of power but against the paradigms, paradoxes, and presumptions that created that power, the lies that made segregation as inevitable, say, as war.
One of the great turnings in this struggle – and it happened like a virus rather than as a revolution – was when the merely reprehensible became truly incomprehensible as well.
Segregationists were no longer only evil; they became anachronistic as well, eventually so much so that when they would reappear, it would be as if suddenly confronting a strange and vicious animal thought long extinct.
I have had this feeling in recent months, as though – totally unexpected and unprepared – I had been tossed back into a Jurassic ecology surrounded by violent creatures I believed gone except in memory and that my sons would only have to confront in books and on film.
This is frightening, it is surprising, it is unpredictable. But history moves in both directions and America may well have run out of progress. Yet even in the barbaric awfulness cabled into our homes there is reason for hope – if the protests are truly what they seem: not merely a complaint about policy but the rising of a new definition of decency, calling not just for the end of a war but for an abolition of our deepest assumptions about the inevitability of war.
Hopeful as the manifestations may be, the new abolitionism faces mighty hurdles. Among them, of course, is a media that has become the pet poodle of power, onethat inundates us with assurances of the normalcy of violence. The semiotic bunker bombs began landing deep inside our brains long before Iraq; you can find their provenance in TV’s celebration of state violence against drug users or in the tacitly approved brutality of reality police shows.
Less noted is the continued allegiance to state violence by the Anglo-American academic elite. To unlearn what those middle schoolers walking out of class already know about war requires some heavy education.
Places like Harvard and Oxford – and their after-school programs such as the Washington think tanks – teach the few how to control the many and it is impossible to do this without various forms of abuse ranging from sophism to corporate control systems to napalm. It is no accident that a large number of advocates of this war – in government and the media – are the products of elite educations where they were taught both the inevitability of their hegemony and the tools with which to enforce it.
It will be some time before places such as Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations are seen for what they are: the White Citizens Councils of state violence. Still, in a little gift of history, one of their lesser offspring, George W. Bush, may speed things up a bit as he brags and blithers about, gleefully brutalizes, perversely exaggerates, and cynically promotes cruel and authoritarian ideas his brighter colleagues have worked so hard to wrap in the costume of decency and democracy. He is the Council on Foreign Relations out of the closet, the carefully contrived paradigm run amuck, the great man of history turned dangerous fool, real politik turned into absurdist caricature. For that at least, we should thank him: he has shown us the true nature of a great lie.
The final challenge is the most confounding: violence resulting from the demands of technological and bureaucratic ‘progress.’ What we call modern warfare developed because we had the means to carry it out. Richard Rubenstein has pointed out that Nazism could not have arisen without the sort of bureaucracy needed to support the Holocaust. It is no accident that both Hitler and Lenin turned to the teachings of American technocratic apostle Frederick Winslow Taylor to carry out their evil or that the Nazis used IBM cards to help manage their death camps.
We prefer a simpler story of the Holocaust as one of power and hate and ignore the much more relevant one of technocratic organization. Thus we don’t hear its echoes in the Department of Homeland Security or in journalistic celebration of new technologies of war.
At the heart of a technocratic system is the willingness of individuals to give up their own morality, judgment, and perceptions in return for a job, perceived safety, or escape from fear – to become in Eric Fromm’s term, homo mechanicus, “attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive.” Our society is increasingly structured on this mechanization of the human spirit and while the military may be the ultimate example, the modern American corporation is not far behind.
So it’s far too early to cheer, but we have also come too far in the past few months to despair. We must just keep on leading our leaders until they also see war as wrong – and as archaic – as slavery or segregation.