ON THE AVENUES: War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.


A digression in three vignettes.

A semblance of perspective should not be surprising with advanced age. If you’ve lasted 60 years and can’t muster an insight or two about the human condition, this absence must rank as a major disappointment, right up there with watching all the futile votes people insist on casting for interchangeable demopublican flunkionaries.

However, it actually is a bit strange to be awakened by thoughts of a documentary film series last viewed way back in the fine Orwellian year of 1984, which happened to me on Tuesday morning. The show was called War, written and hosted by Canadian journalist and historian Gwynne Dyer. I videotaped the eight-part series when it aired on PBS, and later read Dyer’s book of the same name.

The title was intended neither as subtle nor ironic. War (upper case) considered the history and evolution of war (lower case), and as the reviewer at Kirkus describes Dyer’s book, it is “an anthropological and psychological account of the human propensity for organized murderous mischief.”

You know, like shopping for hard seltzer at the Family Dollar on Vincennes.

Dyer’s context admittedly is 1980s-oriented, centering on the future of warfare against a backdrop of potential nuclear annihilation. Obviously battlefield conditions have changed since then with the advent of computers and improved technology for killing, but the nuclear component has not. Dyer’s work still matters.

Given how much alcohol I consumed at the time, it’s no surprise that much of Dyer’s instructional material is hazy to me, and yet I recall quite well the second episode, titled “Anybody’s Son Will Do,” which dealt with military indoctrination in the form of basic training. Dyer focused on boot camp in the US Marine Corps, but emphasized that these techniques are the same the world over, “since the psychology of male young adults is largely the same the world over.”

(Female too? As a side note, women account for 8% of today’s USMC, which is the lowest ratio of women in America’s military service branches.)

Dyer’s findings aren’t exactly a shock. The object of basic training in the military sense is to rewire recruits to obey orders, kill on command, and ask no questions about it. Since this sort of mindset does not come naturally to most people, it must be created, or as cynics like me might prefer, to be pulled from the mists of the human subconscious where a preference for violence has lurked all along.

The process of military indoctrination is meant to tear down and dehumanize an individual, then build him or her back into a more pliable instrument. One’s personality must be shocked, destroyed, subordinated to collective need, and then purposefully reconstructed for maximum effectiveness on the battlefield — whether using a bayonet or guiding a drone strike with the push of a button.

One part of Dyer’s analysis struck home, and has stuck with me for almost 40 years. After the brief yet intense experience of boot camp is over, the soldier receives specialized training and serves his or her tour of duty. Eventually military service comes to an end, whether or not active combat was a part of it, and civilian life resumes.

But the psychology of boot camp remains, stored away in the brain’s shadowy recesses, capable of quick recall if necessary should the former soldier’s bones and tissue be needed again to preserve robber baron capitalism.

As an aside, by now we all understand the issues experienced by soldiers who return home after direct experience of war. Dyer suggests the reason why these problems weren’t as prevalent in previous epochs was a much higher rate of mortality. In short, fewer soldiers came home psychologically damaged because fewer came home, period.

Irrespective, what we seldom think about is the way military indoctrination remains embedded. It may or may not be reanimated, and yet it’s still there.

This said, the older we get, the more useless and resistant to training we become as potential soldiers. Whether a recruit is male or female matters less than he or she being young, because youth cannot yet fathom mortality. The psychology of basic training purposefully relies on a certain level of immaturity, which can be molded far more easily according to military design.

This isn’t to suggest that gullibility is restricted to youth. Rather it’s about the best conditions for a process of control to attain its desired end, and this works more efficiently with young people. I suppose the same methodology would work with religion, Develop New Albany or used car sales, just without the guns.

And of course my comprehension of this entire topic exists outside of first-hand familiarity with the military, given that I did not serve. America’s presence in Vietnam had finally ended by the time I was in high school. Army recruiters approached me during my senior year, dangling the prospect of a career in military intelligence.

But even then I knew that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.

The classic Marx Brothers film Duck Soup is a satire about war and the ridiculousness attendant to propaganda and posturing on the part of the people who’ll have no direct involvement at the battlefield. The fictional conflict between Fredonia and Sylvania seems utterly absurd; that is, until you recall the way World War I began, or read your Twitter feed and find the current national genius babbling about Iran.

There also are valuable observations in Duck Soup that range beyond war, as when a telegram arrives for Ambassador Trentino. Harpo grabs the telegram, briefly scans it, and then rips it to shreds in a rage. Chico nods, explaining this behavior.

“He gets mad because he can’t read.”

I can read, though I’ve never undertaken to read the Bible — a bit too much violence for my blood — yet as a reasonably well-educated adult who hasn’t played a video game since the original Pac Man, certain biblical passages are vaguely familiar, like this one from Ecclesiastes (or then again, maybe it was Bazooka Joe):

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Center of the target, that Ecclesiastes fellow. However a supernatural seal of approval isn’t required to judge the accuracy of this statement. Right here in New Gahania, where stopped clocks are right roughly twice a day, people who are unable to crawl their way through “Dick and Jane Go Gentrifying” tend to go full frontal jihad against the genuinely literate whenever given the opportunity.

They always have, and they always will. How could it be otherwise? Truncated attention spans don’t lend themselves to study, discussion and debate, and yet these activities preface achievement in a truly civil society. They’re how we arrive at consensus, and help us come to viable, supportable answers.

That is, unless one’s primary objective as a jackbootlicker isn’t truth, but mounting the nearest available soapbox in defense of public officials who begin telling lies each morning before their feet hit the bedroom floor — served with a side dish of reinforcing one’s membership in whatever cadre of aspiring local elites currently is demanding we admire their essential coolness.

I must say the idea of loving where I live is interesting, if irrelevant, because pesky reality has a way of correcting made-up dreamscapes. Love isn’t the point. Paying attention is. Yes, it’s okay living here in Nawbany, and if I can help make this community better short of ingesting Kool-Aid from a bong better used to facilitate beer consumption, that’s peachy, too.

I’ll even assist in encouraging others … to think critically, be logical, ask questions, and save words like “love” for their loved ones, where it belongs, and not as a synonym for blind allegiance to anything.

If daily life in Nawbany made me feel bad, I’d rewrite the script, but the real world actually doesn’t produce cognitive dissonance in my own life. The real world inspires me to improve myself. It drives me to further the dialogue, even when mouths are shut. It compels me to seek truth wherever it might be found, and not just where the self-appointed arbiters of cool tell me to look.

There is good, bad and indifferent in life’s rich pageant. They’re to be juggled into different configurations every single day. Some days are better than others. Cupidity, stupidity and self-delusion don’t thrill me, although if they work for you, feel free to carry on. People do the best they can with what they can, and with what works for them — until they can’t do it any longer.

By the way, I hear there’s a job open as “assistant” to the city attorney. 

Mr. Starr, can you close out this one?

Recent columns:

February 6: ON THE AVENUES Alas, New Albany is less of a place without a bookstore.

January 30: ON THE AVENUES: Dear Holocaust deniers: If you don’t like this post, unfriend me now.

January 23: ON THE AVENUES: Running over the same old ground.

January 16: ON THE AVENUES: I won’t belong to any Dry January that would have me as a member.