Are YOU buying into WWIII.com?
Monday, being the 11th of November, was Veterans Day, which is observed as a holiday by sufficient people for there to be 'holiday sales' at many stores, but it's not a holiday for the NY stock exchange. Well, why should it be - war is and always has been the biggest earner. Here in the States, from 1938, when this day was first made a legal holiday, until 1954, when the name was changed, it was known as Armistice Day and commemorated the end of World War I - the "war to end all wars".
Kiwi kids of my generation well remember that a minute's silence was observed all across our nation every year to commemorate the time agreed upon in 1918 that WWI would end after the signing of the armistice - the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. A minute in which to wonder why the entrance to the town library and council chambers was lined with the photos not just of townspeople who lost their lives in the war to end all wars, but also with the more numerous photos of all the townspeople who lost their lives in the next world war.
Something quite clearly went wrong, but despite the fact that there were people in the town with limbs missing and other problems due to their service overseas, WWII seemed like a great adventure to us post-war kids. Largely, I suppose, because of the movies and stories and comic books and the general feeling that we had saved civilization and freedom, and that our side had behaved decently and with honour and that the other side were in some way subhuman. In retrospect, what a terrible ongoing hell it must have been for people who had returned from combat to feel obliged to perpetuate that glorification.
I'm thinking about all this because on Saturday night ABC showed 'Saving Private Ryan', which I'd never seen before. A Disney executive came on the telly first and said that the film had not been cut for language or disturbing scenes, so it was for mature audiences only and they had better exercise viewer discretion. He was also careful to point out that the film had won not just critical and popular acclaim but the endorsement of WWII veterans as to its accurate depiction of what it was like to serve in battle. (Disney owns ABC.)
If you have never seen 'Saving Private Ryan', I should point out that the key to the film's script is a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to a woman who lost three sons during the Civil War - in particular the lines in which he speaks of how she "laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom". In WWII, Private Ryan is the son of a woman who is about to be told she has lost her three other sons, and the army in its infinite mercy dispatches Tom Hanks to find that fourth son and send him home. Hanks' character's dying words, spoken to Ryan as they and their comrades try to stop the advance of the Germans in an already devastated French town, are:
Well, it seems to me that you have to earn peace just as much as you have to earn the freedom others have won for you, even if the sacrifices made aren't so cinematic as people having their guts blown out of them in battle or as compulsive TV viewing as gassed corpses being taken out of a theatre or as exciting as being a gamer in WWIIonline.com, where you can create your own character and rise through the ranks from the safety of your own laptop. Like, dude, how many people do you know who can tell you exactly where they were when the Wye Memorandum was signed?
The enemy isn't another nation or another people but what might be called WWIII.com - the munitions industry, the economic hegemony of a few nations hell-bent and hell-bound by selfishness, and an "interpretation" industry that glorifies lives lost and ignores the obscene profits made by those who supply the instruments of death and destruction. It has ever been so. Judging by the photographic evidence shown in Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War, the soldiers on both sides might have gone without food, clothing and shelter, but they were never short of weapons.
Let's be clear about this. The Civil War is misrepresented as a fight about slavery led by Abraham Lincoln - who was, incidentally, ridiculed as a baboon by the Southern press at the time of his selection as the Republican candidate in the 1860 presidential election. As the 'Oxford Companion to United States History' points out, it was Frederick Douglass - the son of a slave and her master - who "viewed the Civil War as a millennial struggle between liberty and tyranny. Through his wartime writings and his role in recruiting two black regiments, he sought to transform a war to preserve the Union into one to abolish slavery - a goal achieved with the Thirteenth Amendment (1865)." Though Lincoln didn't condone slavery, he would never have put a stop to it without being pushed to do so by people like Douglass.
One of the first books I bought here in the States was "Drum-Beat of the Nation", published by Harper and Brothers in 1888 and written by Charles Carleton Coffin, a reporter who was present at many of the battles of the Civil War - or the War of Rebellion as it was then known. The first chapter, "Causes which brought about the war", manages to condense in an enviably simple (but simplistic) manner a sweep of history from Roman Britain and its invasion by Angles and Saxons to 1861 in the United States, touching on the economic, geographic, political and social causes of the South's rebellion.
Among the many people Coffin quotes as having views representative of the time is George Fitzhugh of Virginia, who wrote: "It is a great mistake to suppose that Abolition is the cause of dissolution between the North and South. The Cavaliers, Jacobites, and Huguenots of the South naturally hate, contemn, and despise the Puritans who settled the North. The former are master races; the latter a slave race, the descendants of the Saxon serfs."
Coffin also relates the tale of a London banker asking Baron Rothschild - "who had a great deal of money, and who never lent it without getting good security and interest" - who would win the war. Rothschild replied that the North would, "because it has the longest purse." It is industry, Coffin writes in 1888, that keeps the purse full. Might I add in 2002, that it is oil that keeps industry running, despite the intervening century-plus in which it has been profitable to find 128 new ways to wash floors, but it has not been profitable to find even one way to replace hydrocarbon derivatives as lubricants, energy sources, and raw materials.
War is never about noble ideals. Noble ideals are only teased up into the public consciousness when some economic imperative needs to gain sufficient momentum to overcome the latent apathy of people who would (quite sensibly) much rather live in peace and comfort. Over the last half-century, both the Democrats and the Republicans have squandered opportunity after opportunity for the people of the USA to live in true peace and comfort by, instead, perpetuating - in exchange for campaign funds - the mythic peace and comfort that consumerism portrays ad infinitum as only just outside our reach.
In short, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have had guts enough to lay themselves upon the altar of freedom: freedom from want, freedom from energy dependence, freedom from corporate exploitation of the most basic human needs for profit. Not even in the intersts of peace. If Senators and Congressmen think that, like their forerunners who took a picnic out to Bull Run to watch the first big battle of the Civil War, they can sit there with their peanuts and the remote or the mouse in hand and watch WWIII online and on-air without being rattled by the disruption that war will bring to this country's own peace and comfort, they are dangerously deluded.
A war started to keep industry dependent on oil is no different than a war started to keep it dependent on slave labour. Bizarrely, Lincoln's strategy of waiting for the secessionist slave-owning South to make the first move before calling up the militias in the remaining States of the Union is eerily similar to Bush's call on Iraq to disarm: "In your hands and not mine is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you; you can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors." Except that Iraq doesn't have to be aggressive. It just has to look shifty when the weapons inspectors get there.
Can you folks in Washington DC, like, just snap out of it? Tear up the debentures that are keeping you beholden to lobby groups that have only profits at heart, not people. Vote in the House and Senate for legislation that moves the US out of its myopic foreign policies and towards a sustainable future. A little laying of a costly sacrifice upon the altar of peace by politicians would be appreciated. Besides, in two years' time I'll be ready to cast my vote and I'm dying for someone to earn it.