Saturday, July 23, 2011

Peace time, War time

I've been thinking.

Everyone knows "peace time," and nearly everyone knows that "war is hell," but too many fail to know what "war time" is. To see with only one eye of peace, or only one eye of war, is to lack depth of perception. Unfortunately, no one else has the ill breeding, or sense of humour, to write of war and peace in the same paragraph. But I do. We need both eyes.

Wars still happen to Canadians. Life became all too real for 40,000 Canadian tourists caught overseas in the summer of 2008. They demanded parliament to get them out when the Israelis invaded. Only with depth perception can we consider whether Canada could have helped Lebanon to prevent such an invasion, or, afterwards, to fix the causes. I will discuss Lebanon later.

I've been thinking that being "educated" is no indication of whether one "gets" war time. I once attended a professor's guest lecture, the sort with wine and cheese afterwards. The prof showed us slides of pages of Japanese scholarly articles from before the war. Most of us couldn't read the calligraphy, still, the pictures of people's heads told the story. Before fascism, explained the prof, but not now, the Japanese were conscious of being a multi-racial society.

After the lecture I sipped my wine standing with a mature Japanese lady who, like me, was from off-campus. We were joined by a young woman. She told us she had a degree, and was now halfway to a masters degree. She had an interest in art history she said, and there was a respected artist she liked, a household name. The young student had been astonished, and very disapproving, to see his war time racist anti-Japanese posters. In the telling us this she screwed up her face and shuddered. The Japanese lady and I merely exchanged looks. How could we tell this educated innocent girl she was being so ignorant?  We let it go.

I could have said that during war time you hate the enemy with all your heart and soul. On Guadalcanal, if I am around a narrow jungle trail and suddenly meet a Japanese, and we leap to fight in vicious hand-to-hand combat, then a poster that helped me to hate was a good thing.

With war comes a tunnel vision that makes you try to reduce your own casualties by focusing on killing the enemy. If you are preparing to land on a pacific beach then you rain down as many artillery shells as you can spare. (As a Canadian said about the controversial expensive gun registry, "If it saves even one life it's worth it") You are heedless of blasting the nice pretty palm trees, careless of the it-takes-a-thousand-years-to-grow coral. As your shells are falling you feel no pity: not for the big fat enemy general, and not for the poor little fellow beside him, his skinny unarmed trumpeter.

It might seem mad to bomb the general's little trumpeter, or his nerdy radar operator, but war is a tunnel vision, a madness; war is not a time for detachment or humour. Of course we can see such partisan times in civilian life too. To say, "There's no fairness in love and war" is to say there's no being "fair minded," not during certain isolated bubbles of time. I have certainly been known to tell jokes about God, in-laws and marriage... but never in church on the afternoon of a wedding. Certain beliefs and attitudes, at certain times, are just not done. As Grandma would say, first approach a marriage with both eyes wide open... and then going in you should shut one eye.

In this day and age, when there are so many resources, not just print, it is wrong for anyone, not just educated people, to be ignorant before going into a war. And then, if we think the war is still worth doing, then it's worth shutting one eye. To research after going in, to ask for fresh obscene photographs while your war is still raging, is just obscene: It would be asking too much of yourself and others. Grandma would be scandalized.

Time heals. Only after a war is over might we regain perspective. We might then, perhaps, be amused at how the Canadians, during the Great War, changed the name of their city to that of a well known general, Kitchener. Before that? It was called Berlin. Fine, but to laugh at this during wartime is just not done. Not when certain soldiers are coming home early: The blind, the halt and the lame. Nor would this be a time to point out that maybe the war was based on a few trivial points of disagreement.

Let the hot blooded public stay hot, and let them delegate the peace negotiations to the coldblooded, formal diplomats. The rest of us just can't do it, any more than we could spank our children in cold blood. (Maybe we could, but then our children would never forget having Vulcans for parents)

A civilian comparison to war's madness could be a man who talks sensitively of "the sorrow and the pity" of French civilians in WW ll. He has no issues with appearing homosexual and he will, accordingly, gracefully weave and pivot past all the bar tables. Until he gets in a fight. Then tunnel vision—heedless—tables crashing, drinks smashing; not for even a second will he glance away to view with sorrow the collateral damage he is causing. Not until he has won or lost.

When the fight is over, it's over. One of my best drinking buddies was a bouncer. We met the night he manhandled me out the door... With peace the other eye dominates: The hate vanishes, respect shines, and people come home with Japanese wives. I once flew on a Canadian Forces plane to Germany beside a returning German wife.

The point is that war is a bubble in time. My nerves couldn't stand it otherwise. To have a "permanent war" is a contradiction, an oxymoron... to have hatred permanently, for cruelty not to be unusual, to have this for my whole lifetime, would destroy my soul, just as "permanent war" would surely destroy my nation by rendering us dispirited, cynical and corrupt. I suppose I've just described a modern Muslim terrorist, or the old republic of South Vietnam.

And what of Lebanon? Could Canada have helped? When the cruel Hezbollah were firing big rockets into Israel, but before they triggered the invasion by kidnapping two innocent peace time Israeli soldiers, could Canada have helped prevent the war? Of course: We already had RCMP in Haiti, and surely we could have sent more police to Lebanon to help arrest some Hezbollah and seize the rockets, but... our war eye was then closed. Just as it was closed when, with soldiers in Afghanistan, at first we kept lowering the nation's flags to half mast, as in peace time, every time somebody died. Surely, using our uncommitted  peace eye, once a few RCMP had been wounded, or killed, we would have "pulled out" and left the poor Lebanese to their fate.

Something similar happened when the US tried to guard relief food in the Somalian city of Mogadishu. Not having anyone to attack, no uniformed bad guys to engage the wartime eye, the peace time regular soldiers were not psyched up for the challenge. As described in the book Blackhawk Down, as few as 19 killed were enough to make the US back off from feeding people. The cynical equation flew around the world: If you can kill as many as 19 G.I.s (nobody knew how few) then the Americans will pull out. This "Mogadishu Doctrine" was true as far as it went, but it only went as far as peace time.

A war time viewpoint means that we lose our pity, and furthermore, we lose our denial of death. "As many" as 19 becomes "as few" as 19. In contrast, peace time is deny time. If tomorrow we were to begin building a Hoover dam we might proudly publish estimates of how many tons of angle iron and cement would be needed. But there would be no consulting of Workmen's Compensation Board statistics. Denial means no publishing scientific estimates of deaths.

I would think switching to a war time viewpoint is not like flicking on a solid state radio, perhaps it is more like warming up an old vacuum tube TV set. In regards to Lebanon, while those two kidnap victims had been in a peace time mode, I believe the rest of the Israeli army heated up to a war time mode. I say this because weary troops walking back after the cease-fire were so cut off from civilian concerns that they asked, "Did those two soldiers get freed?" This seclusion from news of the real world indicates a secluded bubble, a war time world where suffering casualties blunts feelings.

In our civilian world, of course, we use seclusion too: Aggressive football players start the season away in training camp. On certain U.S. campuses, according to the student football expose Meat On the Hoof, the players will have their own dormitorys and dinning facilities, ostensibly for teamwork and nutrition, but actually to be secluded from the liberal arts students who don't take football so seriously.

I wrote the following after the invasion:

What of the Hezbollah? From what I have read they had a war time viewpoint, and it seems this view is enduring past the cease-fire. Therefore, if a Lebanese policeman my age, a husband and father, paunchy and balding, tries to arrest a Hezbollah, and dies... then it follows that neither the Hezbollah, nor his wife, or his wife's good sister, will feel a single tear.

What of the Lebanese soldiers? Are they being secluded from other Lebanese, including the Hezbollah, in order to warm up to war time? Are they seeing "racist" posters of Evil Hezbollah? I totally doubt it. I totally doubt their sergeants are saying, "Listen up, stuff happens, none of us will live forever!" So despite Lebanon's cease-fire ideals, I'm sure they won't have the guts to disarm the Hezbollah.

What of U.N. soldiers? A senior Israeli officer, during the fighting, asked that any U.N. force be composed of combat troops, not "troops near retirement," not troops "seeking a vacation in the orange groves." That old Israeli knew that in peace time, when the soldiers on base know each other's faces, life is very precious. I remember in the Airborne we were shocked, the news flew around the base, when a sergeant died of a heart attack during a morning run.

To boot up to a wartime viewpoint requires a commitment. Will the U.N. troops make that commitment? Will they help disarm Hezbollah so that democracy is refreshed? Not if the troops are as lousy as the ones in Rwanda. We shall see. I for one will see with both eyes.

Sean Crawford

Calgary, Alberta


~ A longer version of this essay which included my military "aide to civil power" experience, Two Eyes for War and Peace was written in 2008 and posted to my new web site in 2009.
~All of the 40,000 tourists in Lebanon had passports; some loved Canada, others are believed to be prostitutes: They claimed to love Canada, but were actually using Canada they would a "customer, " to have a fire escape door.
~As a child I liked the story of The Little Trumpeter in the Read Aloud series. The beginning symbolized how Americans were watching football the morning of Pearl Harbour. As the good guys are watching baseball the bad guys quietly line up for battle at the edge of town. The little trumpeter is shown with long hair like a peacenik.
"'Blow!' And blow he did."
At a war crimes trial (his side drew mustaches on the statues in the park) he tries to escape what he deserves by claiming he doesn't even carry a gun. The King gets angry and locks him in the highest tower. Why? Because his trumpet started the whole thing. Looking back, I guess, dear reader, he symbolized civilians like me and you.

~It was in the shadow of the Hezbollah that I wrote my first two Battlestar Galactica essays.

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