Thursday, March 5, 2015

Poetics of an Epitaph for Mercenaries

Poetry, like a certain Epitaph For Mercenaries, is nice escapism. Meanwhile, in our 6 o’clock real world, here is an essay:

My dad’s war resulted in the practical creation of the United Nations, an organization doing as well, I think, as might be expected. Today my father, spending his twilight years in a pavilion at the hospital, depends on the newer generations to manage the world. (Who, me?) Nobody said citizenship was easy. At least we don’t have to go fight like he did. (Thank God) Scared? We can be overwhelmed, scared, from learning about the world and the armed forces, but I think we can relax a little by remembering that the original meaning of “manage” was “cope.” The world is too big to manage, but I guess as long as we are coping enough to avoid a major war, we must be doing something right. (OK, carry on)

Maybe, in this brave new century, a part of being an “informed citizen” could mean knowing about mercenaries. The historical definition of “mercenary,” of course, is someone who fights for pay, not patriotism: It implies someone brought in from outside the country.

The various high school history textbooks I grew up with always included the war between the two city-states of Carthage and Rome: The city fathers of Carthage were businessmen, merchants, part of an elegant civilized city, set in North Africa on the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. The senators of Rome were from a practical city of simple farmers on the river Tiber, a city with a habit of imperializing other city-states. One day Carthage, suffering under Rome's imperialism, decided to put a stop to it. And so a decadent city tried to fight a virtuous city. How decadent? When the army overseas in Italy asked for reinforcements, the city fathers, in order to save money, said no.

Carthage used a mercenary army, enlisting only a few Carthaginians. Rome used unpaid volunteers. (Rome supplied the army rations, catapults and so forth).

In school textbooks, the children’s sympathies are with civilized Carthage, not rustic Rome. The Carthaginian army went to Italy. At first things did not go well for Rome. In fact, their army got wiped out. Like the battle of First Bull Run, just outside Washington in the U.S. civil war, the people back in Rome were terrified—and with good reason: Rome’s casualties, unlike Union forces, were nearly 100 per cent. So they raised a new army, and tried again. The result was like the Second Bull Run, except for, again, nearly 100 per cent casualties.

Hannibal led the Carthaginians; the Romans had no one comparable. But unlike, say, Iraq or South Vietnam, the Romans didn’t lose heart. They kept at it, and at last Rome was like a sports team that comes from behind to win the series. The high school texts would always end the story by saying that, despite having our sympathy, in the end Carthage probably deserved to lose… Because they used mercenaries, while the Romans fought for their country.

Modern U.S. servicemen, while not fighting for free as the Romans did, are certainly not regarded as mercenaries. I remember back when President John F. Kennedy was commander-in-chief: Of course his servicemen were lowly paid—How low? Unlike Canadian forces, they critically depended on having a base PX, with very low prices, to get by. When Kennedy sent military advisors to hot steamy Vietnam they went off with low pay but high standards.

Similarly, Kennedy’s civilian Peace Corps, where people went off to help the Third World farmers dig irrigation ditches, saw themselves as serving. Of course they could make more money stateside, and of course they were putting their civilian careers on hold, but— “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Needless to say, this was before things like “market fundamentalism” (meaning: no oversight by government and citizens) and before “Let’s shrink the government to bathtub size, and then strangle it in the bathtub.” What happens when the context changes? If no one “gives a care” about civil servants serving the public, then why would other folks, nongovernment, “give a care” about serving either? Why go off and suffer in the Peace Corps? Easier to “give up” and trust that an elegant Wall Street, without oversight by any volunteers, will run a good marketplace without any meltdown, without leading the rest of the globe into a recession. 

Modern low paid servicemen, unlike highly-paid hypothetical mercenaries, are no warmongers. Kennedy himself was a peace-lover. He was criticized by some folks for not supporting the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, but to me his holding back the U.S. forces was common sense: He knew the horror of war. His brother Joe had been killed in the war, and John had his patrol torpedo boat destroyed by the Japanese at night, with no one around to help him and his crew, as he towed a burned sailor by holding his life preserver strap in his teeth. It was a very long, very lonely swim.

I remember when Kennedy was shot—I was watching TV when it happened. I grieved. Had he lived, I am sure he would have been disappointed at how there has been a steady movement to disparage government, and citizen service, to the point where the public was not asked to get off their couches for Iraq. I think this doomed Iraq in advance to be, as an early book on Iraq was titled, a Fiasco. (Good book, by the way) Not like how Americans got involved in the cold war.

Kennedy, I think, would have been dumbfounded at the very idea of the U.S. using mercenaries; I think he would have been scandalized at the use of highly-paid armed “contractors” in Iraq. It was well established, even before the Americans had the guts to begin honestly using the term “occupation,” that contractors such as Blackwater were doing very great harm to the U.S. goal of winning the hearts and minds for teaching democracy. But without effective oversight nothing at Blackwater changed. (At least, not until the occupation was nearly over)

Thinking of marketplace fundamentalism, I might say the American people, for that war, had “Whitehouse fundamentalism”—oh, if only Arabic-speaking housewives and students had been encouraged to volunteer to go to Iraq to be gentle translators on those terrifying (to Iraqi households) night raids.

My concern with knowing about passive civilians, citizen-soldiers and mercenaries, is: “Drift happens.”

If the impoverished First World republic of Rome drifted into an elegant-for-the-rich Third World empire, and declined into using only non-Romans as their soldiers, it was because the Roman sense of noble citizenship declined. At the end, just before the fall, no one in Rome was saying that a citizen’s duty is  “to be informed” …let alone “to serve his country by fighting for it.”

Here’s this week’s poem:
Epitaph On an Army of Mercenaries
by A. E. Housman

These, in the days when heaven was falling,
            The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
            And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
            They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

Sean Crawford
February 2015

~I documented, by using old copies of Readers Digest, how U.S. citizens were involved in the cold war—such a contrast—in my essay No War archived April, 2014.

~An angry former Vietnam Reporter observes U.S. economic and cultural decline in David Halberstam was a Harbinger archived June 2015. It's one of my denser, gloomier essays.

~Again, through the lens of The Assassin’s Gate (Another good book) I validated some sorrowful theories of U.S. decline, archived September 2012.

~Reminder: As I say in my blog’s “about me” it’s OK to comment on these older essays.

~To me, the thought of Carthage trying to save money in war time, when you should be fighting with all your might, is as crazy as declaring War on Terror and then giving the biggest tax cut in modern times, and trying to send in the absolutely smallest army possible to Iraq... and silencing any army experts who disagreed.

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