Critics of militarism have to make sense of its humanity, to find a place for it, to honor it.
This gray afternoon, with a friend, I went to the U.S.S. Intrepid, the Essex-class aircraft carrier-turned-museum on the west side of Manhattan. Dubbed “The Most Inspiring Adventure in America,” it’s an opportunity to tour through half a century of clever combat airplanes and nautical contrivance. I knew them all pretty well from childhood. The planes, the missiles, the bombs, the protocols. How unsettling to see those elegant monsters on the carrier deck there, against the backdrop of Midtown, in a quiet and peaceful retirement.
When the Intrepid museum reopened last year, several other friends of mine were there protesting. I was going to be but at the last minute wasn’t able. I wanted to. So I felt uneasy the whole time, paying my student admission fee (with an expired ID), to this grand monument to American warfare. And how could we not make a monument? The machines are amazing. And much more pressing is the courage, the lives, the tiniest details of the people who fought in them.
After that I went to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with yet another friend. With the previews came Kid Rock’s promotional video for the National Guard, mixing rock ‘n’ roll with stock cars with benevolent, courageous soldiers. It’s called “Warrior.” (More on the implications of that term.)
On the one hand it saddened me. It glorifies thoughtless belligerence. He sings, “So don’t tell me who’s wrong or right when liberty starts slipping away.” And there’s a picture of a column of Humvees rolling through the desert with machine guns mounted atop. It’s a tragic contradiction. Liberty, we are to understand, is something so unmistakable that one no longer needs to distinguish right from wrong when soldiering in its name. That’s no liberty I’ll recognize, and certainly not one I’ll fight for.
But the propaganda had its charms as well. There are scenes of soldiers helping where a natural disaster struck. And there’s one moment where some gun-toting soldiers stop to make friends with brown-skinned kids in a dusty village. Kid Rock sings, “They call me ready to provide relief and help, I’m wherever you need me to be.” I could sign on for that! As long as the weird requirement about tossing out ethical reflection about the use of force in the name of “liberty” weren’t part of the deal.
In Benjamin Button itself, there’s a war scene. Benjamin’s on the crew of a little tugboat that has been commissioned by the Navy during World War II. There’s a machine gun mounted up top, and that’s it. Suddenly, they find themselves face to face with a German U-boat that just sunk a transport full of people. Bodies float in the water. What do they do? They charge the U-boat. They ram it. In the process, nearly everyone on board gets killed by enemy machine guns. It’s an absurd and gruesome event of course, but also an incredible act of sacrifice, and one done without hesitation.
These three pieces of glorified war cannot be taken at their word. Each, in its way, leaves the most horrible, and at least equally essential, parts of its story untold. But there is truth in each too, in even the honor it seeks to portray.
Benjamin Button has a lot of beautiful moments that tug at the heartstrings to the point of being crassly manipulative. One of these is at the beginning. There’s a story told about a clockmaker who builds a clock for a train station in the years after World War I. When the clock is unveiled, he reveals that it turns backward. The reason, he announces, is to turn back the clock on all the boys we lost in the war, including his own son, so that they might have full lives after all. And then, there is a brief scene, played in reverse, of a charge in that Great War: out from the explosion that kills a uniformed boy back, back to his last moments of life, back home, back to his leaving his family. None of it had to happen. None of it should have.
There must be a way to honor such sacrifices as war brings out in people while abhorring the pointless insanity that occasioned it, abhorring it so completely that it can never possibly happen again.