Highlights reel: Elizabeth Samet on soldiers dying in vain

‘Highlights reel: Elizabeth Samet on soldiers dying in vain’, Honest History, 23 September 2014 and updated

Elizabeth Samet teaches English to first-year cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. In a recent article in Foreign Policy she probes issues which are relevant not just to the United States but to Australia and to all countries which enter wars in today’s world. (Honest History thanks James Brown for drawing the article to our attention. Mr Brown quoted it in a recent broadcast. Samet’s view have parallels with Brown’s. See also a long article by James Fallows, ‘The tragedy of the American military’: ‘The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win.’)

Americans, says Samet, have preferred wars where ‘sacrifice led to victory and in which victory looked sufficiently different from defeat’. World War II fitted the bill, as did the Gulf War, but Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan did not.

Samet compares the sometimes indirect language of Shakespeare when he writes about war, particularly in Richard II, with the way in which modern Americans deal with war.

The language most often used today to talk about war is suffused with a sentimentality that seems to belong more properly to some faraway age. It isn’t Shakespearean metaphor, yet it is a code of distortion, misdirection, and concealment … [E]ven after the revolutions in modern consciousness ostensibly occasioned by conflict in the 20th century, a pernicious American sentimentality about nation and war has triumphed, typified by demonstrative expressions of, and appeals to, a kind of emotion that short-circuits reason.

Samet goes on to say that this ‘language of the heart’ distances Americans, including politicians, from decisions that have been made about war and from those who have served in war. This distancing is evident in hollow patriotic displays of various types, from yellow ribbons to jingoistic country music. ‘We have become exhibitionists of sentiment: The more public and theatrical our emotional displays, the better we seem to feel.’

Cleared for release by Joint Staff Public AffairsNavy Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, presents unidentified serviceman with Purple Heart, Brooke Army Medical Centre, Texas, 30 September 2010 (Flickr Commons/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

Samet then looks at the implications of this way of dealing with war.

Yet sentimentality does more than shape the way we commemorate wars. It has real-world implications because it informs all those cultural and sociological attitudes in the shadow of which wartime and postwar policies are made, and because it prevents a more productive and enduring sympathy that, in cooperation with reason, might guide our actions and help us become more acute readers of war’s many ambiguities.

Samet records the emotional reactions of members of Congress to a wounded returned serviceman in the audience at a presidential State of the Union address. She wonders if they are ‘seeking absolution for their earlier uncritical enthusiasm [for war] by joining together in a tearful expression of feeling’. She suggests that celebrating the commitment and suffering of this individual soldier is ‘a vital national act. But once a soldier becomes a symbol, an abstraction available for political ends, we deny him or her the humanity we strive to celebrate.’

Then she makes an important connection, which is centrally relevant to any national commemoration of war.

Sentimentality distances and fetishizes its object; it is the natural ally of jingoism. So long as we indulge it, we remain incapable of debating the merits of war without being charged with diminishing those who fought it.

She quotes US Marines wondering if they ‘were sacrificed for nothing’ in Iraq.

This is not what Americans expect to find at the end of their war stories. Indeed, if sentimentality tends to elicit the emotions without binding the will, an equally dangerous consequence of an overreliance on the heart is the compulsion to transform even the most ambiguous tragedies into inspirational “good-news” stories.

Americans, she says, dislike inconclusive wars, ones that do not serve ‘a climactic, universally agreed-upon end … Dying for something gives shape to a life, salvaging it from the oblivion of destruction and shifting focus away from the merits of the cause.’ She quotes writer and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien’s view that true war stories are never moral. ‘If a story seems moral, do not believe it.’

Samet notes that misplaced sentimentality about war brushes aside the extensive literature from Shakespeare on, which ‘is shot through with evidence of the dangers of sentimentalizing war and refusing to accept responsibility for the damage it does regardless of the justness of the cause’. Samet argues that it is much more difficult to tell unsentimental stories about war and that these sorts of stories are unpalatable today, ‘entrenched as war has become in absolutism and what remains a misguided faith in the cleansing, redemptive power of violence’.

Samet’s conclusion was written before most people had heard of Islamic State or envisaged further serious involvement in the Middle East. It must be a matter of judgement as to how far analysis like hers influenced the decisions that were made regarding this most recent war.

Now, as the United States emerges from Afghanistan and Iraq, is the time to think about these wars – indeed, all wars – with our heads. The language we use to talk about matters of power and violence can influence the future use of American force. To the degree that we allow the undeniable suffering and sacrifice somehow to redeem all causes – that we allow our guilt to obscure the realities of devastating, indecisive wars  – we increase the likelihood of finding ourselves in a similar predicament again.

There remains the question of how far the relevance of Samet’s analysis to other countries is driven by casualty figures. Casualties suffered by Australia in recent wars have been in relative terms far lower than those suffered by the United States. (Hugh White writes about the impact of ‘soft’ wars – wars with low casualties – on Australian bellicoseness.)

Source: Elizabeth Samet, ‘Can an American soldier ever die in vain?Foreign Policy, 9 May 2014


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