News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Age of Belligerence, the exultation of stupid

The Dakota Day, which is among the few cerebral blog sites originating in South Dakota, has  a series of articles about an Afghanistan veteran soldier who is home on leave.  The soldier expresses his attitudes and thoughts on Facebook with some vicious derogation of the President and minorities, which The Dakota Day reproduces in a sanitized version.

Follow up articles at The Dakota Day take up the issue of verbal decorum.  Because the soldier is an enlisted man, he is not subject to the discipline applied to officers who exhibit disrespect and hostility toward the command, military and civilian--as was the case with Gen. McChrystal.   His effusions were a breach of ethics not a violation of military law.  Sam Hurst ponders if the soldier represents a culture that has grown in the professional military, and there is no doubt that attitudes and rituals of bravado fostered by an inbred military are partially what is on display.  The public attitudes toward those who serve has changed radically since Viet Nam, when soldiers were the objects of verbal abuse and derision.  The change to an adoration of militarism was demonstrated when then-Congressman Bill Janklow spoke at the dedication of Aberdeen's huge flag in Wylie Park by plagiarizing  a poem that circulates on the Internet which states that it is the soldier, not the minister, poet, reporter, lawyer, or demonstrator who is responsible for our freedoms.  This tome of glorification is an affront to history because it denies all the thinkers and the many fronts on which the struggle for freedom has been fought.  But it is evidence of the worship of militarism that marks the nation's slide toward fascism.  Real fascism, not inchoate notion of it with which some charge Obama.  It is a form of patriotism contrived to distract from the deceptions that got us into Iraq and turned Afghanistan into a morass of death and despair.

The Facebook posts begin with the soldier's observation:  America is by far the greatest country ever and english is the onlky real language. everyone else can go eat a d**k. 

The first response is from a Soldier's Friend:  Welcome home buddy boy!!!

Then an apparent high school classmate responds:  Hey [Soldier], I love your passion but maybe you should learn to spell in english before you dictate how everyone else should live.

And then the string goes into the expressive mode that is the verbal currency of Internet dialogues: Hey [Classmate] maybe u should be one to go eat a d**k and actually do something for the good of this country then come talk to me. I just got done fighting for this country so I'll say whatever the f**k  I want. U prolly voted for the worst president ever too Obama I bet so u can suck my nuts

That level of inspiring lyricism sets the tone of what follows.

However, the Facebook posts are as representative of the culture that the Internet displays and propagates on blogs and social networks as of military cults.  The real significance of the exchanges is in the degradation, not the profanity, of the language.  They represent a regression into ignorance, mindlessness, and stupifaction that is a large part of what the world of blogs and social networks is about.  That corrupted and deteriorated language is the currency of those media,  The Internet did not create the cult of the stupid, but it reveals it and propagates it into a customary form of expression.

Out of deference for the respect owed those who serve our country, no one points out that the soldier's rant is illiterate.  The classmate points out misspelling, but the typographical error is not the symptom of the illiteracy.  The phrases from which any cognitive content is absent, the incompetent, incoherent sentences, and the clumsy crudity evidence a dysfunctional mode of expression.

The obsession with mastication of male genitalia has some psycho-social implications:  If you don't like this country, the soldier tells his classmate, quickly leave it, but suck my d**k first.  The idea is that any criticism of the country is unpatriotic and subversive, and the First Amendment really applies to those, such as the soldier, who malign, insult, and abuse those they regard as unpatriotic.  This is a common theme in the mindset of those who call themselves conservatives. 

The irony in the exchange strikes with a vicious impact.  While the soldier claims  to fight for freedoms and the American values of equality and justice,  he denies the exercise of those freedoms to others and verbally banishes those who do not agree with him or suit his fancy to another country. As the soldier launches his verbal assault against his classmate, he becomes progressively more strident and vicious as his compatriots line up behind him to contribute to the taunts.  It is the old playground bully syndrome, which plays itself out time and again on Internet forums.  A bully taunts someone he sees as an object for torment.  As the less bold bullies line up behind him to gain  some sense of consequence and power, he is more emboldened in his insult and abuse.  This is a ritual with which every teacher is familiar and, if at all concerned and competent, tries to disrupt before the bully culture forms itself into established cliques.  But there are barriers to such intervention, and the result is the cultural pathology demonstrated on this Facebook exchange.  It also reveals that the soldier's attitudes and conflicts with his classmate do not originate with his military service, but date back to their high school days.

The rage and malevolence exhibited by the soldier is often encountered in the military, as the primary job of the basic infantry-man--the human weapon platform--is to do those things for which hatred is part of the mental equipment.   My time as a soldier was during the Cold War when a large part of the job of those who worked overseas, in addition to our primary jobs of defense, was to represent America's better side and to demonstrate to our host countries that we were there to keep in check totalitarian aggressors and nuclear war and to protect and support those people who sought the freedoms and advantages we enjoyed.  Our cadre in the guided missile battalion was composed largely of seasoned veterans of World War II and Korea.  They were men who had survived combat and were deeply committed to the mission of peace.  We had plenty of those who lived in a state of  belligerence and hostility, but they were generally "reassigned" to duties that kept them out of view and in reserve for such time as their attitudes and aggressive proclivities would be useful.  While we worked at maintaining our missiles and our skills in a  ready state at all times, we also trained extensively in basic combat techniques.  Even then, those soldiers devoted to belligerence were neither respected, nor trusted.  They did not represent the purpose and integrity of our military.  On the other hand, we had men who were so damaged by war that they could barely function, but were kept on until they could retire with honor.

A man assigned to our battery had been the sergeant major of the U. S Army in Europe.  He  bore the burn marks over his body from being trapped in a burning tank and his campaign ribbons would fill a wall.  He had been busted down to the  rank of corporal.  He did some perfunctory work on communications equipment by that time, but we saw little of him during the day.  Each night at 5 p.m. he came into the Enlisted Men's Club and had a beer a half, which would raise the blood alcohol level he maintained enough to the point that he would black out and crash to the floor.  Each night we dutifully picked him up and carried him to his bunk.  We were protective of this man and greatly saddened by what his service to his country had cost him. 

This situation demonstrated by the soldier of the Facebook exchanges complicates the obligations we Americans have to our military service people, especially those who have served in combat.  We found that the care and treatment of our physically wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan was deplorable, and much has been done to improve their treatment.  We are still floundering around with how to treat those who have been psychically damaged by combat and the war environment.  In my time, being "shell-shocked" was something that happened to sissies.  Now we call it post traumatic stress syndrome, and are just beginning to acknowledge that it is something that deserves study and treatment.  We have a moral obligation to help and treat those who have incurred  injuries, both physical and psychic, in our service.  And  that includes those who may have entered the service with those pathologies that make them dysfunctional.

At this time, we have some valuable information about the effects that a war environment has on those who must endure it.  Two books currently on the best seller lists are particularly instructive in understanding the psychic casualties of war.  One is With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge.  It is the memoir of a young marine in the South Pacific during World War II.  Sledge, who was a biology professor, did not publish the account until 1981, but it has become a classic.  The Marines and Army had 9500 casualties from the battle at Peleliu.  However, the most devastating aspect of that battle was that strategists later said that Peleliu was not a strategic target and the battle did not have to be fought.  Sledge and his fellow soldiers had to deal with the fact that 9500 of the troops they served with lost life and limb in a  battle that the command decided had no consequence.  Sledge writes about the raging hatred one has to work up to effectively fight the enemy, and when that need for that rage and the fight is called into question, he must find some way to deal with that sense that all the sacrifice may have served no real purpose.  He finds solace in the training and sense of purpose he received from the "old breed," those officers and enlisted cadre who instill a sense of  purpose that helps him maintain a dignified humanity in grossly dehumanizing circumstances.  The bonds of friendship he forms with other marines are what sustain him.

The book is important not only for giving a realistic portrayal of war but for giving an account of the psychic battle E. B. Sledge fought to preserve his own soul.

The other book is one just released this summer, War, by Sebastian Junger, a writer for Vanity Fair, who was embedded with a platoon in a remote outpost in Afghanistan.  He gives a penetrating account of what war does to the men who fight it:  “It’s a miraculous kind of anti­paradise up here: heat and dust and tarantulas and flies and no women and no running water and no cooked food and nothing to do but kill and wait.”  This book, too, gives an account of psychological battles men must fight to try to  stay whole.

War destroys the better angels of the human psyche.  It turns people into pack animals that use fang and claw to fight and subdue each other for no purpose other than a degraded survival.  Wars have to be fought when the values of liberty, equality, and true justice are threatened, but we are in two wars now that have little justification.  The invasion of Iraq was totally unnecessary.  Afghanistan has turned from a war of liberation into a war of constant "killing and waiting."  There are more effective ways our treasure, our talents, our people could be deployed.

The young soldier Facebook fighter  from Rapid City will most likely return to active duty after his rest and recuperation leave.  The America he portrays as serving in his Facebook exchanges is not the America most of us who have served have in mind.  We are aware of why our ancestors left their home countries in the Old World and came to America to help build a nation based on liberty, equality, and justice.  The "greatest country ever where english is the only language" the young soldier conceives is not the country of our better angels, but of the demons with which we do constant battle to realize the promise of America.  E.B. Sledge makes the comment that if the country is good enough to live in, it's good enough to fight for.  When people invite us to leave because we do not accept their angry intolerance and belligerence as the values that guide us, it does make us wonder if this is the country where we want to live--and serve.

E. B. Sledge found fellow soldiers who showed him the alternatives to accepting a degraded level of existence imposed by war.  Perhaps the Rapid City soldier will find some representatives of the "old breed" of soldier who will show him the way.  But we all have the responsibility to muster our better angels and offer ways out of the degradation of hate, anger, and horror that war imposes.  That may mean that we might have to pick up those so afflicted off the floor and carry them to bed each night in the hopes that they can find rest and healing.

For most of us, the America we serve is not found in the words of blogs and social networks.  The America we work and fight for is the one that takes up Lincoln's challenge:  "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."


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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States