Sean Davis

Drinking from Skulls until the Next Millennium

Albin Egger-Lienz, Den Namenlosen (the Nameless), 1916 [Museum of Military History, Vienna, Austria]

Following Memorial Day, and taking cues from Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sean Davis thinks about the true meaning of war and its effects.

 

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. … Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” —Dwight D. Eisenhower

 

Memorial Day just passed, and I find myself respecting those who were killed in our wars and wishing war wasn’t a permanent part of our culture, history, and identity as a country. Seeing thousands of flags fly in Willamette National Cemetery makes me think about a lot of questions, being a combat veteran myself. The biggest one seems like it may be the easiest to answer: What is war?

A basic definition of “war” might be: “One group of people fighting another group of people.” But “fighting” is such an innocent synonym here. A more accurate definition would be one group of people using all the resources they can to kill another group of people. Since this is about killing, we need to ask a few more questions.

Who are we going to ask (or tell) to do the killing?
Our sons, our daughters, our brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers.

What will they kill with?
All of the resources and technological advances we possess.

Who are we going to kill?
People with different ideology.

Who sends us to war?
Our elected officials.

Our definition has grown: War is when the leaders of one country send their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers to kill another country’s sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers with different beliefs using all of the resources and technology at their disposal. No, I don’t want to say “disposal” because the resources and technology is anything but “disposable.” Let’s remember Eisenhower’s “cross of iron” and start again.

War is when the leaders of one country send the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers of their citizens to kill the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers of another country with different beliefs using all of the resources and technology they could otherwise use to feed the hungry, clothe and house their needy, or use in other ways to make their lives and world better.

This should be the definition of war.

If we did define war in this way, we would then see the true effect it has on humanity.

War should be the very last action a country should take, the action it takes when all else fails, because we know what it will cost us in lives and resources.

 

War should be the very last action a country should take, the action it takes when all else fails, because we know what it will cost us in lives and resources.

 

Our country—the country that sent me, personally, to kill the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers in more than one foreign land; the country that I bled for; that friends of mine died fighting for—has been at war most of its short life. Looking at the history books, we have been at war more than 90 percent of our history. That’s 224 years of war in our 241-year history.

If war should be the absolute last resort for a country, why do we, the most freedom-loving, technologically-advanced, economically-forward nation on the planet do it so often?

I’m really asking this question.

Money. Sure, some people get very rich (or are made richer), but that is a small minority. And the money they get rich by is mostly from the taxes of the middle and lower class. In fact, it’s the middle and lower classes who fight and die for the rich. If this is the case, then why does the majority—knowing how bad war is for our country, knowing it will cost them personally, knowing they are the ones who will be fighting and dying—go along with it?

Is it nationalism? If so, who does a war over nationalism benefit? Or a better question is: How is Iraq or Afghanistan a threat to our nation? Especially when we can easily look at the fact that more people are killed in the U.S. by moving couches every year than are killed by Islamic terrorists. More of our children are killed in school shootings than our soldiers in these wars, but we throw millions in to the meaningless conflicts and ramp up spending on our defense budget.

What are the other positive effects of war for the majority, for the people on the ground in combat? Experience? Revenge? Feeling a part of history? Feeling empowered? Or maybe we do it because we’re good at it? We are the most powerful nation on the planet and that didn’t come from being peaceful.

War brings out the very worst of humanity. It mines the depth of fear a human is capable of feeling, it gives permission for a person to call up and perform the most primal type of violence, and it not only births but can condone the most heinous crimes, crimes not possible in the confines of any society or community.

War also brings out the very best of humanity. When my Humvee was hit in Iraq, half my body was broken by a vehicle-borne IED and we were pinned down by three machine guns. A friend of mine and fellow soldier ran to us with an aid bag under direct fire to help me, and he was critically injured. I can name several acts of courage most people wouldn’t think possible and I saw them with my own eyes. Besides individual acts of courage, we also have the benefits of technological advances: radar, the microwave oven, and the Internet were all military projects. Medical advances such as blood transfusions, infection control, prosthetic limbs, again, military projects first.

War is a huge part of our culture and many would say it should be counted as a benefit. Think of the oldest stories we have: The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, most of Shakespeare’s plays, all the way to the popular books and movies today. Can glory happen without war? If war is a bell we ring, glory is echoed throughout the centuries.

If we have undeniable positive effects of war and undeniable negative effects, how do we balance this? How do we decide when the positives outweigh the negatives?

Again, I’m asking for real.

For my part, I hate war. But some of the proudest moments of my life are also the most horrible moments of my life. How do we—as a society, as a species—reconcile this?

 

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs latest statistics, we lose around 20 veterans to suicide every day. Every day. Over 1,000 combat veterans attempt to kill themselves every month—that is more than one attempt every half hour.

 

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs latest statistics, we lose around 20 veterans to suicide every day. Every day. Over 1,000 combat veterans attempt to kill themselves every month—that is more than one attempt every half hour. Just in 2012, more military veterans died of suicide than were killed total in the Afghanistan War since beginning in 2001. 73.4 percent of combat arms personnel are leaving the armed forces with a service-connected PTSD rating. These are our sons, our daughters, our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our mothers.

Divorce rates in the Army alone doubled after the wars started. The divorce rate with the soldiers I went over with has to be in the high 80 percent range. Unstable living conditions and at least one parent with PTSD, what does that do to our children? And that’s our veterans and our families, no one really talks about the civilians in the combat zones. In Haiti, I saw women trade hand jobs through chain-link fences for C batteries. One morning, my squad found the body of a dead Haitian man in his early twenties half buried in our dump. He had been killed by another local. The Haitians jumped a ten-foot brick wall with razor wire on top and braved getting arrested by us just to pick through our garbage, garbage they valued enough to kill each other for. In Iraq, most men of fighting age are dead from decades of war leaving elderly men, women, and children to fend for themselves in a land torn apart by war.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote an essay on war called “Chiefly About War Matters” that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in July 1862. If you read this essay, you will notice it could have been written yesterday; but now, after the next millennium that Hawthorne references in his essay, we still face the same problems. And the wars we fight today aren’t about defending democracy, keeping our country from being invaded, or preventing the spread of an evil ideal. The negatives blatantly outweigh the positives.

We know that every warship launched and rocket fired steals from our future, our potential, and what we can be; but we still launch them and fire them, now more than ever in history.

Hawthorne wrote: “Set men face to face, with weapons in their hands and they are as ready to slaughter one another now, after playing at peace and good-will for so many years, as in the rudest ages, that never heard of peace societies, and thought no wine so delicious as what they quaffed from an enemy’s skull. Indeed, if the report of a Congressional committee may be trusted, that old-fashioned kind of goblet has again come into use, at the expense of our Northern head-pieces,—a costly drinking cup to him that furnishes it! Heaven forgive me for seeming to jest upon such a subject!—only, it is so odd, when we measure our advances from barbarism, and find ourselves just here.”

 

Sean Davis

Sean Davis is the author of The Wax Bullet War, a Purple Heart Iraq War veteran, and a community leader in Northeast Portland, Oregon. His latest stories, essays, and articles have appeared in various magazines and media sources such as HUMAN the Movie, the international fashion magazine Flaunt, Forest Avenue's forthcoming anthology City of Weird, and much more.

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