We talk often of military service in war as a civic and patriotic duty. But as the realities of combat and of the battlefield become apparent, patriotic sentiments, political ideologies, and mythologies fade quickly beneath the screams of the unbearable pain of the mutilated and the dying. Ultimately, warriors fight, kill, and accept injury and death, neither for god nor for country, but from a personal code of honor, loyalty, commitment, and accountability to one’s comrades.
“He didn’t have to go to Iraq. He chose to go. He wanted to be with his brothers.” These are the words of the clearly distraught and heartbroken mother of Thomas, a marine recently killed in Iraq, describing her son’s fatal decision to extend his enlistment in order to deploy with his unit. Of course, his family tried to convince him otherwise, but Thomas was adamant that “abandoning” his comrades as they headed into harm’s way was not an option.
James, a Marine reservist and Iraq War veteran, spoke recently at a panel discussion I moderated on the Iraq war. After spending some thirty minutes describing the horror, insanity, and futility of the war, James admitted, rather stoically, that he would, he must, go back to Iraq in the likely event that his unit is reactivated. Many in the audience were aghast. Their reaction to this seeming contradictionexposed what I have found to be a pervasive, though in some cases “unspoken,” conviction that the warrior is a part of the problem and must share some (maybe most) of the blame for immoral wars. I, however, and most every other war veteran present, understood James’ reasoning. What those untainted by war fail to realize is that such decisions have nothing to do with logic. They are about comradeship, the brotherhood, the bond that ties warriors, not only to each other but, tragically, though only by circumstance, to the war itself.
Consequently, James, Thomas, and the rest of us, had to face the tragic dilemma of whether to kill and risk death in what many, perhaps, we ourselves, perceive as an unnecessary and immoral war or abandon our comrades to an uncertain fate. I doubt whether many facing such a dilemma even see it as a choice. Clearly, we do not choose our commitments to those we feel a responsibility toward and are bound to by love. Such commitments are thrust upon us by circumstance. A reflex reaction conditioned into vulnerable recruits during boot camp, reinforced by the stress and horror of combat, motivated first by training and esprit de corps, and then by honor, friendship, and love, promising only mutually assured destruction. We fight, then, neither to achieve victory nor to kill an “enemy.” We fight and, like Thomas, we die, because we love and could not live with the guilt and the shame of abandoning our brothers.
This brotherhood of warriors, is not just the stuff of legend and folklore. It is real and it is strong. However, of late I have realized the tragedy of this draconian bond that lives off the blood and sacrifice, one for the other, of brothers, so committed by love that we march together undauntedly to our deaths. Our brotherhood, though pure, has been tainted by unscrupulous and diabolical men, who know little of such honor and integrity and were themselves unwilling to make the sacrifices they so cavalierly require of others. This realization fills me with grief and subsequently, with rage, at the manner in which such men exploit our love, dedication, and honor to garner the tools with which to prosecute their illegal and immoral war and to forward their corporacratic agenda.
It is time, therefore, long past time that we open our eyes to such madness. Moreover, if we are to restore the sanctity of our brotherhood, we must stand bravely, like Lieutenant Erin Watada, against those who would exploit our integrity, our love, our commitment, and our honor. We must join together and march, not blindly to our deaths, but in opposition to those leaders whose greed and dishonesty demands not patriots, but cannon fodder, assassins, and killers. Further, we must realize that our brotherhood requires not martyrdom but the courage to assert our love for comrade and for country by raising our voices in opposition to the insanity of this war and ultimately to refuse to squander our lives, our bodies, and our minds for a mistake, for incompetence, for greed and for power.
It is time as well, long past time, that those untainted by war who watch from a distance and cannot themselves fathom the nature and depth of the love and commitment that bind us, understand that our brotherhood is neither the cause nor the catalyst, but the consequence of war. While the warriors do in fact fight the war, they do not initiate it and are also its victims. Is it not the case that war is a crime of nations? So to attribute blame to James, Thomas, and the rest of us, is scapegoating, a means by which the apathetic and the indifferent comfort themselves by proclaiming their innocence and aloofness from the dirty business of war. To those in the peace movement who are generally sympathetic to the plight of the warriors, but who feel the import of the old Sixties adage “What if they gave a war and nobody came,” to suggest that wars cannot be fought without soldiers, I would offer another, “What if they gave a war and nobody paid taxes,” to suggest that wars also cannot be fought without money. In a democracy, we must all share the responsibility for wars that are fought in our names. There is blood on all our hands, and both civilians and warriors alike must have the moral courage to do what is necessary to ensure that morality and justice prevails.
As a result of accepting responsibility for our actions, many Iraq and Vietnam veterans’ lives have been devastated by their experiences in war. However, few, if any, civilians have accepted culpability for their action or inaction. Nor have they suffered sanctions for either benefiting from the war or doing nothing to stop it. Eventually their lives, if impacted at all, will return to normalcy and the war will be forgotten. For James, however, and the rest of us who have survived, the war will never end and the horrors of combat will forever haunt our existence. Thomas’ family will have only memories and will forever grieve his loss. For those of us touched by war, therefore, the brotherhood of the warriors, or better, of victims, may be our only remaining lifeline, all that we have left to hold on to.
1 As the role of women in the military has expanded to include combat and combat related functions, the bond of the warrior is no longer limited only to males. For reasons of convenience, however, I will continue to use the traditional term “brotherhood,” to encompass the bond between all warriors, whatever their gender.
Camillo “Mac” Bica, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. As a veteran recovering from his experiences as a United States Marine Corps Officer during the Vietnam War, he founded, and coordinated for five years, the “Veterans Self-Help Initiative,” AKA the HOOTCH Program, a therapeutic community of veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Brooklyn. He is a long time activist for peace and justice, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and a founding member of the Long Island Chapter of Veterans for Peace. His publications include “The Mythologizing of War from Vietnam to Iraq,” in The Humanist Magazine, March/April 2006; “On the Duty to Counter Recruit,” Truthout.Com, March 7, 2007.