Friday, October 14, 2011

War is a Force Which Gives us Meaning

The title is Chris Hedge's, of course. I just came across this example of it (rereading an article in preparation for a class today where I've assigned it):

This is a war with a difference -- a weird and beautiful difference. Personally, I feel challenged by it. I'll tell you one thing -- it's a heck of a lot more challenging than running a string of gas stations or supermarkets back in the States.

-- Colonel John K. Walker, Jr.
Quoted in Jonathan Schell, "The Village of Ben Suc"
The New Yorker, July 15, 1967, p. 77

Which leads us to:

Certainly, many people do join the army because they are deprived of opportunities. But the real question to be asking is: opportunities to do what?

Let me offer an anthropological perspective on the question. It first came home to me a year or two ago when I was attending a lecture by Catherine Lutz, a fellow anthropologist from Brown University who has been studying U.S. military bases overseas. Many of these bases organize outreach programs, in which soldiers venture out to repair schoolrooms or to perform free dental checkups for the locals. These programs were created to improve local relations, but they were apparently at least as effective in their psychological impact on the soldiers, many of whom would wax euphoric when describing them: e.g., “This is why I joined the army,” “This is what military service is really all about–not just defending your country, but helping people.” The military’s own statistics point in the same direction: although the surveys do not list “helping people” among the motives for enlistment, the most high-minded option available–”to do something to be proud of”–is the favorite.

Is it possible that America is actually a nation of frustrated altruists?

-- David Graeber, "An Army of Altruists"
Harper's, January, 2007

Not the same thing -- challenging is not the same thing as helping people -- but variations on a theme.

Also relevant in this context: the fact that one reason (misguided, perhaps, but a real motive) that people go to law school is a desire to do good in the world.

Is it possible that America is actually a nation of frustrated altruists? Could it be that one thing lawyers and soldiers have in common is that they both choose a poor means (if possibly the only means available to them, or that they thought was available) to try to do good in the world?

This has been a post about Occupy Wall Street. It's true that, contrary to the bombast of the 1%-owned media, the message of Occupy Wall Street is clear: it's about economic injustice. (link via). But perhaps it's about more than that, too.

There's an old lefty slogan that "a better world is possible". Maybe one of the things we're starved for are ways to help make it so.

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