Bugle and Bell
musings on the soul of war
Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.
by Anne Sexton ["The Saints Come Marching In"]
The Peace Pipe Can Be Suffocating
"Men court war to escape meaninglessness and boredom ..."
by Nels F.S. Ferre
It was noted in the 9 March 2007 issue of the National
Catholic Reporter that the following inscription
appeared recently on a wall in an American military/civil affairs
office in Ramadi, Iraq: "America is not at war. The Marine Corps
is at war; America is at the mall." One may detect some
bitterness in that observation, but there does not appear to be
envy or admiration of the civilian and his world.
The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah pointed out that the cozy society of
his day wasn't necessarily cozy for everyone living in it.
Although the Kingdom of Judah was not at war at that time (in the
seventh Century B.C.), there were many people in that society who
were not experiencing individual peace.
Jeremiah said, of the movers and shakers of Judah: "'Peace,
peace,' they say, when there is no peace." [Jeremiah 6:14 New
What is truly representative of peace? Or who?
Many a warrior has returned from the field of battle in eager
anticipation of a heavenly oasis from external and internal
strife, only to find himself resonating with the title of Janis
Ian's classic song of disappointment: Is That All There
When General William Tecumseh Sherman said that "war is hell," he
didn't promise us a heavenly rose garden in the civilian world of
peace. The absence of peace in the absence of war, of
which Jeremiah spoke, can be especially true for the warrior and
the former warrior – if there is such a thing as a
This is not to glorify war. The Thirty Years War in Germany, the
Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the current, free-for-all
Insurgency in Iraq remind us of the burden of combat on both
military forces and civilian populations. But one expects peace
to be a clear-cut contrast to the horrors of war. And, too often,
peace fails us. Where there should have been a life preserver,
there was not.
In war, we were concerned about the possibility of losing our
life. In peacetime, we find ourselves concerned with whether we
even have a life to lose.
In war, there was hope regardless of how grim the situation. In
peacetime, hope can be an elusive entity. This is what we had
hoped for. This is seemingly the end of the line. This is
it. Look no further. Game's over.
Or is it? The game certainly looks over. In war,
one could always anticipate that something would happen
– whether good or bad or none of the above. In peacetime,
there is the haunting fear that nothing is going to happen. Ever.
And the things that pass for happenings in the civilian
world are generally contrived nonsense.
As reported in the 11 June 2007 U.S. News and World
Report, Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar protester whose son
was killed in Iraq, lamented that "Casey died for a country which
cares more about who will be the next American
Idol than how many people will be killed in the next few
Bread and circuses. In ancient Rome, contrived nonsense sedated
and distracted the civilian population while the legions were off
fighting to maintain the empire. And contrived nonsense today
– like the TV show Survivor in which
bikini-clad social-climbers and gigolo wannabes fight it
out in a pseudo-Guadalcanal setting – intoxicate the
American civilian mind. Or what's left of it. And what about
NASCAR? ... the chariot races of the
Twenty-first Century? Who is shitting whom?
General Peter Schoomaker commented, on the occasion of his recent
retirement, that it is not a question of whether the American
public can make the sacrifices necessary to win the war in Iraq.
It is a question of whether they are willing to make
This is not necessarily encouraging when we consider that the
hedonistic public has difficulty relating to the Spartan
lifestyle of the military. Or in even comprehending that our
national war for survival may necessitate sacrifice by civilians
too. Civilians don't save money. They don't save their sexuality
for love. They don't save anything – unless they can
auction it off as a nostalgic collectible on
The warrior is a romantic at heart. Chivalry is not dead; it
simply has been relegated to the military which must keep a
seemingly impossible high standard while John Dope back here
keeps an American flag decal on the back of his car in hopes of
eliciting sympathy with the police officer who stops him for his
flagrant disregard of the speed-limit laws. Incidentally, John
Dope bought that car at a dealership which flew an American flag
the size of a football field over its lot as a means of making
more money. The public knocks itself out screwing each other,
literally and figuratively. Too often, the civilian notion of
romance is a flavored douche.
In the medieval world of chivalry, the warrior was associated
with the aristocracy and nobility. The word courtesy is
derived from the honorable customs of the court. A man's
home is his castle, we are told. But many a warrior returns to
his or her homeland only to be reminded that a house is not a
home. America the physically beautiful is not always America the
emotionally or spiritually beautiful. One returns from the desert
of Iraq to the desert of the mall. From the frying pan into the
The senses of the warrior have been fine-tuned for the sake of
survival. Is that a wire or a stick at the side of the road? Is
that the sound of an M-16 or an AK-47? Is that the odor of a
garbage pile or the stench of a dead body? When he or she returns
to the civilian world, those subliminal receptors are still wide
open. But the warrior's senses are now overloaded with
billboards, subtle product plugs in movies, and subliminal static
from every direction. These suffocate the warrior with the
mundane and the irrelevant while clashing with the natural
survival instincts built up. One can feel more desperate than one
ever felt in combat.
In war, honor and respect for life are what held you together as
a human being on the field of death. You even respected your
enemy if he was a valiant opponent. In peacetime, it is sometimes
difficult to respect even one's closest work associates. That guy
wearing a fast-food uniform (with its hat touting the latest
Disney movie promotion) might stab you in the back in order to
beat you to the right to wear the tie and harried look of a
manager. Fellow soldiers, at one time, rendered authority to you
while you rendered authority to them. But you have little control
over your kids or respect from them. You live in a
bait-and-switch world that doesn't even have the decency to call
a spade a
spade. Communication is by innuendo, the dropped handkerchief,
the threat given with a smile, political correctness, and passive
If you are unlucky in love, your jaded spouse or significant
other may say – with all the mechanical intonation of a
cashier at McDonald's – "Would you like
oral sex with that?" Or she or he may play the flip side of that
same coin and say, "Dear, I've got a headache tonight ...." Or
this week. Or this month ....
If you are lucky in love, you nevertheless discover that there is
not a man or woman alive who can simply kiss the boo-boo and make
it better. And, worst of all, you may let down your loved one via
the difficulty with which you – as a fish out of water
– handle responsibility in the civilian world.
If there is such a thing as peace, it must come
from within yourself.
A Buddhist might say that one must reconcile oneself with the
fact of suffering in the world. You don't have to like it. And
you should work to alleviate it. But it's there. That is
a given. But, if there is yin, there is yang.
If there is suffering, there is also pleasure. But where is this
pleasure? And should we avoid pleasure in order to avoid
Look, Dude. You've already suffered in war. You might as well
cash in on the pleasure. Or perhaps contentment. But
your pleasure and contentment. Not necessarily pleasure
and contentment as defined by the boring and easily-bored roller
How can you find contentment or personal satisfaction on the
equivalent of an Indian reservation? Instead of hunting for a
living, you have a meaningless job which is the equivalent of
making beaded nothings for tourists. Instead of fighting for your
homeland, you are issued a blanket and a direct deposit into your
banking account and a chance to buy alcohol. The reservation is
not potentially a happy place. If you really hit the big-time,
you can be the doorman at a casino which is owned by the Mafioso
who uses your tribe as a figurehead. And you can afford a
big-screen TV on which to watch American Idol.
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that you are a Native
American. And, if you have fought for this country, who is to
say you aren't?
Once upon a time – before you became John Dope or Sergeant
John Dope – you had a name or an identity which somehow
expressed who you are. It was a sign of your passing from
childhood to adulthood. Soaring Eagle. Suburban
Commando. Laughing Creek. Trash Can
Thumper. Jump Roper. Maybe it didn't have a word or
words. But it was there. And the door swings both ways. The
identity that you had at the cusp between childhood and adulthood
can also lead back to childlikeness. Still on the cusp –
not forgetting anything that you've learned. But facing inward.
Toward the child within. The inner papoose. Without the
white man's endless self-analysis and psychological
frontiers. Without reservations.
How often we hear someone say, "If only I knew at age sixteen
what I know now ...." But, at age sixteen, you didn't know how to
be age sixteen. Now you do know how to be age sixteen.
Sweet sixteen. And you know how to perceive the
sweetness, the buried innocence, in other persons
despite all evidence to the contrary. Even if they don't remember
it and have misplaced it themselves.
And it has nothing to do with malls, casinos,
bead-making ... or war. It transcends reservations and
warpaths. It transcends agedness and youthfulness.
It transcends tools and toys. It transcends
selfishness and selflessness. It transcends yin
and yang. It transcends stopping and going.
For the love of Geronimo, what is it that's stopping you?
"Sometimes even to live is an act of courage."
by Lucius Annaeus Seneca
contributed by B. Keith Cossey