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Posts Tagged ‘war’

There is a quote from H. L. Mencken that reads, “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” Since first reading it, I’ve been struck by those words and have remembered them. Every normal man must sometimes want to throw caution to the wind and be a pirate, it says, to slit throats with abandon and claim the spoils regardless of consequence. It is tempting. But I also read a deeper meaning in it. A rallying cry, a warning, a call-to-arms. There comes a time, these words say, when every man will have to take action, make a stand, and risk everything to fight for what they value or else lose it to another’s plundering.

I’ve never read that line in its original context. Those sentiments may not be remotely near what the author intended when writing it. But a learned man once told me that what we see on our own is more important than what we are told to see. You can be taught to see more, to see better, he said, but never fully trust what you are told. So Mr. Mencken will have to pardon my conclusions; they are mine alone.

Hoist the black flag, he said. Slit throats. To war, then, and to the victor goes the spoils. It strikes me that much of American society is already busy at pirating, or was until the Big Bust of 2008. Wanting a large payoff from a smaller, somewhat riskier investment seemed to be the prevailing modus operandi. Flip houses. Flip cars. Flip companies. Trust Bernie with your money. Cheat (but slyly) on your taxes. In fact, cheat at anything if you think you won’t get caught. Score as much credit as possible. Buy things you can’t afford with someone else’s money. Lie and steal from your government, your employer, your family, your fellow man. Anything for the almighty dollar.

If you were in construction, you threw together as many buildings as possible and waited for fat profits to roll in, and who cares about the structural integrity of those houses and business spaces. So what if the floor joists won’t last five years, and the basement leaks if so much as a dog takes a whizz two doors down, and the wallboard emits poisonous gas? Sorry, buddy, you were dumb enough to sail into my harbor and your throat just got slit. Thanks for the booty. Besides, that’s what homeowner’s insurance is for.

If you were in insurance you issued thousands of policies that were useless and refused to pay claims, slitting more throats and raking in treasure chests of booty. Your house burnt? Oh, so sorry, we won’t pay for anything damaged by smoke or water or heat or any wall left standing. Tell you what, we’ll give you this month’s mortgage payment plus an extra $50. We’re feeling very generous today. A hurricane you say? Your house flooded? Oh how awful. But no, sorry, we don’t pay off on damages from storm surge. Nope, it’s not a flood, it’s a wave, and we don’t cover that. Sorry. Don’t forget, your next payment is due in two weeks. Bye bye now.

And of course there were still the usual rackets of car sales, internet companies, Wall Street, and, well, anything run by the government. Anything to make another dollar, and the less honest the better. Hey, that’s the new American Dream: getting something for nothing. From the world’s largest corporation to grade schoolers, everyone’s playing pirate.

But someone somewhere is losing. Someone is watching their house or car or savings or future circle the drain when that newest chest is drug on board the winning ship and its golden contents are revealed. With a pirate on every side wondering how they can get their hands on it next.

So what does this have to do with Mencken’s quote? I think the deeper meaning behind it says you have to be your own pirate, be prepared to fight for anything you want, and if you really want it you can’t let others stand in your way. If keeping your job means someone else goes unemployed, so be it. If keeping your house means another family goes homeless, that’s something you’ll just have to face. It is, in a way, Darwin’s evolution in action. No one ever wrote a treatise on the survival of the nicest.

The sad fact of life on this planet is that not everyone will have what they want, and many will not have what they need. And to have anything at all, you will have to fight for it. We do not live in a global utopian society, and if you do not take it you will likely die waiting for it to be given to you.

That goes for liberty as much as for anything else. If you do not fight for your freedoms, you can hardly expect anyone to grace you with them out of the goodness of their heart. Governments, for instance, were not constructed out of goodness but out of fear and desire … even our own illustrious “city on a hill.” It’s nice to stand safely on the sidelines and speak of pacifism and conscientious objections, but in reality they don’t work. At some point, the theory breaks down. Even one man sitting alone in the middle of a garden will have to fight if he wants to eat, fight weeds and animals and drought and frost. Idealism has yet to feed a hungry belly.

I think Mencken’s words reveal that life is simply one fight after another, and if you want to do more than simply survive, you’ll have to do so at someone else’s expense. Is your life more important than someone else’s? Is someone else’s life more important than yours? How can anyone possibly know? So hoist your flag, brandish your sword and pistol, and let the blood run.

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The media splashes violent scenes of people being beaten and a young woman dying in the street and calls it news. It’s sensationalism, but I suppose that’s what it takes to get our attention any more. If you’ve watched a news program at all in the last week or so you’ve probably seen some of it: foreign crowds with strips of green cloth tied around their wrists, wearing green shirts and masks and headbands, green paint or dye on their hands, fingers held up in an almost painfully ironic symbol of peace and victory. Of course, we know that neither peace nor victory has found either side of the conflict. And instead of green, a growing number of people are wearing red.


Photos credits, left to right, top to bottom: Getty, urbanministry.org, AP; Getty, Donald Douglas.

I don’t know what to think of the situation in Iran. I do think the election was, at best, mishandled … but it’s a messy affair. And no one in authority seems willing to recount the votes, investigate the cases of blatant fraud, or otherwise try to resolve the issue through acceptable procedural means. Instead, Iran’s “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is backing up the election results, denouncing protesters, and threatening action against anyone speaking out against the government. Equally problematic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is digging in his heels, insisting he was re-elected fair and square, and trying to break up protest after protest with public announcements and brute force. A lot of brute force. Thankfully, serious bloodshed has been limited so far. Though I doubt that comforts the families and loved ones of the dozens who have been killed. And if the protests continue, I think it’s clear there will be a great deal more bloodshed.

The scenes filling Twitter and Flickr and Tehran Live are both inspiring and heartbreaking. And I am torn between wanting to grab a green flag to join in and just turning my back to walk away. The Idealist vs. The Pragmatist. But in a country that already hates the US, in a region that all but despises the US, I can’t help but think that getting involved would be a mistake. I hate to say that but it’s what I honestly think. A lot of people in Iran are getting mistreated (and not just since the election) but the same could be said of dozens of countries which we have also not helped. In truth, the same could be said of our own country, if not to the same extremes.

I find the violence disgusting, aimed at unarmed people doing something US citizens have (theoretically) had the right to do for well over 200 years. But a country in upheaval will always experience violence and henceforth bear that scar. It is both unfortunate and unavoidable. And who is to say the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi would be any better? (Who is to say he is still alive, having disappeared some days ago…) Politicians the world over are notoriously dishonest, corrupt, and easily swayed by money and power. In any case, I fear US intervention would only cause more problems. Iraq has been a rather pathetic endeavor (I fully support the troops; I do not support the politicians behind the war) and Afghanistan is hardly better. With North Korea starting to test the waters across the Pacific and a US economic/financial implosion underway, I can’t think of anything less reasonable than an intervention.

For once, Barack Obama and I agree.

But I hope beyond hope that the Iranians get what they want and need and deserve as a good but mistreated people. I hope we all do.

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I hope you had a nice Memorial Day weekend.  For many it meant an extended visit with friends and family or at the very least another day away from work. But I just don’t like Memorial Day very much.  I think the parades and flag-waving and grave decorating are great, honestly, but I’d rather not see all those white crosses and stars-of-david.  I’d rather not read article after article about sacrifice and loss.

Call me squeamish, unpatriotic, weak…  It’s all true.  I am squeamish when it comes to seeing boys barely out of high school with their arms and legs blown off, with their bodies disfigured and their minds scarred and their futures questionable at best.  And I feel very unpatriotic when I see our government lying to its people, usurping power, perverting every ideal this nation originally stood for.  And I am weak.  I am tired and frayed and more heartsick than words can say. 

In every marker and memorial I see my grandfather, who helped liberate Auschwitz but would never bring himself to talk about it.  I see a man who, at eighty, still screamed in his sleep from dreams about what he saw and did in Italy and Germany.  I see a man who lost part of his hand in Korea; one who lost his best friend in Vietnam and never forgave himself for “letting him die”; another who will never use his right arm again and will walk with a limp for the rest of his life.  I hear it in a voice talking about her son and how she wishes she could have been with him in his last moments.  I feel it in a set of dog tags.

So wave your flags and enjoy your parades and forgive me if I would rather lose myself in work or change the channel or put away the newspaper.

Some are still trying to forget.

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