Friday, March 16, 2007

Friday Reflection: Crane's Reminder, and Our Purpose

Before we get to the Friday Reflection for today, I have some links to video material that you may find worth viewing.

The first is from a very familiar source, but it may not be what you expect. Jon Stewart, aside from being a very funny man and a trenchant social observer, has an extraordinary gift for interviewing (and believe me, it's a very rare skill in today's media). Check out this interview he has with former Clinton NSA chief Zbigniew Brzezinski. Also note ZB's ominous message of the moment. Let's hope the title of his book can serve as a guide to recovery as well as a reflection on a lost opportunity.

Next is a full-length documentary on two gritty British activists who took on Mickey D's—just click the graphic above to watch. I found it via Klassy's StumbleUpon page. It's pretty inspiring.

The last is an activist video site which you may be familiar with. It's featured in our Blogroll, and its teenage author is the topic of an excellent story in the current issue of Mother Jones. The webmistress in question is young Ava Lowery, and the site is Peace Takes Courage. If you haven't seen this young lady's marvelous videos, spend some time there and watch. Then remember—according to the MoJo reporter, this teenage girl from the heart of Dixie, along with her family, has been subjected to intimidation, abuse, and even death threats. So far, nothing has stopped her. This weekend, many of us will be continuing to make the restorative sounds of dissent thanks to the information and inspiration provided by people like Ava.


Our banner quote this week may have struck a vaguely familiar chord of resonance in many of you, even if you haven't read the book since you were in junior high school. The author is Stephen Crane, and the book is of course his classic, The Red Badge of Courage.

The men groaned. The luster faded from their eyes. Their smudged countenances now expressed a profound dejection. They moved their stiffened bodies slowly, and watched in sullen mood the frantic approach of the enemy. The slaves toiling in the temple of this god began to feel rebellion at his harsh tasks.

This is from the beginning of the book's very heart, where we discover how flight becomes the journey. It begins with a wild run from danger, which transforms gradually into a somber and regenerative retreat for the novel's protagonist, who only name is "the youth". Now I'm not sure of my facts here, because it's all coming from a distant memory (and at my age, memory for anything becomes a challenge); but I believe that the setting of the novel is one of the great blood baths of Lincoln's War, Chancellorsville. One of Crane's great accomplishments in this small novel was to accurately portray both the vast scope and the horror of that battle, with considerable historical authenticity.

But of more interest is the personal human dimension of the novel. Crane spends the first 50 or so pages portraying the fighting spirit of his characters—the cultural facade of courage. Then he reveals how easily that facade implodes; panic overtakes his warriors in a single moment:

A man near him, who up to this time had been working feverishly at his rifle, suddenly stopped and ran with howls. A lad whose face had borne an expression of exalted courage, the majesty of he who dares give his life, was, at an instant, smitten abject. He blanched like one who has come to the edge of a cliff at midnight and is suddenly made aware. There was a revelation. He, too, threw down his gun and fled. There was no shame in his face. He ran like a rabbit.

Perhaps back in some FOX studio, safe in the heart of the Union, some pundit or other might have described this turn in the battle as cowardice or "cutting and running." Well, that's exactly what Crane was describing: "cut and run" as in Nature overtaking social programming. He goes on throughout the rest of the book to reveal the intensity of the inner conflict between these forces—how disabling the institutional boulders of bravery and courage are to the human psyche. What terrible wars must be fought within the man who sees himself as departing from those rigid walls of cultural conditioning! What lifelong wounds are inflicted upon the soul of a man who is once condemned, by himself or others, as a coward, and what must be risked to redeem himself! This, added to the ordinary inner torment of war, breaks the human psyche into often unrecoverable and irreparable fragments. It is all happening right now.

The Iraq War has taken a psychological toll of unprecedented proportions. Stacy Bannerman focuses on this aspect of the war in a piece I found at Alternet:

Soldiers who have served -- or are serving -- in Iraq are killing themselves at higher percentages than in any other war where such figures have been tracked. According to a report recently released by the Defense Manpower Data Center, suicide accounted for over 25 percent of all noncombat Army deaths in Iraq in 2006.

Bannerman notes a similarly alarming set of statistics re. PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:

"At least 30 percent of Iraq or Afghanistan [veterans] are diagnosed with PTSD, up from 16 percent to 18 percent in 2004," said Charlie Kennedy, PTSD program director and lead psychologist at the Stratton VA Medical Center. The number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans getting treatment for PTSD at VA hospitals and counseling centers increased 87 percent from September 2005 to June 2006, and they have a backlog of 400,000 cases, including veterans from previous wars. The most conservative estimates project that roughly 250,000 Iraq war veterans will struggle with PTSD.

These are truly alarming rates of psychiatric morbidity by any measure. But I am betting that neither Stephen Crane nor the subjects of his classic novel would have found them surprising. For like the Civil War, the Iraq War is a pointless conflict* marked by a continuous and escalating bloody mayhem in which friend and foe are often indistinguishable; and which has taken its toll limb by human limb, death by premature death.

Yesterday, the Senate failed again to commit itself to the will of the people. So more soldiers, more Iraqi civilians, will die or be maimed, physically and psychologically, by this insanity—unless we unite to tell these fat, lazy, licentious demagogues in Washington that we will not tolerate their weakness at a moment like this. That's what this weekend is all about: come and be heard.

*The debate on the Civil War, which cost America half a million of its male youth, basically wiping out an entire generation, can be held at a more convenient time. In short, though, my position is that Lincoln could very easily have invited the South to go right ahead and secede, and then set up the appropriate blockades and trade barriers. There is obviously no way to tell, but my wager would be that the Confederate nation would not have lasted ten years on its own, and untold death and suffering would have been averted. Lincoln, at any rate, is not the demigod that is popularly sculpted in the marble and granite of our cultural conditioning programs. Nor, I suspect, would he be at all comfortable in the stone throne onto which he has been forced by the ideologues of our time.

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