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March 19, 2007

Fools and Idiots

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

-Julius Caesar, Act 2 scene 2

Quite some time ago I read a thing that, quite literally, left me speechless.

I love words. They are the tools I use, albeit often poorly, to argue, to urge, to harry, to convince, to restore confidence when it seems to be flagging.

To acknowledge debt, to say farewell. But though a million responses came to mind to what I read that day, for once I had no desire to argue with it. It seemed to me that the lofty sentiment advanced by Mr. Cavett for our consideration - that there is nothing worth fighting, worth dying for; that we humans are merely the sum of our most primitive survival instincts, was so obscene that it merited no reply.

So it seemed to me that day. And yet I have been troubled by his words ever since, for a nation which cannot see what is wrong with that idea is a nation gone adrift. Of course, that is only one opinion and I am only one person. And yet I cannot think of anything that would make me take it back.

I would, quite literally, give my own life before I would accept a world in which people who believe that were in charge. And so I submit for your consideration, if not your reply, these words:

I have a statement: Anybody who gives his life in war is an idiot.

I guess I left off the quotation marks to let the words have their full effect. They aren’t mine, but I’m related to them. They’re my Uncle Bill’s words, and his credentials for uttering the remark are a shade better than mine.

He may well have been the sole Marine to have survived driving landing barges on three bloody invasions in the South Pacific. I asked an old Marine vet once how rare Bill’s survival was. He was gifted of speech: “I’d say survivors of what your uncle did could probably hold their reunion in a phone booth and still have room for most of Kate Smith.” (We’ll pause while youngsters Google.) “My guess is that your uncle is unique.”

Bill said that aside from knowing that any minute was likely to be your last, the worst part of the job was having to drop the landing barge’s front door so the guys could swarm out onto the beach. Despite the hail of bullets against that door, he had to drop it, knowing that the front five or six guys would be killed instantly.

The phrase Bill hated most was “gave his life.” That phrase is a favorite of our windbag politicians; especially, it seems, the dimmer ones who say “Eye-rack.”

“Your life isn’t given,” I remember him saying, “it’s brutally ripped away from you. You’re no good to your buddies dead, and when the bullets start pouring in you don’t give a goddamn about God, country, Yale, your loved ones, the last full measure of devotion or any other of that Legionnaire patriotic crapola. You just want you and your buddies to see at least one more sunrise.”

Bill also served on land and experienced something so god-awful that he thought he would go mad: “Tom [his best friend] and I were trotting along, firing our rifles, and I turned to say something to Tom and his head was gone.” (Bill had great difficulty telling this. I guess I felt honored that he had not been able to speak of it for years.) He said the worst part was that while still holding the rifle, the body, now a fountain, continued for four or five steps before falling. He hated to close his eyes at night because that ghastly horror was his dependable nightly visitor for years — like Macbeth, murdering sleep.

...The other word Bill hated was “sacrifice.” Sacrifice is something you give up in order to get something in return. What good are we getting from this monstrous error? Cooked up as it was by that infamous group of neocons (accent on last syllable) who, draft-averse themselves, were willing to inflict on the (largely unprivileged) youth of this country their crack-brained scheme for causing democracy to take root and spread like kudzu throughout that bizarre and ill-understood part of the world, the Middle East.

What service is this great country getting out of all this tragedy, other than the certainty that historians will ask in disbelief, “Was there no one to stand up to this overweening president?”

I cringe at the icky, sentimental way the president talks about what we owe to the people of plucky little Iraq. You’d think we all grew up ending our “Now I lay me down to sleep…” with “… and please, Lord, be good to Iraq.” They detest us now, along with just about everybody else. Personally, I don’t give a damn what happens to Iraq, and don’t think it’s worth a single American life. Or any other kind. Haven’t philosophers taught us the immorality of destroying something of infinite value — like a human life — in order to achieve a possible good? I guess not.

I have a confession to make. I never made it to the end of that article. I bailed in the middle of Mr. Cavett's recounting of the time he and his buddy thought it would be amusing to startle his shell-shocked uncle with a firecracker.

There are valid reasons not to support this war. Mr. Cavett argues none of them.

Nor does he bother to refute any of the arguments his opponents (many of them Marines and soldiers who support them so strongly they are willing to give - yes, give - their lives to defend them) put forth. Why bother? They are, by Uncle Bill's definition (and he has unimpeachable moral authority to opine on this matter) idiots.

Nor need we be unduly dismayed by Mr. Cavett's own childish cruelty. With age comes wisdom and hopefully some measure of understanding and compassion. In adulthood, Mr. Cavett has forsworn firecrackers for the far more important task of pointing out fools and idiots to his readers.


Mr. Cavett worries about a future in which historians will ask: “Was there no one to stand up to this overweening president?”

Surely he is not surprised at the failure of his own side to stand up for what they believed in. After all, by his own argument, reasonable folk have a decent regard for their own survival.

Only fools and idiots insist on fighting for what they believe in.

The comments are closed on this post.

Posted by Cassandra at March 19, 2007 05:17 AM

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