September 3, 2013

Henry Geiger - The Meaning Of War (1988)

"The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle" by J. Glenn Gray. Introduction by Hannah Arendt. "All human beings should read this book." - Henry Geiger.

Henry Geiger (1908?-15 February 1989) was the editor, publisher, and chief writer of MANAS Journal which published from 1948-1988. Abraham Maslow called him “the only small ‘p’ philosopher America has produced in this century.”
Jesse Glenn Gray (known as J. Glenn Gray; 1913–1977) was an American philosopher, writer, and professor of philosophy at Colorado College. Gray published numerous books and essays. His first major publication, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, is a philosophical memoir of his years as an counter-intelligence officer near the battle lines in Italy during World War II inspired by Gray’s opposition to war. Its reprint in 1967 and subsequent editions included an introduction by Hannah Arendt. 
Below is an excerpt from, "The Meaning Of War" by Henry Geiger. Source: MANAS Journal, Volume XLI, No. 40. October 5, 1988.
We have been absorbing a book which obliges the reader to incarnate again in the years of the second World War. The author is J. Glenn Gray, a teacher of philosophy who was inducted into the Army on May 8, 1941, served for four years as an agent of the Counter Intelligence Corps, and was discharged in October, 1945, as a second lieutenant. He participated in the Italian campaign, the invasion of southern France, and the campaign in middle Europe until the end of the war. The responsibility of his unit was the safeguarding of American troops against spies and saboteurs. During this term of service, the meaning of war to humans grew upon him. Years later, in 1959, he wrote The Warriors— Reflections on Men in Battle, first published by Harcourt, Brace and Co., and later (1967) it appeared as a Harper Torchbook with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt.

All human beings should read this book. It is not a pacifist tract but something far better than that. It tells how a man discovers what war does to all people. In December of 1944, from Alsace, he wrote to a friend:
Perhaps even you cannot participate enough in this life over here to understand. You would have to see a fine, fine family broken, people you had learned to love, destroyed because of petty personal grudges. You would have to see people slapped and beaten because they might possibly be telling a lie or because certain sadistic impulses need to be satisfied. You would have to see old men and women on the roads with a few pitiful belongings in a driving rain, going they know not where, trying to find shelter and a little food in a scorched-earth area. Oh, you would have to see many things, Fred, to know why I should come to realize such a primitive truth as that I have only one alternative to death and that is to love, to care for people whom I as a natural man, want to strike down.

The time may not be far off, if it is not already here when millions of people will not want to live. It has been prophesied, and the prophesy is a true one. Today I talked with a young attractive woman with three children who told me she did not care what happened to her. She wanted to die. There was no theatricality about her at all. She was not suffering from any physical illness and she was not hungry. Separation from her husband, bombing, living in cellars no future—all of it had become too much for her. Always the same picture— immer das gleiche Bild.
Glenn Gray comments:
This particular letter was written in Alsace, where fanatical SS troops had finally halted our division after its precipitous advance from the beaches of southern France. We had been committed to front lines well over a hundred days without rest, and it is easy to recall how tired we were. The fierce resistance at the borders of Germany made our days nasty and dangerous. Almost worse were the recriminations and persecutions among the unfortunate Alsatians of those thought to be pro- German. Shopkeepers were changing their signs as well as their language from German to French after having done the reverse in 1939; political opinions were not so easily reversed in a vengeful atmosphere where nearly everyone was suspect. Moreover, we had just come into this area from the Vosges Mountains, from which the Germans withdrew only after they had set fire to everything in order to deprive us of all shelter in the menacing winter temperatures soon to come. As a consequence, the roads were filled with refugees of all ages and conditions. Loaded with what they could carry on their backs, on bicycles, or on carts, men, women, and children streamed to the rear. . . .

The enemy was cruel, it was clear, yet this did not trouble me as deeply as did our own cruelty. Indeed, their brutality made fighting the Germans much easier, whereas ours weakened the will and confused the intellect. Though the scales were not at all equal in this contest, I felt responsibility for ours much more than for theirs. And the effect was cumulative. It had begun before my division had even reached the front in Italy at the beginning of 1944. Bivouacked some thirty miles to the rear I had watched hungry Italian women and children standing in February rains, holding crude cans with wire handles to collect leftover food from our mess. The American soldiers were generous and it was easy to notice that more food than usual was left in the mess kits, to find its way into the eagerly extended cans of the thin and shivering civilians. Rarely did they eat it on the spot, however tempted; their dependents in the village nearby were evidently uppermost in their thoughts. Inexperienced and fearful in a strange land, higher headquarters soon put out stern orders that all garbage was to be buried forthwith. Then began the hideous spectacle of unwilling soldiers forced to push back the women and children while garbage cans of food were dumped in freshly dug pits. Other soldiers hastily shoveled the wet dirt over the meat, bread, and vegetables.
Gray experienced months of this sort of military bureaucracy and was horrified to find himself "adjusting" to it. A few months later he wrote to a friend:
One becomes incredibly hardened. Now I often despair of myself. I interrogate these "bastards," as we call them, sneeringly, insultingly, and sometimes take a cold delight in their cringing. I have declared that if ever I find one who will say: "I am, I was, and will remain a National Socialist and you can like it or not," I will clasp his hand and cry: "At last I have found a brave and honest, if an evil man. We don't want to arrest such a one as you." But I think I shall not find such a man.
Another sort of man it may become difficult to find is the decent professional military man. He is an instrument of the state and his highest obligation is fulfillment of orders.
As an "arm" and not the "head" of the state, the professional soldier often prides himself on being nonpolitical. This frees him, he feels, to act in war without regard for consequences other than the military. Responsibility must be clearly defined and portioned out; it is always a matter for angry puzzlement on his part that such definition and apportionment are rarely possible in actual combat. As a specialist in warfare, he wants none of the half- light and dubiety of morals and politics in his profession. He desires to be under orders and to know what is expected of him all the time. Since war is so much simpler if played according to rules, he yearns for the security and stability of formal principles in fighting. . . . Though he will show a courageous enemy no mercy in combat so long as that foe possesses destructive power, the military man is likely to cherish for him respect and even admiration. Consequently, when he is captured and disarmed, the impulse of the victor is to be magnanimous and friendly. Sensible rules require, according to this code, humane treatment of a surrendering enemy, who a few minutes before was intent upon destroying your life and who probably succeeded in blasting life and limbs from numerous soldiers under your command. Such reasoning appears to be crystal clear to a professional mind. The enemy was simply doing his duty, as you are expected to do yours. The more damage he has wreaked, the greater your pride in finally subduing him. . . .

Actually, many a professional soldier cherishes human sympathy for his opponent even before the decisive battle but he dare not give it rein lest it incapacitate him for his destructive mission. . . . Though loyalty is ingrained in him by his professional code and cannot be easily dislodged he may discover in himself, if he is reflective, more genuine respect for the enemy he is annihilating than for a great number of those he is risking his life to protect.
But war itself has changed radically in character. The weapons are no longer the weapons of chivalry. Increasingly, as Gray says, "we cannot fight without an image of the enemy as totally evil, for whom any mercy or sympathy is incongruous, if not traitorous." Under such circumstances, psychological preparation for war becomes most important. So it was in getting ready for the war with Japan, when Japanese men were portrayed in posters as wholly vicious and animal-like, making the killing of them reasonable and good.
If soldiers are completely taken in by this image, it is hard to grasp what their reactions must be when as occupation troops they mingle with the pacified and friendly "enemy." Either they keep detached the wartime image and the peacetime reality, which is what often happens apparently, or they experience in moments when memories intrude, hidden doubts and regrets at previous cruelty. The enemy could not have changed, they must reason, so quickly from a beast to a likeable human being. Thus, the conclusion is nearly forced upon them that they have been previously blinded by fear and hatred and the propaganda of their own government. Rarely does the veteran need to take the blame on himself to any great extent, since the psychical cost is too great.
The soldier, Gray says, is not sickened by the suffering and dying so much as he is by "the brutalization of the emotions and the corruptions of the heart which prolonged fighting brings." He wrote in his diary:
I know that I hate my work in this war, that the war itself is slowly attempting to destroy all that I hold jealously as my own. When I read tonight in the Voekischer Beobachter, which was captured on a prisoner, the words of a German soldier's diary, that he had lost his " Ich," his personality in the long years of this war, I shuddered. He spoke for me. . . . Formerly I had tried to be mild and kind, now I interrogate the miserable civilians and take pride in sternness and indifference to their pleas. Perhaps the worst that can be said is that I am becoming a soldier.
Another diary entry:
How tired of this war I have got so quickly. It breaks my heart to see these Italian homes broken up, miserable people, shivering and naked, torn from all they have in this world. Where is the end?

How I feel about Allied occupation of Italy is difficult to say. When I see, as yesterday, an American soldier walking down the street holding the hands of two Italian children who in turn held two others by the hand, I feel that all will yet be well. But when I hear how 5th CIC in Mondragone is dominated by a cigar-smoking agent who constantly yells: "Hit the f---- bum in the mouth," and "throw the guinea in the clink," and similar expressions, I grow doubtful.
Questions about guilt and responsibility pervade this book. If the enemy is a beast or a devil, who can feel responsible for killing him? Gray writes:
In World War II the number of civilians who lost their lives exceeded the number of soldiers killed in combat. At all events, the possibilities of the individual involving himself in guilt are immeasurably wider than specific deeds that he might commit against the armed foe. In the thousand chances of warfare, nearly every combat soldier has failed to support his comrades at a critical moment; through sins of omission or commission, he has been responsible for the death of those he did not intend to kill. Through folly or fear, nearly every officer has exposed his own men to needless destruction at one time or another. . .

The sober fact appears to be that the great majority of veterans, not to speak of those who helped to put the weapons and ammunitions in their hands, are able to free themselves of responsibility with ease after the event, and frequently while they are performing it. Many a pilot or artilleryman who has destroyed untold numbers of terrified noncombatants never felt any need for repentance or regret. . . . So are we made, we human creatures! Frequently, we are shocked to discover how little our former enemies regret their deeds and repent their errors. Americans in Germany after World War II, for instance, feel aggrieved that the German populace does not feel more responsibility for having visited Hitler upon the world. The Germans, for their part, resent the fact that few Americans appear to regret the bombing of German cities into rubble and the burning and crushing of helpless women and children. It appears to be symptomatic of a certain modern mentality to marvel at the absence of guilt consciousness in others while accepting its own innocence as a matter of course.
For many soldiers, escape from the pangs of conscience comes easily in what Gray calls "the comforting anonymity of the crowd." And in most cases the soldier did not choose to be in the army— he was conscripted. His terrible activities are therefore hardly his own. "Better to let the conscience sleep, to do as the others are doing, and the future will bring what it will." Yet this, as Gray says, "misses all the subtle ways in which guilt is incurred in conflict and made present to the conscience of the minority."
It is a crucial moment in a soldier's life when he is ordered to perform a deed that he finds completely at variance with his own notion of right and good. Probably for the first time, he discovers that an act someone else thinks to be necessary is for him criminal. His whole being rouses itself in protest, and he may well be forced to choose in this moment of awareness of his freedom an act involving his own life or death. He feels himself caught in a situation that he is powerless to change yet cannot himself be part of.
There were actually German soldiers who deserted to serve in the French Resistance because they could no longer stand what they were required to do by the Germans. Gray relates:
In the Netherlands, the Dutch tell of a German soldier who was a member of an execution squad ordered to shoot innocent hostages. Suddenly he stepped out of rank and refused to participate in the execution. On the spot he was charged with treason by the officer in charge and was placed with the hostages, where he was promptly executed by his comrades. In such an act the soldier has abandoned once and for all the security of the group and exposed himself to the ultimate demands of freedom. He responded in the crucial moment to the voice of conscience and was no longer driven by external commands.
What effect did his decision have on the other members of the squad and on the officer in charge? No one can tell, yet a quality of manhood did become evident. And as Gray says: "Were it not for the revelation of nobility in mankind, we could scarcely endure reading the literature of combat." The issue of war is the issue of turning human beings into obedient machines.