The Pacifist's Conundrum

DUMMERSTON - I was watching a "M*A*S*H" rerun on television the other night when the oddest thing came on: a commercial for the Army. "Be Army strong" a hearty male voice boomed as images of soldiers doing soldierly things filled the screen.

Fans of the show, which went off the air in 1983 as one of the most successful television sitcoms of all time, know that it's an anti-Vietnam War program set in a mobile medical unit in Korea during the Korean War.

As the generals on both sides, puffed up by their machismo, argue about the size and shape of the peace negotiations table (or was that in Vietnam?), doctors and nurses close to the front perform "meatball" surgery in an improvised operating room and struggle to keep an endless stream of wounded young soldiers alive.

"M*A*S*H," which now serves as a perfect metaphor for the war in Iraq as well as Vietnam, is the last place you would expect to see an advertisement for the military. But as we know, the military is desperate.

We're recycling our soldiers so that they are doing two, three and sometimes four tours of duty in Iraq. We have raised the recruiting age to 42 and reduced the educational requirement. We are putting criminals in uniform. We have raided the National Guard in every state. After the recent Kansas tornados, the governor went on the air to accuse the current administration of depleting the Kansas National Guard so badly that its first-response ability was hampered by a lack or manpower and equipment.

And still, we are so short of soldiers that we are paying an army of more than 100,000 mercenaries to fight alongside our soldiers in Iraq.

This week, well after the president's 30,000-troop "surge," the Pentagon called up 35,000 more soldiers to support its failed policy in Iraq.

I know what these men and women will face there, and it breaks my heart.

They say generals always fight the last war, but the last big American war, Vietnam, was a guerilla war very similar to the one in Iraq. And the generals don't seem to have learned a thing.

America is an incredibly rich nation with a huge military budget. It spends more on its military than all the other nations in the world combined, and that includes China's space program. We have a huge Air Force and Navy with planes and ships that can do amazing things. We have bombs - including nuclear ones - by the ton. We're building weapons that can shoot down from outer space missiles which only exist in the heads of our paranoid leaders and the Congressional representatives of the states that build them.

But occupying and fighting a guerilla action on the ground in a country that doesn't want to be occupied has stretched us to our very limits. Thanks to the Bush administration, the whole world can see that short of mounting a nuclear attack, the United States is a muscle-bound, helpless giant writhing on the ground in chains.

It's a pacifist's conundrum. I hate the waste of war. I hate the killing. I hate the pain. I believe, as John Kenneth Galbraith said, "War remains the decisive human failure."

But I'm not naive. I don't believe that everyone in the world will beat their swords into plowshares and that we'll all live as brothers and sisters in peace and harmony.

Speak softly and carry a big stick, said President Teddy Roosevelt. I agree. America needs a strong military - a
reality-based, well-equipped, well-paid and well-trained military.

We need one even though we're not in imminent threat of attack. For example, if China wanted to take us down, it has only to convert its huge dollar holdings into Euros, stand back and watch our economy collapse. Russia may be a threat again in the future, but it is not a real threat now. And I doubt very much if al-Qaida operatives are planning to cross the ocean in little gun boats to attack our shores.

Our guns and missiles won't protect us now that other countries have figured out ways to defeat us with box cutters and car bombs.

Iraq has bankrupted us in every way - morally, spiritually, economically and manpower. We have built the largest military in the world and we are helpless. What are we afraid of? Peace?

How do we pull ourselves back? How do we undo a century of empire-building, of greed, arrogance and lust? How do we undo decades of addiction to military spending that seems to pay for everything except for the boots on the ground?

We need a fundamental shift between protecting our nation and projecting an empire. Since we took Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War, we've been pursuing the course of empire. Now, at the end game of that misguided policy, we are depleting our wealth and our human resources to maintain it.

We need a military and we don't have one anymore. It's broken and it will take decades to rebuild. We might not have the time.

Joyce Marcel is a journalist and columnist based in Vermont. A collection of her columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through And write her at

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