This one’s a little dark. Not a cry for help, just a reflection.
At the recommendation of essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, I went out and got myself a copy of Veronica Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War. It’s the kind of narrative history that I love, built on a strong foundation of primary sources, yet with a dramatic flair that keeps it from being a dry recitation. I loved this book. I’m onto her monograph on the trial of Charles I next.
But reading it also left me feeling like I’d been run over by a train, and that’s what I want to talk about here.
I’ve written a lot of . . . grapplings with what I did in Iraq. They’re here for public scrutiny because I write to communicate, but they’re also letters to myself, exercises to help me claw my way to some kind of understanding of this giant purple gorilla of a thing that’s stamped on history and my role in it.
I think about Iraq a lot, but the truth is that I also don’t think about it a lot. It’s one of those thematic things that are committed to deep memory. The marker pointing to the file is always around, and the right smell or sound or gesture will send the signal to drag it to the surface.
It’s amazing to think that most Americans don’t know a damn thing about the Thirty Years War. It dragged on more than twice as long as our current open-ended and enduring state of conflict (though, who knows if we’ll surpass it) and resulted in the destruction of roughly 40% of the German population, as well as nearly a third of all physical settlements. It also achieved nothing. It wrought no improvements, was easily preventable, and the blame can be laid on what amounts to an aggregation of individual envy, fear and avarice.
At central fault is the military aristocracy high and low, from peasants prosperous enough to pay a blacksmith to beat a tree-pruning hook into a glaive, to princes who believed they were embodying martial virtue in an unbroken line that hearkened back to ancient Rome. They were little more than marauders, ragged thieves and rapists, tribal participants in a culture of misery-by-arms that was tailor built to oppress the many for the benefit of the very, very few. To read this book is to know a litany of desertion and defection, noble values given lip service until the moment they become inconvenient, a cast of characters who think nothing more of a putting a village to the torch than a child does of pulling the legs off a spider.
I hate them. Reading Wedgwood, you would too.
But the other inescapable point of Wedgwood’s text is the universality of this monumental ethical failure. Brave warriors and pious clerics may shine for a moment, but in the next they all betray their allies, forsake their oaths, and pursue personal gain above all else. Her point is abundantly clear: This isn’t a story with heroes and villains. In their utter failure of decency and compassion, everyone is the same.
In Coates’ incredible essay on the subject, Wallenstein is Dead, he writes how studying the Thirty Years War gave him not sympathy for, but an understanding of how Europeans could so easily assuage their consciences enough to establish the slave trade. Coates’ argues against those who see slavery as European civilization failing itself. It doesn’t surprise him at all. This supposedly moral civilization which thought itself superior to those it enslaved descended into uncharted depths of barbarism for absolutely no reason at all in 1618. By the end of the Thirty Years War, once prosperous burghers were boiling their own children for food. With the Peace of Westphalia, they peeked above the morass again for a minute, only to go back under. Anyone who doubts it need only look at a far more enlightened and educated populace embracing the nascent Nazi party on the coat tails of the horror of World War I.
I’m sorry, not them. WE.
Make no mistake, modern America is an unbroken lineage from this legacy. These are my people. My culture. My tradition. My life story.
And this is the truth that makes me feel run over: Not only is this my story thematically, it is my story personally and directly.
I am the marauder. I am the one who sought out the profession of arms, who embraced it, who set my own feet freely on the road from Baghdad to Balad. The Tigris may as well have been the Rhine for all the difference there is in the impetus of the thing. I can argue all I want that “this is different.” I can plunge into specifics and balance on the edge of historical fine points.
It makes absolutely no difference to the more than half million dead Iraqis and their families. There is no reason a woman in al-Adamiyah should think any different of me than a Bohemian goodwife would have thought of the Spanish mercenary Wallenstein hired to set her house on fire. Both of their children are just as dead.
No one is the villain of their own story. I have reasons, good reasons, for why I went and for what I did. At first, I thought it was to protect American security, then for the triumph of secular liberalism over radical theology. When those myths were punctured, I fell back on the bon mot that warriors have used for centuries to justify the unjustifiable. I did it for the guy next to me. I had to take lives to save even more lives.
But the truth is that if you backed Wallenstein or Richelieu or Christian of Brunswick into a corner and demanded they give their reasons, they would provide them with as much certainty and passion as I. To preserve the integrity of the holy church. To protect the honor of the Emperor. To ensure that the bastards that did this to us never did it again.
Like them, I was raised a relative aristocrat: white, educated, able-bodied, wealthy. Like them, that education and culture steeped me in Virtus et Disciplina, funneled me into a vehicle that is designed to marshal violence into a sharpened stick we call “foreign policy” or “sphere of influence” or “the international order.” I had the license and public endorsement to go forth and wreak misery on others.
I say this not to be maudlin, not to wring my hands or shed crocodile tears over who I am and what I’ve done. I only say this, to Coates and to Wedgwood’s ghost: I see it.
There is no conclusion here. Wedgwood’s book and Coates’ essay have not served to convict me, because that would imply that there’s an end to this story, some sense of justice to be wrung out of the cloth.
And there isn’t. It is simply a thing that is. It is set and done. Life is a broken time machine that only goes forward. Each passing second mercilessly sets every mistake we make in amber, indelibly marked on everyone else we interact with for all time, whether it be something as minor as cutting someone off on the highway, or as major as nominating a “target” for a kill/capture mission.
To consider one’s role in a war is to experience Nihilism at its most profound. We can trot out platitudes about hope for the future, or learning from our mistakes. We can talk about atonement and ownership. We can speechify and cry and it doesn’t change a goddamn thing. It doesn’t alter geopolitical reality. It sure as hell doesn’t bring the dead back to life. This broken time machine only takes you to a future where you can reflect and deconstruct and analyze and in the end you can’t do anything. Because in this future you’re headed to, there is no one left to apologize to. The dead don’t care.
Your intentions, your reflections, and your personal growth are so much hot air. You didn’t mean to and it doesn’t matter.
We talk about striving to be better in hopeful tones, but after reading Wedgwood, I wonder if it isn’t more an expression of powerlessness. We change the future not to improve over the past, but precisely because we can’t change it. Because doing something feels better than doing nothing. But we have to remember that the something we’re doing is for us.
Every sword needs a hand to wield it. The hand may change in the details, but it is MY hand. Time pulls the camera back, each year taking the lens a little higher, until you lose the nuances, shades of skin, wrinkles and hairs, a ring here and a bracelet there.
The camera rises, perspective widening and changing with age and input. Then, one day, you don’t see one hand. You see them all, and from this height, they all look the same.