What does it take to convince young men to take up arms and go into battle against other young men who they do not know, with whom they have no quarrel, and at the risk of their most precious possession: their lives. History may judge that on occasion the cause was just and the price was commensurate with the outcome. But more often than not, it was the case that what was involved was not justice, or freedom, or the liberation of the oppressed, but the failure of a couple of megalomaniacs who didn’t gave a damn about the price paid by others who were called upon to serve as their proxies in a senseless macho pissing contest.
In the novel All Quiet On the Western Front, published in 1929 between the two World Wars, Erich Maria Remarque describes the following dialogue between soldiers in the trenches during the first World War:
Paul Bäumer: “You still think it’s beautiful to die for your country. The first bombardment taught us better. When it comes to dying for country, it’s better not to die at all.”
Katczinsky responds, “I’ll tell you how it should all be done. Whenever there’s a big war comin’ on, you should rope off a big field… ”
A cigar-smoking soldier injects: “And sell tickets.”
Katczinsky continues: “Yeah. And on the big day, you should take all the kings and their cabinets and their generals, put ’em in the center dressed in their underpants, and let ’em fight it out with clubs. The best country wins.”
In the novel, “Everybody murmurs in agreement.”
It was a good idea then, but didn’t stop the second World War. It’s still a good idea, and I suggest the next international dispute be settled by such a contest staged at the United Nations in New York City while the whole world watches on television.
A couple of egos may be bruised, but a lot of lives may be saved.
Today’s (r)evolutionary music features Richie Havens’ performance of “Handsome Johnny” to remind us that young men pay the price for the shortcomings of their leaders.