A bear mauling case was recently entertained by our court system. The litigant claimed that the bear was the property of the United States government, and that it was in fact federal wildlife programs which were responsible for the presence of this dangerous beast on public land. Clearly the government didn't have a prayer, and the woman's restorative and cosmetic treatments were peremptorily reimbursed, plus some compensation for her terror and pain. The intent of punitive damages was, one supposes, to insure that the Department of the Interior is more careful, in the future, with its bears.
What is the world coming to? Back home in Glacier Park they sell you a string of bear bells and send you off into the trees past a sign warning that you are in Grizzly habitat, and that you could be killed. Every year several park visitors are, in fact, ripped to pieces and sometimes eaten by bears: cub huggers, drunks, menstruating campers, the evolutionarily challenged. We feel terrible whenever it happens. We bring out the remains. We shoot the bear. We help the families gather up their stuff. We're really sorry about your wife. Come back soon. Hope your vacation is better next year.
It has never occurred to any of us that you ought to be compensated for feeding yourself to the wildlife.
Something similar popped up last week on the Tucson side of the gigantic Aspen Fire that started on top of Mt. Lemmon, incinerating 350 cabins and 85,000 acres of forest, virtually every shrub in the Santa Catalina Mountain range. As this monster fire spilled over the ridges and down into the foothills on every side, it finally blew into upper Ventana and Sabino Canyons, where the too-rich have their elegant hideaways. The perimeter of the thing must have been several hundred miles long, and with high winds and drought-dried fuel the fire was having its way. Things were looking grim for the daschas of the privileged class. All of a sudden citizens groups were wanting to know who was supposed to be responsible for this fire. Wait a minute. Whose fire is this? What do they intend to do about it? Again, the Jurassic rumble of lawsuits. The helpless fear. So you admit that on the morning of July 7th, your fire crossed this fence and entered onto my client's clearly posted property?
New jurisprudence is surely being flogged into existence today to deal with acts of God which negatively impact peoples' lives. It is abhorrent to the legal system that a U.S. citizen should suffer a wrong and have no recourse to litigation. But God has no money, so blame must be placed on those who failed to warn against or prevent acts of God, thereby becoming God's knowing accomplices in His murderous rampages. Insurance companies are reluctant to write policies against lightning caused deaths, and they absolutely draw the line at hydrogen bombs. Acts of war are similar to acts of God in that there is no getting even for them. Nobody is responsible. War is one of those blame-exempt big things with no accountable party. This is why the families of all the soldiers who get blown to smithereens in foreign wars don't sue the government. Or they didn't up until last week.
We should have seen this coming. Our troops in Baghdad are getting fed up and litigious They feel that they are being unfairly killed and injured by enemy soldiers, and that the Army should do something about it. Many are reservists who have already taken six months out of their busy lives to deal with this Iraq thing for Bush and freedom and all. They are hot and uncomfortable, and people are shooting at them. They were supposed to be home by this time, and now the government has reneged on its agreement and wants them to stay indefinitely. The pay is ridiculous. They have families and jobs to think about. Some of them have begun to opine that the Secretary of Defense does not have the right to prolong their duty or place their safety in jeopardy without any further achievable objective. The parents of a soldier killed in an ambush a few weeks ago have already filed a lawsuit, charging the army with wrongful negligence. The troops, our brave American sons and daughters, have begun to whine. They are stressed and depressed. They want to come home. They are asking for a little support, and as luck would have it we have just spent millions on a bumper sticker campaign making it a patriotic obligation to do just that.
Alarmed senior officers, trying their best to sound like old warhorses, have leaped to the defense of the fiction that this is a real, bona-fide, teeth-clenching war and these people are real soldiers and had by god better shut up and get back in their foxholes. But it's an increasingly tough sell. We haven't had a military quagmire in thirty years, or a real war in sixty.
Our job, which is indeed ours whether we like it or not, is no less than to "successfully" occupy a huge Arab country for a very long time, seizing their wealth without making them angry at us. Shiite mobs are growing increasingly surly, and the world, which advised us strongly against creating this situation, is not offering to help. They are watching, I imagine, with some amusement to see what we're going to do next. Lacking a better idea, we are still holding the Iraqis at gunpoint. Our Arabic-speaking personnel are only in their third week of language school, but should be ready to communicate with the locals on our behalf in less than two years. Some clumsy effort is underway to set up a puppet government, but the Iraqis don't appear to be much interested in it. It is hard to argue that our primary objective is other than to occupy their country and maintain a pretense of gradual democratization while in fact siphoning off their oil and taking control of their economy, yet doing this in such a way that nobody notices. You'd think this would require a certain expertise, but with the exception of Halliburton and the Beagle Boys there doesn't seem to be any. The soldiers are confused. The chiefs are confused. Nobody on the team has ever done this before. The plan seems to be to keep loading the loot into the U-Haul, telling the natives they have been liberated not occupied, telling the troops they are warriors not thieves, telling the world it's none of their business, telling American mothers that 1-2 of their sons are losing their lives every day because of diehard Saddam loyalists and not because grass roots Iraqi guerrillas are less gullible than we are here in the States, and more inclined to believe their own eyes.
Foreign tours of duty just aren't the rite of passage they used to be. Montgomery Clift would be ashamed of us. I recently spoke with him on the phone. He said "Tell the troops this:
So you wanna be so'jers do you, you disappointing goddamn sissy girls? What did you have in mind? A virtual Humvee where you stand up and zero in on some poor fucking evildoer with your laser guided rocket propelled grenade launcher and blow him into pink mist over and over until you run out of quarters? I'll bet so.
I'll bet that sitting around in a flak jacket in 120 degree heat surrounded by millions of Muslims about whom all you know is what they told you in some demented army training film, all of whom, for reasons that escape you, wish that you were dead, was also not part of the fantasy. It isn't exciting and dangerous, it's boring and dangerous. You ran out of conversation months ago. Your job, apparently, is to stand out in front of something that needs guarding, dressed up to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, waiting for the surprise sniper shot to the neck that redirects your circulatory system, removes you from the story and replaces you with a $6000 check to your wife and a folded flag so your kid will remember that you were capped for freedom. Or the sudden ambush, the pass-fail combat training pop quiz of two seconds' duration, that when you flunk they pack you up like a duty-free souvenir and ship you home for your long, long dirt nap. Our guys in Vietnam experienced that astonishing transformation from 57,000 live human beings with families and futures to 57,000 asterisks of smoking entrails so that a pack of pompous liars could make it into the history books. Maybe you should have checked with them before you enlisted.
The magic isn't working, is it? It doesn't feel like Pork Chop Hill. Your beady-eyed Commander-in-Chief says "bring 'em on!", only instead of his cocksure ass on the line, it's yours. You're beginning to feel less like Audie Murphy every day, and more like a chump for Mobil-Exxon.
It isn't just Leon Uris that is dead. It's war that is dead, so'jer. War, at least, as you imagined it from The Young Lions and Devils in Baggy Pants, full of blazing action, moral clarity, opportunities for heroism and men doin' what men gotta do. American wars are more like turkey shoots these days. The heavy artillery and smart bombs do most of the work of blowing your largely imaginary enemies into even greater nonexistence. They seem to use you dogfaces mainly to guard gas stations and bully civilians. If it weren't for the snipers your only killed and wounded would be from jeep accidents and swallowing chicken bones. And that wouldn't look very much like war to the folks back home, now would it?
It's just as well this isn't the test of manhood you had hoped it would be. At the current casualty rate you'd have to stay in Baghdad for 150 years to take as many hits as we did in Vietnam. Looking back, it seemed like Vietnam was a real war, although we didn't think so at the time. (The government called it a "police action". The Constitution apparently has some verbiage to the effect that Congress is supposed to decide whether the nation goes to war, but in those days we were unaware that the Founding Fathers were just kidding.) Unlike today, our adversaries had weaponry comparable to our own, their chief arms suppliers being bushwhacked American soldiers. We had the edge as long as we went after villages with helicopters and napalm and counted dead eight year olds as enemy casualties, but the NVA and Viet Cong were more into the guerrilla thing. They took hits at twenty times the rate of our troops, and that was fine with them. They kicked our honky asses out of their country and into an emasculation funk that is with us to the present day, Because to them it was war. It was about survival and freedom and resisting aggression. They were Robert Ryan and Charles Bronson and Aldo Ray and Tom Hanks - up against the limits of human courage and endurance - and we were a pack of frightened, pot smoking schoolboys missing out on the sexual revolution, stuck in a place where we had no business, hoping only to survive long enough to rotate home and dry the microbiology out from between our toes.
The lesson of Vietnam was this: Avoid real wars. Never go after anybody who is seriously equipped to fight back. Call them wars if that makes you feel more manly, but when the people you are butchering start counting coup back on you it's time to split.
So that's your problem, so'jer. You don't feel like a so'jer because you aren't really a so'jer and you aren't really in a war. If you get killed it will be because you volunteered to barge into someone else's reality at the behest of a gang of oil pirates and to present yourself to their victims as their surrogates. If you get killed it will not be because you are at Normandy or Dunkirk or Iwo Jima but because you represent assholes. Because you haven't got the imagination to lose the wraparound mirrored sunglasses and catch a plane back to Colorado Springs.
Moreover, beyond the creeping chagrin you must be feeling that you also were patsies and that the guts and glory you were promised turned out to be as bogus as Florida swamp land, I should tell you that even the fantasy they didn't deliver was bogus. You don't want to be a so'jer... really. Six hundred so'jers died yesterday in Liberia, and I'll bet you couldn't tell me what it is they were fighting about that made them go to such trouble to become the fly-covered corpses that are lying around the streets of Monrovia tonight. You feel like it's dangerous where you are, and you have only lost 200 men in the whole war (and "peace"). At the Battle of Sommes in 1916 the British lost 30,000 men in the first half hour! That was without bunker buster nukes or daisy cutter bombs - just crank-operated machine guns, potato masher grenades, primitive artillery and bayonets. Those were so'jers.
You couldn't, you know, handle that. And neither could your mothers."