The War Memorial at San Diego State stands in the middle of a broad, otherwise empty expanse of concrete, just west of the campus’s central corridor. The triangular obelisk is smooth, except at the top, where it remains rough-hewn, as if to symbolize the unfinished quality of the lives of those it memorializes.
In the bloody history of the world, there have been those who regarded death in battle, in the midst of heroic service to country, as the very best kind of death. A memorial built by such men would not symbolize anything unfinished — the race was run, the good fight fought. True, there was much the warrior would not do, but he could not have hoped to do anything better than what he had done already.
I doubt that such an attitude prevailed in those who raised this memorial. The inscription is telling: In Memory of our Classmates Whose Lives Were Taken From us During our Nation’s Military Conflicts. There is in this some notion of the community — the lives were taken from “us,” not “them” — but those lives were “taken during military conflicts,” not given in the service of country. There is a great difference between the two—the former is standoffish, putting “our nation’s conflicts” and their lethal effects at arm’s length. There is no mention of the deceased’s intention to serve the country we inhabit, no implication of any benefit to us that their deaths provided. It also robs death of virtue; though death is always suffered, if life is given, a generous act of will is implied. When life is merely taken, there is no excellence in it A chilly senselessness creeps in.
At the small college I attended, there was much talk of the common good—a good that did not inhere in any particular member of a political body, but rather, informed the whole, making that whole in some way greater than the sum of its parts. Man could only be perfected in community, so the common good was superior to the individual good and could therefore require that certain individual goods be sacrificed for its sake. The greatest of these was life. Dying for your country was the finest expression of your belief that the community was something greater than yourself.
We read abstract writings, discussing the principles set forth, right up to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But the March 15 SDSU Daily Aztec contained a student editorial that essentially stripped Lincoln’s principles regarding the Civil War down to this: It’s all about the money. A long way from God and country. I find Mazyck, Aazaar, and Vince hanging out in front of the campus bookstore and ask them about war, patriotism, and the like.
Is there such a thing as a “just” war?
Mazyck: “In whose eyes is it just? Most of the time, it seems to me like it’s a conspiracy. It’s like some stuff that we don’t even know about is the real reason we’re going to war. Like the Gulf War — they tried to make it seem like something, but it was really over some oil. A lot of people don’t know it, but George Bush has stocks in oil in Kuwait. He was protecting his investments. The only reason we dip into other people’s business is for our gain.”
Aazaar: “I think it’s all politics and doesn’t have a whole lot to do with us. Then they try to pump people up to go to war for the country and everything.”
Mazyck: “Right, but the country isn’t even the reason for being there.”
Aazaar: “Basically, today, it’s all about money. If the country is in a situation where it’s economically threatened and we need to stay afloat, then, naturally, they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do. But as far as butting into other people’s business and stuff, trying to be some kind of supreme being, we’ve got no right to do that.”
Vince: “It seems like America is just picking on niggers, because they know they can do that shit — like a bully. Like maybe telling Iraq they can’t make missiles like we have, so they can’t defend themselves — that’s some bullshit.”
Have we ever entered a war for the right reasons?
Aazaar: “World War II; that’s it, in my book.”
Mazyck: “They bombed Pearl Harbor. They came into our ’hood.”
Aazaar: “We tried to stay out of it. I don’t know if we knew what was going on over there as far as Jews being killed and everything; I think their motives were only after the Japanese came and bombed us. But I think, as a whole, I’m glad somebody put a stop to that mess, whether or not their intentions were to stop Hitler himself.”
Would you ever go to war?
Aazaar: “I would never go to war. I was watching some footage from Vietnam with my boss the other day, and I said, ‘I would never go to war.’ She said, ‘I hope you never have to.’ I said, ‘No, you don’t know — I would never go to war. I don’t care who thinks I should.’ I’m not killing somebody just because the president says I should. I don’t believe in killing.
“I’m not disrespecting anyone who feels that they should go to war to fight for their country, but I personally don’t think it’s worth it. When you get back, I don’t see how you could feel better about yourself. If you believe that killing is wrong, it’s like, what political aspect changes those circumstances? Killing is wrong, but you can kill them?
“As far as other countries and stuff, what goes on in the world, I don’t really do a whole lot of research on that. I’m not really interested in it; but I’m not there. That’s one of the main reasons why I wouldn’t [go to war].”
Would you go to jail if you were drafted?
Aazaar: “If somebody wanted to lock me up because I didn’t want to go kill somebody in another country for no reason, I’d kill that person way before I’d kill some person that’s just doing the same thing they’re trying to get me to do.”
Mazyck: “I’d go to Canada before I’d go to war. I will sell drugs before I go into the Army.”
Vince: “Especially for this country.”
Is patriotism a virtue?
Mazyck: “In this day and age, man, I don’t think there really is patriotism, honestly. I think that shit has fallen off, because a lot of people are on their own agendas, and there’s a lot of influx of other countries — immigrants.”
Aazaar: “It’s not really about being American anymore. It’s about making money now. It’s about being an entrepreneur, stuff like that”
Vince: “Patriotism, I think, is back when America was all together — when it was America. Now, there are so many different people; America isn’t together anymore.”
Mazyck: “No other country is more diverse—white, black, Indians, Japanese — and it creates racism.”
Vince: “You’ve got hate, so how are you going to have patriotism when you’re seen as a minority and you’re treated wrong? It doesn’t make you want to take a bullet for that country.”
Mazyck: “It’s hard for me to get a job. How can I have patriotism when I can’t even get a job because of my skin color?”
Aazaar: “It’s all propaganda. The media wants us to look at ourselves like we’re the saviors of the world. But if you go to another country, that country is the savior of the world, and we’re the enemy. We look for the bad guys in all the other countries, and Hitler was definitely one of the baddest, but they don’t want to admit to anything that went wrong here. So why should we stand up and just be all excited about defending the country when they won’t even admit that they’ve been screwing us for our entire existence here?”
Mazyck: “And the little people die. The motherfuckers in charge, they live to be 100. We’ve got 18-year-olds getting killed.”
Do you owe anything to this country?
Aazaar: “I think this country owes me; I should be getting compensation.”
Vince: “I see Native Americans getting all kinds of checks; they aren’t giving me anything. They don’t give the niggers anything — for real.”
Aazaar: “But still, even a check — I mean, I know this one guy who gets, like, $500 a month or something because he’s Native American. But still, what’s that? Almost an entire race was killed — it’s like one percent of the population or less is Native American now, and he gets $500 a month, and he’s supposed to be happy with that? I don’t think there’s anything you could really do to satisfy people.”
Vince: “I think you owe someone when they do you a favor. No favors have been done. No one asked to come here, and now that we’re here — help a nigger out, you know what I mean?”
What would you die for?
Aazaar: “I’d die for my family, or anyone I loved, or something I strongly believe in. I don’t believe in dying for my country.”
Vince: “I’d die for my country, but I don’t believe America is my country. I’d die for my people.”
Mazyck: “I’d die for my family. I’d die for my beliefs, too. If some Hitler shit popped off over here, and they were trying to lock all the black people up, I’d die for some shit like that. Or if someone was trying to enforce a religion on me, I wouldn’t go for that. If Mormons took over and they said to everybody, ‘You’re going to be Mormon or die,’ I’d die, man. Because you’re going to be judged, and if your religion isn’t straight, you aren’t cool.”
Aazaar: “Anything immoral. If something is happening right before your eyes, and you know it’s wrong, and you can do something to stop it, I think it’s worth putting life down for that. But if two guys in charge of two countries have a disagreement, they should get together and duke it out. That would be the tightest world event ever, Saddam Hussein versus Bill Clinton.”
Aazaar’s flippancy reveals an awareness of his assessment’s oddity: international tension as a simple disagreement between two guys who happen to be in charge of two countries. But it also catches an attitude — that political strife is at the same time both totally removed from the actual lives of citizens — “it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with us” — and intensely personal, the result of a conflict of personal interests — Bush’s stocks in Kuwaiti oil, disagreements between Clinton and Hussein. (Echoes of the removed quality in the War Memorial’s inscription.) There is little room for a genuine interest in the welfare of the nation — let alone other nations — and while general economic welfare is not dismissed, it is not worth dying for.
Marvin, another student, offers an immediate departure from the preceding attitudes, saying that a war is just if it is fought to stop “the spread of communism and protect democracy. That’s what I think, and if you ask me to justify it, too bad, because I can’t.” (He does lament communism’s tendency to be implemented in such a way that the general populace is stripped of its rights.) “I don’t know if we have a right to intervene, but we seem to anyway, just because we’re the world’s police force. It’s not so much if it’s right; we’re the coolest country there is, so we can pretty much do whatever we want. You’ve got to be proud of your country, or else, go live somewhere else.”
Do you owe your life to this country?
“I suppose so. If I was born in some shithole country like China or something, then Td be screwed, because they’ve got nothing over there except lots of bicycles.”
I was struck by Aazaar’s denial of any kind of moral shift when killing is done in the service of country as opposed to the service of self, and I ask Marvin about it. “It’s a different mentality. If I shoot [this guy across the table], that’s different from some guy on a battlefield trying to kill me before I kill him. It’s kill or be killed; there’s no two ways around it.” This boils down to self-defense, which doesn’t make things easier for the sniper taking out an unarmed head of state.
Throughout, Marvin seems about to smile, as if he is pulling my leg, but it never quite shines through. Aaron seems to take the question more seriously and entertains an interesting notion of the good old days. “ [Wars are not just] anymore. Wars in the old days used to be about religious battles, and I suppose if people have those kinds of convictions, that’s cool. Not that I’m hardcore religious or anything. Wars today are all based on politics, so I don’t think there’s anything just about that.”
Again, politics as a distant rumble, far removed from life. The common good, a political notion, is nowhere to be found. “Perhaps there is some sort of common good somewhere, but I’m way too cynical to believe that anyone in politics is going to [work for it]. They’re going to define the common good for their ends. If there are political ends, they’re definitely going to be self-serving. If interventions in other countries are politically motivated, I don’t find that justifiable, and I don’t see us getting involved unless we have some interest at stake. If it’s for humanitarian issues, I may have to reconsider my stance.”
Do you owe this country anything?
“I think I owe this country something. I think what I’m doing now, becoming a student, getting a job, doing the whole capitalism thing— I think that’s what I owe this country. I don’t have to go off and kill someone out of duty to my country. It’s bad enough that I’m selling out by getting a job and all that. I don’t feel any duty to go off and fight.”
An offhanded comment from another student ends the conversation as it begins: “War is good. If it’s for the economy, that’s good. If you have to do it, you have to do it. If the economy ain’t going good, make it better. It’s natural selection, survival of the fittest.”
“I’d go to Canada before I’d go to war,” says Anthony. “I’d definitely dodge the draft immediately. I’m just not into the whole violence thing. And I like discipline, but I don’t like in-your-face, orderly, everybody doing the same thing, same haircut, all that.”
Chris, standing next to Anthony, thinks that the common good exists “probably less every year. Everybody works harder for themselves than they do for their country or their cities. It’s get what you can while you’re able to. I don’t mind it; that’s what I do. I guess you could say it’s kind of selfish or whatever, but that’s what you have to do to make it big. I guess I owe this country something. I really wouldn’t know; I’ve never lived anywhere else, so I can’t compare.”
Anthony counters, “We live in the best place in the world, that’s for sure, so you probably owe your country a little bit, but that doesn’t mean you owe going to some war you don’t believe in.” Adds Chris, “I don’t owe them my life. Like in some countries, people die for their country, and I guess that’s this country’s motto if you’re in one of the services.”
Anthony: “I’d die for my family. Honestly, I’d die for my country if it was the right reason. You have to defend what’s yours. But you can’t fight for something you don’t believe in. Then you’re just asking to get killed, because you’re not fighting with your heart. You’re just fighting because you were told to.” The primary political unit — the family — is still recognized as providing concrete goods, inspiring genuine loyalty, a willingness to sacrifice life. Beyond that, things get fuzzy. Many cast aspersions on the idea of going to war only to protect our interests; others, like Anthony, think it’s the only justifiable reason—“you have to defend what’s yours.”
Jim feels much the same way. War is just “if we have something to lose, yes. But to go into other countries to support democracy? I don’t think that’s just I think they’ll come around, and I think there’s other solutions besides fighting.”
Would you oppose an unjust war?
“I’ve never opposed a war. I thought Desert Storm was great because of the pictures and stuff. I got into it more as if it was a movie than real life. I would oppose war if I saw a reason to oppose it, like if there was just senseless violence.”
One last try at the moral shift that supposedly occurs during wartime — is there a difference? “I think people are so desensitized by death now, it just doesn’t really matter. Murder rates are still up, and I think it’s just because...whatever, ‘Your life is nothing to me.’ So even if you’re fighting in wartime, that guy’s life means nothing to me either.”