Monday, October 18, 2004

‘Into the Valley of Death’

The mutiny of a platoon in Iraq throws a burning light on our feelings about war. They did not question the morality or wisdom of it; they just objected to the lack of body armor and protection. They called it a suicide mission. The army doesn’t deny their complaints, but sticks to the motto -- theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die.

Actually, if soldiers didn’t run away there’d be none left to tell the tale. Over the week-end, I saw a rerun of "The Red Badge of Courage," about a young soldier who runs away from his first encounter with enemy fire. For a change, this one’s about the brave Union army -- usually, it’s the rebels who are the good guys. And the picture has a happy ending. The hero comes back to rejoin his comrades on the line. Ready, aim, fire -- fix bayonets, charge -- beat the drums, seize the flag from fallen comrades, charge again. The red badge of courage is a bullet wound in the heart.

So in the end this tragic film glorifies war. It was written about the time that Kipling was calling upon America to pick up the white man’s burden and rule the world. The thin red line -- into the valley of death rode the 600 -- theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die. History tells us that that charge in the Crimea was a total defeat for the empire. It was an act of lunacy, as Bob Herbert writes of the war in Iraq.

That is plain to see in the news every day, but the perpetrators can’t take the blame. There will be a court martial and heavy sentences, to set an example. It does not seem to have occurred to the platoon sergeant to apply his intelligence to the wisdom or morality of the war, but he evidently has a sense of humor. What can they do to us, he asked -- send us back to Iraq?