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We Need a New Mythology

By Remy Benoit

War is the ultimate myth and the ultimate death ritual that we walk into with flags flying, brass fanfares, and colossal ignorance.

War is death and destruction, rooted and mythologized in power over a dehumanized enemy.

War is ugly, yet we have painted it with dark beauty.

War is death, yet we have powerful, extravagant, glorified word pictures that call upon our children to be blood sacrifices to protect the community, its ideas, ideals, and its concept of a Creator.

We have perpetrated the myth that there is more intense life in the moment of facing death Pro Patria that in all the endless, seemingly purposeless days of normal life. Summoning that courage to stand with and for your brothers and now sisters in arms, is the stuff of the hero legends surrounding war.

We know that hundreds of thousands of men were vaporized on the crater-pocked, blood soaked, muddied battlefields of World War I. We know that the tides at Normandy beached red with blood. We know, but we do not know because we refuse to understand it. If that were not so, if we chose to know there would have been no complaints that Saving Private Ryan on TV would be too much violence to be aired. Would it be too violent to let children see even this film imitation of war, removed from tactile reality, if we admitted these same children will grow to adulthood to go through the ritual of induction into war?

Is that hypocrisy? Or is there something deeper in our psyche that cannot admit to the underlying blood dark belly of the battlefield? Does it take ignorance of war to become a warrior in the moment of trial?

Warrior is an old word, tormented by thousands of years of images.

David slays Goliath; Roman legions butcher woad painted Celtic warriors. Audie Murphy had 240 kills, wounded and captured many others during World War II.

By definition a warrior is “one engaged or experienced in battle.” Yet in myth, the warrior is so very much more.

He protects the innocent, the community, the nation, and is the ever enduring champion of his god. He has seen evil; he has gone into chaos; he has come to know his own Jungian shadow side; he has made the tortuous journey into his unknown self; he has come out above it all, braver, stronger, and determined to be there again when he is needed.

He has cheated the unknown territory, the unknown mystery of death, but only in part.

Although he may emerge alive, as a breathing, standing, archetypal force, he has already known death — even to the point of knowing that he has lost all of, or some parts of his very soul.

He has learned that when he goes to war, in the company of others, he actually goes alone never knowing as a ‘newbie’ what may be brought up from inside himself to muster to the moment of extremity.

He is often too young to as yet have any idea of the possible person he might have been without the war experience. It is, indeed, true, that no one who has known war emerges the same person. He is perhaps the young man who was told in school that differences must be talked out, not fought out. She is the young woman who learned as a child the Commandment, Thou shalt not kill.

All that was known before is no longer valid.

He, or she, is the person who has gone through a rugged boot camp, designed to strip him, or her, of the pre-military persona whether it be nerd, high school football hero, academic wonder, or prom queen. The warrior training has begun, but it is no longer the tribal warrior training of days gone by;not training to enhance the individual’s skill as an individual entity, but training to become part of a fighting force, the ‘grunt’ of Army military lingo. This young person will not follow the tribal leaders onto the battlefield because the tribal leaders are no longer there, but far, far away with their lower ranking representatives, of representatives, of representatives in place.

When not engaged in total war, these warriors are on their own. There may be letters from home, from strangers as young as elementary school children, but if without the total war effort,deprivation, and impact on the civilian population, the soldiers are left feeling isolated.

They are left alone to face the second of the deaths of war — that of their innocence.

A World War II private said that they were so tightly packed on the amphibious landing boats, so crushed against each other, that they were anxious to get off even knowing the enemy’s bullets were awaiting them. Others de-planed from commercial jets into the war zone in Vietnam,watched the planes take off again immediately to get their private passengers to safety. The feeling of literally being dropped into a war zone while others went off to business or vacation certainly enhanced their feelings of separation from the rest of their nation. They were on their own. Paul Reickhoff wonders in Chasing Ghosts if the soldiers going to Iraq on planes would really be chastised for catching a smoke in the plane’s bathroom. Would the flight attendants who were being nice to them enforce that rule as they were going off to fight, perhaps die, in Iraq?

Vets have said that they went to war because they thought that that was what you did to ‘be a man.’ Many have said that they have learned over the course of the years what that means, but that when they were young and told to be a man, no one ever explained what that meant. Today, with women in the military, new definitions — indeed new mythologies — will have to emerge defining what it means to be a man or a woman. At a time when men are being told to explore their feminine side, women are calling up the warrior side.

In combat, all normal sense of place, order, life rules, and any kind of control over environment as previously known are gone to be quickly replaced with being tested, with falling into the routine of war that finds its own normalcy in filth, extreme wet heat, extreme dry heat, in freezing temperatures, on foreign soil surrounded by foreign ways and language barriers. There is no tomorrow’s dream in combat; only the need to pull up survival skills for yourself, for your buddies; survival skills where you learn that courage is showing up regardless of how much fear, how much terror, how much sense of futility you feel. The very climate can remind you of human frailty, when water is the priority, when dampness rots parts of you, while insects and rodents compete for the rest. Death, the big death, the ultimate death, lies in wait, just down the road; around the corner; in spider holes; in being told to leave foxholes and charge into no man’s land; in tunnels; in IED’s.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I had a student teacher, a retired Chief Petty Officer, who constantly used the phrase, “Let’s look at the big picture when thinking of history.” In the jungle, on the streets of Baghdad, in trenches, or in ice and snow the picture is limited; the hero myth becomes the survival reality, being there for your buddies, being unwilling to show fear, breaking the intensity of the just-ending engagement with dark humor.

The reality is in the staying alive, in the killing. This is no longer the fantasy, the myth, only the reality. Death stinks, eviscerates, dismembers, is blood soaking into the earth, no matter if that earth is covered in snow, in sand, or in mud on the jungle floor. Life bleeds into the earth and out of the combatants, cloying, heavy, the ground unmindful of the end of what that person’s life might have been.

Combat zones are filled with boredom, terror, impatience, pride, disgust, courage, feelings of futility. Friends “go away” right next to you; the ability to connect begins to shut down. Home becomes more distant. The odor of weapons fired mixes with violence, with sexual arousal, with the crumbling of previous personal standards, with the blood lust of the moment. There is no time in combat to mourn the loss of so much self. There is in modern warfare no real transition time coming home to mourn the loss of friends, of so much self. There is the hearing of Get on with it, the war is over for you.

But the war is never over; the measure of its experience is held up against the old mythic image of hero; and the measure is tied to survivor guilt; loss of body parts; of mind parts; of spirit parts; of soul parts.

Audie Murphy who was extravagantly decorated, who was treated as a War Hero when he came home, suffered deeply from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He became a spokesman for the care for Veterans.

War is a HUGE thing for those who know it, military or civilian.

We lack the rituals for coming home. We are not even today permitted to honor the caskets as they come home.

A few get parades. Others have said, “There were no parades for me.”

A wife speaks of a husband who walked the dark streets at night.

A Korean Vet gets the greeting, Oh, you’re back.

A ‘Nam Vet tells a taxi driver he is home from the green and is asked, So what?

They are separate, again.

They can talk with each other, but are asked the abusive question by non-combatants, ‘What is it like to kill someone?’ They have lost trust in any but brothers in arms.

Where are the modern day shamans to heal the wounds?

Are they in the endless waiting lists at the VA?

Are they at the VA where a friend had a psychiatrist who did not know what PTSD was?

Are we all suffering from PTSD since World War II, a mass killing of a scope we cannot wrap our minds around, while we went back for more, many more, wars? Are we all suffering from post-World War II PTSD with its Normandy, Bulge, Dresden, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Inchon, Khe Sahn, Cu Chi, Sarajevo, Baghdad while we go on making more technologically advanced machines and munitions of war; go on making nuclear weapons because we are caught in the treadmill of myths of defending god-kings, kings by divine right, mixing religion with politics and nations with isms that separate? We know that we can destroy most of human life on the planet, but we do not accept it at gut level. If we did, we would move to change it.

We know that if we defoliate greenery, we take away one of the main the sources that turns carbon dioxide into oxygen for us to breathe.

How many of us accept that we have been generating, are generating, our own destruction?

How many of us know what one combat Veteran told me he came to know: the importance of a hot meal, a hot shower, privacy for bodily functions. Those are the verities that come out of combat; that, and knowing that several layers of death have been gone through, and that something of the person has survived. Finding out what has survived is the beginning of another long journey into the mystery, that needs help from all of us, that needs a new mythology. Acknowledging that, in fact, we send men and women to fight; they are not the old gods from Olympus, or their minions; that they are us, just women, just men, asked to do the impossible for nations not grateful enough to care for them in their time of need.

They carry talismans into battle. Perhaps only Holy Water in tiny insecticide bottles in their helmets, or an almost too close bullet pried out of a tree. What talismans will we give them? What mythology of their experience will we re-write until we learn that war is several layers of death of the self, if not total destruction of physical, mental, spiritual self?

We send them off in groups to face themselves and the mission alone; we bring them home and tell them to get on with it, leaving them alone again.

Where is the myth in that? Or is it that there is just the cruelty of ignorance and lack of real attempts to understand what they have been through. We expect them to rise from the ashes of their burned brothers and sisters and souls, day after day. That is not a myth, that is the a horror story that they live through each and everyday.

Is it our thinking that the hero, the warrior protects us, protects and cares for herself or himself, and not us her or him?.

We contribute to the old myth with the dehumanizing language of war; with terms like collateral damage when we mean civilians killed and cities leveled. We have built, through our staying with old, outdated myths, an assembly line, a self-serving, always insatiable assembly line of war that must feed itself to rationalize its own existence. We damn the blood lust when it leads on any side to atrocity, and yet we feed the blood lust with parades, with brass trumpets, with not asking if there is another way.

We really need to examine what myths we are following, what myths need to be re-written. We need to understand that war is ugly, destructive of people, of civilizations, of the very Creation of the god of our choice, or we will continue piling our young as standardized parts on the assembly line of war.

We have boxed ourselves into the war factory; we need new thinking to re-write the mythology of war, not as the ultimate living in the face of death, but to bring ultimate living, instead of dying, to enhance the Creation for all of us. The underlying principles of the new mythology must be power with rather than power over; care of the planet; must be recognition that there is enough for all if we think outside old thoughts and create new myths of ending poverty, greed, misunderstanding.

What is more precious to us; our daughters and sons, or the acceptance of there being no other way than war? Which of those do we choose to know?

Perhaps the old Arthurian Myth can be re-written anew.

Might for Right.

Now Right must be defined by all for the survival of the planet so we may wage peace and compassion.

We can choose to live and create, or to continue the dark dance with the macabre myth of the death ritual of war.

I would really like for you to share your thoughts on this.
Blessings,
Miz' Remy

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Once again Remy you've nailed it. War has to be a commitment by all, not just the soldier fighting it.Until it is, nothing will change.If it does change there will be no more war.

Posted by: Michael kuehlewind, at 2007-03-18 16:53:30



As war veteran I feel Remy Benoit has looked into my mind, and I respect her for it. Edward Falklands war 1982

Posted by: Edward, at 2007-03-18 11:52:52


This item is part of WelcomeHomeSoldier.com: historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.


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