Clean War

A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper taxis down an Afghanistan runway Nov. 4, 2007.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper taxis down an Afghanistan runway Nov. 4, 2007. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

A Caucasian hit man named Vaggan in a Tony Hillerman murder mystery, The Ghostway (1984), kills to cleanse.  After a nighttime hit, he arrives home to shower, relax, sleep, exercise, and eat a healthy breakfast of wheat germ, alfalfa sprouts, and cheese.  Sprawling, decaying Los Angeles, with its swarming minorities and choking smog, is his base of operations.  He works for crime bosses who get rich dealing drugs, stealing cars, and sharking loans.  He kills deadbeats, using his earnings to buy weapons and build a bunker.  He anticipates the day of the falling missiles, when hydrogen bombs will burn the city clean and sterilize a rotting civilization:  “blood, death, fire, chaos, honor, and new beginnings.  ‘Nietzsche for thought, Wagner for music,’ his father would say” (pp. 122-123).  Götterdämmerung, Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, inspires Vaggan, who expects to survive the curing ceremonial of the impending holocaust.

Clean war (to revivify the dead metaphor of just war) is the work of the gods.  Dirty wars are oxymoronic at best.  They conjure an image of evildoers, which is problematic when the perpetrators are our own warriors.  Dirty Wars, the Oscar-nominated documentary and winner of the 2013 Sun Dance Film Festival award for cinematography, spotlights this very problem with America’s war on terror.  The war crimes of Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama and his Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) are uncovered and exposed for public condemnation.  The film, featuring the investigative journalism of Jeremy Scahill, unfolds in the style of a conspiracy thriller.  JSOC is a “shadowy outfit” with a growing “hit list” and a presidential order to kill.  These special forces are “assassins” killing innocent civilians in the night, “war masters” fighting a war of terror, which extends from home invasions, torture, and murder to drone strikes.  They make America look like a terror state, until they kill Osama bin Laden—the human face of the rising devil in the 9/11 smoke image—to earn official recognition and nervous public acclaim.

If dirty war is bad, clean war is okay by implication.  Condemning dirty wars indirectly affirms wars that conform to the rules.  Rule-governed war is justified war.  War itself—as a human institution and the pride of patriots—is obliquely redeemed by the negative examples of rogue soldiers (and the war crimes of enemies).  Eschewing dirty war doesn’t make a positive case for war so much as it performs a ritual of purification.

Purifying rituals return us to a state of harmony with nature and put us back in touch with the divine.  They sustain a people troubled by the great issues of life and death and the recurring temptations of pillage and plunder.  They are an enactment of mythology as a “control system” (Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space), with the ironic outcome of glorifying militarism instead of awakening the spirit embedded in the opening image of Ephesians—an image that beckons us to acknowledge our own trespasses, to transcend the tribal passion of wrath, and to break down the walls of division and hostility so that humanity might reconcile and live more peacefully in world community.


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