My colleague, the maestro Jeff Thomson—an astounding painter and scene designer—is fond of re-enacting an old comic skit by the great Jonathan Winters. Winters plays an army general who is giving a speech for his troops before going into battle:
“I wanted to be with you, but they need me here. However, I will be observing through heavy lenses.”
Like Winters’ general, we are fond of using other people—sometimes foreign, but local to the theater of war—to fight our wars. We arm them, provide them with a meagre subsistence, praise them with idealistic rhetoric, and send them into battle while we watch—judgmentally—through heavy lenses. This cynical strategy usually ends up badly for the combatants.
There is the case of the Apache warrior Chato, for example, who after serving as a scout for the U.S. Army in its campaign against Geronimo in the late nineteenth century, was packed off to the same prison of St. Augustine in Florida along with the rebellious Chiricahuas after Geronimo’s final surrender.
In the mid-twentieth century there was the Bay of Pigs during the Kennedy administration. A brigade of 1600 Cuban exiles was armed and trained in Guatemala for an invasion against the Castro regime. The brigade was assured by the CIA that “We’ll be right behind you!” if anything went wrong in facing Castro’s army of 200,000. Meanwhile, Kennedy was affirming that there would be no US support for an armed engagement in Cuba. When the invasion resulted in a fiasco, and the Cuban “mercenaries” (as Castro referred to them) were defeated, Kennedy explained to the brigade leaders that no matter what they were told, or what they understood they were told, he could not have aided the invasion for fear the Russians would move against Berlin (this was during the time of the Berlin Wall).
At other times, when the cards do not fall our way, we are surprised and aghast when the foreign fighters do not share our agenda, and that they object to being slaughtered in the name of US National Security. This was the case of the ARVN during the Vietnam War—one of those foreign armies we proposed to use but could never force to align with our intentions. The ARVN never got the “Vietnamization” part—they were supposed to be, but never completely behaved, like a US Army serving US interests. We observed—through heavy lenses—the fall of the American colony we had built, financed and fought for in South Vietnam.
When we cannot find anyone to fight for us, then we appeal to the poor and the patriotic—never to the rich, or to the sons and daughters of politicians, or to those who think of the country as a trough for their own consumption—to take up arms for their country. And the poor and the patriotic do so. And pay the price, and bear the burden of the war, and are not stumped by our cowardice and worthlessness, while we observe through heavy lenses.
If it is true that ISIL (I shall not use the name of the ancient Egyptian goddess, mother of hieroglyphs, to refer to them) is composed of “psychopathic terrorists” (words of the English Prime Minister), if the threat is real and the danger imminent, should not the war be financed by those who will profit from it? Should not ALL our sons and daughters be enlisted in the ground crusade rather than foreign armies?
If ISIL is a True Devil risen in the Middle East, we must drop our heavy lenses, and join the fray.