This article originally appeared on the NYTimes.com
By Roy Scranton
FOR a long time after I came home from the war, fireworks made me jumpy. They sounded like what they are, shrieking rockets and exploding gunpowder, and every Fourth of July set off Alert Level Yellow. I’d crack another beer and try to laugh it off even as the friends I was with turned into ghosts of the soldiers I once knew.
Thirteen years ago, I spent the Fourth of July on the roof of a building in Baghdad that had once belonged to Saddam Hussein’s secret police. Our command had suspended missions for the day, set up a grill and organized a “Star Wars” marathon — the three good ones — in an old auditorium. But George Lucas’s lasers couldn’t compete with the light show playing out across Baghdad, and watching a film about the warriors of an ancient religion rising up from the desert to fight a faceless empire seemed, under the circumstances, perverse.
So instead of “A New Hope,” I watched scenes from Operation Iraqi Freedom: tracers, helicopters, distant explosions in a modern city under an increasingly senseless occupation. I could see the United Nations compound that would get bombed later that summer. I could see the memorial to the soldiers who had died in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, a giant turquoise teardrop sliced in two. I could see Sadr City, the wire-crossed slum that would give birth to Shiite death squads, and the Green Zone, where American proconsuls forged a new Iraq.
I was a Bicentennial baby, born in 1976; “Star Wars” was the first movie I saw, strapped in a car seat at the drive-in. The film must have implanted deep in my infant subconscious a worldview, an idea of justice and the desire to wield a light saber, all entangling as I grew older with the Bicentennial celebrating the American Revolution, another story of scrappy rebels fighting a mighty empire.
“Star Wars” managed a remarkable trick. Two years after the fall of Saigon and America’s withdrawal in defeat from a dishonorable war, Mr. Lucas’s Wagnerian space opera recast for Americans the mythic story so central to our sense of ourselves as a nation.
In this story, war is a terrible thing we do only because we have to. In this story, the violence of war has a power that unifies and enlightens. In this story, war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes. Whom we’re fighting against or why doesn’t matter as much as the violence itself, our stoic willingness to shed blood, the promise that it might renew the body politic.
The literary historian Richard Slotkin called this story “the myth of regeneration through violence,” and he traces it from the earliest Indian captivity narratives through the golden age of the western, and it’s the same story we often tell ourselves today. It’s a story about how violence makes us American. It’s a story about how violence makes us good.
Looking out over Baghdad on the Fourth of July, I saw the truth that story obscured and inverted: I was the faceless storm trooper, and the scrappy rebels were the Iraqis.
Did it really take going to Baghdad to learn this? Hadn’t I read about the campaigns against the Cherokee, Nez Percé and Sioux, the long war against Philippine independence, and the horrors of Vietnam? My grandfather served on a Swift boat in the Mekong Delta at the end of his military service, though he never talked about it; hadn’t trying to fill in his silence taught me about free-fire zones, My Lai and hospitals full of napalmed orphans? The bloody track of American history, from slavery to genocide to empire, is plain for all to see. But reckoning with the violence itself was the appeal: I thought I could confront our dark side, just like Luke Skywalker, and come away enlightened.
Veterans and pundits often talk about the military-civilian gap. So few Americans serve, they say, that most of the nation doesn’t have any sense of what that service means. This is superficially true. The military is a professional subculture with its own rituals, traditions and jargon. There’s a military-civilian gap just as there’s a police-civilian gap, an oil rigger-civilian gap, a barista-civilian gap. But that’s not what these vets and pundits mean.
What they’re really claiming is that veterans know something civilians don’t understand or can’t imagine, and that this failure of imagination is a failure of democracy, a failure of dialogue, a failure to listen. What they mean is that veterans have learned something special through their encounter with violence, and civilians need to hear that sacred knowledge. This is where talk about the “military-civilian gap” goes awry.
The truth is, most Americans understand what our soldiers do very well: They understand that American troops are sent overseas to defend American political and economic interests, wreak vengeance on those who have wronged us, and hunt down our enemies and kill them. There is no gap there. The American military has a job, and most of us, on some level, understand exactly what that job is. The American soldier or Marine is an agent of American state power.
The real gap is between the fantasy of American heroism and the reality of what the American military does, between the myth of violence and the truth of war. The real gap is between our subconscious belief that righteous violence can redeem us, even ennoble us, and the chastening truth that violence debases and corrupts.
AFTER the attacks on Sept. 11, American troops were deployed across the Middle East and Southwest Asia for reasons that were confused then and remain dubious today, but on some unconscious level the myth of violence was at work, promising that waging war abroad would heal the wounds suffered that day. We might have to get our hands dirty, but that trial itself would prove our commitment to American values. As George W. Bush said when we invaded Iraq: “We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace. We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others. And we will prevail.”
That’s not how things would turn out, as wiser heads warned at the time, but in the frightened months after Sept. 11, the myth of violence was more powerful than the truth of war. As an American soldier in Iraq, I was both caught up in that myth and released from it: I could see what “the work of peace” really looked like, what American violence did to Iraqi homes and bodies, yet it remained my job to be an agent of that violence — a violence that neither redeemed nor enlightened.
On this Fourth of July, while American violence continues to rain down on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, as we continue to support violent regimes in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and elsewhere by buying oil that we then burn and dump into the atmosphere, precipitously heating the planet, and amid a crucial presidential election, we should ask ourselves what we’re really celebrating with our bottle rockets and sparklers.
There is another version of America beyond the noise our fireworks make: not military strength, but the deliberate commitment to collective self-determination. Perhaps this Fourth of July we could commemorate that. Instead of celebrating American violence, we might celebrate our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the ideals those documents invoke of an educated citizenry deciding its fate not through war but through civil disagreement. Instead of honoring our troops, whose chief virtues are obedience and aggressiveness, we could honor our great dissenters and conscientious objectors. And instead of blowing things up, maybe we could try building something.
It’s our choice. We make our myths. We show by our actions what our holy days mean. Forty years after the American Bicentennial, 13 years after I stood on a rooftop in Baghdad, and 10 years after getting out of the Army, I won’t be out under the fire, cheering our explosions. I won’t be watching “Star Wars” either. My America isn’t an empire or a rebellion, but an ideal; it’s not a conquest, nor a liberation, but a commitment.
Roy Scranton is the author of the forthcoming novel “War Porn” and “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization.”