The ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ and Other Consoling Fictions

By Dr David Laing Dawson

I understand the families of soldiers killed in war must find ways of understanding their loss, their grief, of honouring their sons and daughters, their husbands, brothers, sisters. I understand that those who send these young men and women into war must find ways, beyond guilt and despair, of understanding, of justifying their responsibilities.

I understand that when most of us conclude that the war in question was unnecessary, foolish, and tragic, the families and generals must double down on their consoling fictions.

General John Kelly, as a military commander who sends young men and women into war zones, and who lost a son in Afghanistan has as much a need as anyone to find consoling fictions. And in his recent press conference defending Donald Trump he did just that. He elevated the fallen, those killed in battle, to a very restricted strata of society, the best of the best. He lessened his guilt by emphasizing that these young people know what they are signing up for, that they are fully aware they may be sacrificing their lives, that they do it for “love of country”.

I understand his need to think as he thinks, to imagine his son sitting with Athenian Gods in a Parthenon of heroes. It is no less a fiction than the stories told to ISIS fighters, and to all young men and women in totalitarian states.

We must grieve and honour these soldiers and console their families. We must do this in a way that does not perpetuate the myth of glory, that does not undermine the more important message, “never again”. We must do this in a way that does not perpetuate the fictions of a warrior culture.

For it is these fictions, “the ultimate sacrifice” for “love of country” as a “choice made by the best of the best” by fully cognizant young men and women, by a special elevated breed of human — it is these fictions that will allow us to go to war again, nay, require us to go to war again.

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