A question of some concern among my friends when we were growing up in the fifties and sixties was how old you had to be to go to war. Estimates varied from sixteen or seventeen to the unthinkably distant ages of nineteen or even twenty years of age. Our grandfathers had gone to war before we were born, and so had most of our fathers, and we understood that there was some unstated upper limit, so that if you got to be very old—that is, probably thirty years old—and there hadn’t been a war, you might not have to go when they finally did have a war. For we knew at the age of ten or eleven that war would come because they always had wars, and boys when they grew up always had to go to war. The certainty of going to war lent a melancholy aspect to the future that lay before us. In school we were told the official version of Canadian valour in the trenches, and heard, not for the last time, the claim that Canadians make the best shock troops. Stories of combat in war we learned from American comic books, not from our parents or grandparents, for by that time stories of war were no longer being passed down, and traditions of storytelling had pretty well died out. As Walter Benjamin reminds us, “the men who returned from the battlefields of World War I had grown silent—not richer but poorer in communicable experience.” (Benjamin’s melancholy can be detected in his naming of that war the “first”: he was writing in 1936.) War comics were compelling to read, but they were much grimmer than the westerns that provided the matrix on which we enacted our games of killing and dying in backyards after school. In fact, we never played war games when I was a child, whereas the medieval patterning of the gunfight at the OK Corral could be endlessly elaborated.
When they did have a war, as we had known they would, it turned out not to be “our war” but someone else’s: we were exempted through some fragile arrangement whose source was unclear, one that might be withdrawn at any moment (for in this country all wars begin as someone else’s war). As we turned fifteen and sixteen, the war, which was in Vietnam and was not called a war but a police action, remained precariously at a distance. The young men who were sent to war were called advisors, not troops. And then every month or so during the year that I turned eighteen, another Buddhist monk would drench himself in gasoline and set himself on fire with a Zippo lighter. They were protesting the escalation of the war and corruption in the government. As they burned to death on the TV news, their bodies tilted over to one side and bobbed up again like dharma dolls. When I turned twenty-one, American boys my age were dying in the war at the rate of about seven thousand a year. On the evening news my girlfriend and I watched a man on the street in Saigon fire a pistol into the skull of a man whose hands were tied behind his back: a photograph of this execution became an icon of the war, but the terrible moment on the TV news came in the next few seconds, as the camera followed the collapse of the executed man onto the street, and the jet of blood streaming from the wound in his head spurted into the air and dwindled to a trickle.
My friends and I escaped the war in Vietnam, which grew into a slaughter of vast proportions, but I don’t think any of us were certain that we were really exempt from it until the final evacuation in helicopters from the roof of the American embassy. Some years later, the year that Elvis died, I turned thirty, and the only memory I have of my birthday celebration was the knowledge that I was (probably) too old now to have to go to war.
Today the fragile arrangement that kept my friends and me out of the Vietnam war has been withdrawn, and the war that I won’t have to go to because I’m over thirty is now underway in Afghanistan. This war too began as a distant encounter, not a war but some kind of police action, a few deaths, a treacherous enemy that no one could pin down or identify (in Vietnam the enemy were “communists”; today they are “terrorists”). Suicide monks have been replaced by suicide bombers. The war in Vietnam, like the war in Afghanistan, had been in support of a corrupt “democratic” government. One of the lasting effects of the Vietnam war was the vast expansion in heroin production in the Golden Triangle and the consequent burgeoning of the North American drug markets that were themselves the result of the Opium Wars of the British Empire. (The history of Empire and the history of the drug trade go hand in hand: the British found the market for the poppies of India and Afghanistan by forcing China to open its doors to opium in the first great expansion of the drug market; later the French in Indonesia enlarged the market further.) A similar expansion of the drug trade accompanied American incursions in South America in the seventies and eighties. And now, after a year of war, the poppy fields in Afghanistan are producing ninety-two percent of the world’s heroin. The final price of these wars is exacted in the streets of our cities.
When I was seventeen I sat up one night to watch a bunch of GIs in a World War II movie fight it out with a faceless enemy in the jungles of the Philippines. At some point it becomes clear that all of the GIS in the movie are going to die, which they do, one after the other, in the course of much bloody struggle, until no one remains but the sergeant with his machine gun. As the enemy advances out of a black murk, the sergeant picks up a shovel and digs a trench in the ground. Only when he jams a rifle bayonet down into the trench and props his helmet on it do we realize that he has made his own grave. Then he begins firing his machine gun from where he stands. The advancing hordes sweep over the redoubt. The firing of the machine gun continues long after the death of the sergeant, and the camera continues to roll. I became angry at that point, angry at the camera, which had lost its narrative purchase now that “everyone” was dead. The movie was lying about its own point of view. I began to understand that all war stories are lies, that the truth stays only with the dead, who cannot tell us the true stories of war. “A generation that had gone to school on horse-drawn streetcars,” wrote Walter Benjamin in 1936, “now stood under the open sky in a landscape where nothing remained unchanged but the clouds and, beneath those clouds, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.”