Subtext: The price of fidelity — who pays?

[Another building block. I’ll come back to the farmer –as you may have guessed, the parallel is to Sparkhouse–, but I’m proceeding on here with the serviceman because of Strike Back.]

As many of the commentators to the previous post noted, the picture of the serviceman as someone who will always save you is highly problematic given the actual nature of life and human interaction in the armed services. These organizations use coercive means on their own members to forge them into units that in turn exercise violence upon others in the interest of the sponsoring state. Their internal dynamics are cruel, especially to those who (often despite their own best efforts) can’t fit themselves or certain aspects of their lives into the self-portrait of the group. Their ends and means usually can’t help but be highly questionable, even when the cause is perceived as just. The military and its members do good even as they do bad; indeed, sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish the one from the other. The hope is that the exercise of violence under controlled, defined circumstances can contain the spread of even worse violence. History suggests that this hope is highly illusory. Indeed, because violence breeds violence, the soldier brings violence home with him to alter the nature of the very place he fights to preserve.

Because the violence does come home, not always as violence, although there’s plenty of that as well, as –most recently– the domestic victims of some of the traumatized Iraq War veterans in the U.S. know all too well. Precisely because “the serviceman who will always save you” is a myth, it’s not only hard to defuse as a social assumption, it’s hard to protect yourself against violence when it comes from your “savior.” The communities of returning vets pay other kinds of prices, as well, particularly when the war is lost or perceived as lost. (I will say here that, speaking from my perspective as an early modernist, it’s not clear to me whether Vietnam was won or lost. We need more distance before we’ll know that, I think. But in America, the perception of a lost war spread through the mainstream media had a haunting effect on veterans, and in turn, their communities. It’s not clear to me whether it was worse in situations where veterans were only lightly represented, or in those where veterans were heavily represented. Probably it was just different.) The members of the community have to accept, or deal with the outcomes, of trauma they can’t imagine, suffered in places they have never been. Mechanisms for containing certain kinds of problematic behavior that results from trauma must be created, or the behavior must be excused, or the veteran must be marginalized.

The last possibility –that the veteran has to be excluded from the community because his life experiences make it impossible for him to rejoin it– is the one that communities, especially small, rural ones, are least likely to find attractive. Thus the fact of the war, or especially the lost war, exerts a less than subtle force upon the people who stayed at home to assimilate and themselves take on and uphold the worldview of the veterans, lest the war and all the loss it generated “be for nothing,” lest the soldier “be dishonored.” This homegrown variation of the sunk cost fallacy means that the same dynamic that often extends pointless or stalemated conflicts is in turn written on the hearts of those at home. (Or if it’s not, they’re seen as ungrateful for the sacrifice made on their behalf if they refuse to join in the cultivation and preservation of the veterans’ worldviews.)

Dealing with this problem is the subject of countless dramas about veterans, which tend to be heavily focused on the problem of honor / dishonor and how the individual deals with it in community. I often find I can’t watch them. I’ve had too much personal experience upholding the honor of veterans and too much exposure to the outcomes of their dishonor to be able to stand them.

My community’s need to deal with this problem (and my family’s need, within the community) explains why, as a child, I had to learn that the serviceman will always save you. That belief was constitutive of the community and of the family. And the untouchable, mythical status of that belief is one reason, inter alia, that I had to leave the community.

As clichéd as Strike Back is in many places, it addresses this issue of the fidelity of the soldier in relationship to his communit(ies) in a way that I (without being a connoisseur of the veteran drama in the least) found interesting and in a way that touched a nerve. The question is: who pays the price for John Porter’s fidelity? And is that price necessary?

~ by Servetus on May 15, 2010.

One Response to “Subtext: The price of fidelity — who pays?”

  1. […] I’d been writing earlier on the roots of my inclination to trust servicemen and farmers, and the price paid for the myth that the serviceman will always save you. This is getting long, so I think I am going to make the Porter obsession into a separate […]


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