After Memorial Day

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After a day devoted to remembering war and the men who fight it, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite essays, a reflection on why wars are forgotten. In 1997, the Reader published a long essay by contributor Lee Sandlin called "Losing the War," which ranges from the Norse myths to World War II, from Wagner to A.J. Liebling. (It appeared in abbreviated form on This American Life in 2001.)

I'm hesitant to sum up such an essay, but at the heart of it is the idea that we want, even need, to forget something that may be too complex to understand, and every time it happens we reinvent our lack of comprehension. As Sandlin writes:

This is the dreadful logic that comes to control a lot of wars. (The American Civil War is another example.) The losers prolong their agony as much as possible, because they’re convinced the alternative is worse. Meanwhile the winners, who might earlier have accepted a compromise peace, become so maddened by the refusal of their enemies to stop fighting that they see no reason to settle for anything less than absolute victory. In this sense the later course of World War II was typical: it kept on escalating, no matter what the strategic situation was, and it grew progressively more violent and uncontrollable long after the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The difference was that no other war had ever had such deep reserves of violence to draw upon.

The Vikings would have understood it anyway. They didn’t have a word for the prolongation of war long past any rational goal — they just knew that’s what always happened. It’s the subject of their longest and greatest saga, the Brennu-njalasaga, or The Saga of Njal Burned Alive. The saga describes a trivial feud in backcountry Iceland that keeps escalating for reasons nobody can understand or resolve until it engulfs the whole of northern Europe. Provocation after fresh provocation, peace conference after failed peace conference, it has its own momentum, like a hurricane of carnage. The wise and farseeing hero Njal, who has never met the original feuders and has no idea what their quarrel was about, ultimately meets his appalling death (the Vikings thought there was nothing worse than being burned alive) as part of a chain of ever-larger catastrophes that he can tell is building but is helpless to stop — a fate that seems in the end to be as inevitable as it is inexplicable.

For the Vikings, this was the essence of war: it’s a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control, until it shakes the whole world apart. Njal’s saga ends with a vision of war as the underlying horror of the world, always waiting underneath the frail mirage of peace. In a final dream image, spectral women are seen working an occult and horrible loom: “Men’s heads were used in place of weights, and men’s intestines for the weft and warp; a sword served as the beater, and the shuttle was an arrow. And these were the words the women were chanting:

Blood rains
From the cloudy web
On the broad loom
Of slaughter.
The web of man
Gray as armor
Is being woven.

As a member of the generation that grew up after Vietnam, whose personal experience with war was limited to the brief technodrama of the gulf war and the bombing campaigns of Kosovo, the idea of an incomprehensible war without end was a mystery until the current war in Iraq. Now that the initial justifications for the war have been proven false, we're in precisely the kind of war Sandlin describes, "a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control." May it not shake the whole world apart, even if it has already shaken many worlds into pieces.

I urge you to read the whole thing; it's available at leesandlin.com, though I advise you to print out the Word document and set aside time to read it, lest you end up engrossed in it at work and get fired on my account. 

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