Tuesday, October 2, 2007

"When Johnny comes marching home again..."---For whom or what does the soldier fight?

One of the many drums that the Bush administration has continued to beat is that of the "brave young men and women who are fighting for our freedom and democracy." It has been used as a very sharp, sentimental weapon: when Congress was slow on approving funds for the war, when morale and support for the war in general begins to weaken and when there is a tide of an angry and tired public which questions the overall legitimacy of this war, the war machine spits out a couple of televised meetings with the families of fallen soldiers or shows video of Bush's latest visit to a military base. As I mentioned in an earlier post, support for this war means everything to the Bush administration. They will stop at nothing to create it and/or find more of it. If there's no support, John and Jane Citizen may see this war for what it truly is and may take some serious action to get us the hell out of there (losing votes is devastating).

In August Rep. Lindsey Graham-R attempted to debate the Iraq question with Democrat Senator Jim Webb on Meet the Press. One of Rep. Graham's talking points was a very tired one, and a very misunderstood one: that more and more soldiers are reenlisting to go back to Iraq and fight after redeployment or injury. Now, Sen. Webb, a Vietnam veteran himself, could have slammed him on that remark. I was surprised he didn't. But then again, what I'm about to discuss in this blog entry rarely attracts any debate. It would be not only unpopular but the subject alone requires an enormous amount of concentration and comprehension, which in the age of excitement can be annoying.

One of my faults (so they told me) in graduate school was my occasional overly-simplified explanation of highly intellectual material. I write to be understood, not to play hide-and-seek with the reader. My dream would be to teach a course on the Divine Comedy strictly in the lexicon of the pop culture.
Alright "hip" reader, you're in luck. Today's blog concerns the field of semiotics, which is the study of signs and symbols and their meaning as they relate to communication. I will address this by presenting two psychoanalytic concepts by Jacques Lacan and demonstrate how they can be used to understand why and for what the modern soldier fights.

In 1963 Jacques Lacan gave his famous 11th Seminar entitled, "The Four Fundamental Concepts of Pyschoanalysis." (L'Ecrits) For the first time Lacan proposed a break in the theory of Saussure regarding the concepts of the "signifier" and the "signified".

Let me break this down. Let's use something we all know fairly well, language. A signifier could be the word "cat", not in the sense of feline or what it means to be a cat or to meow, or even what it smells like or feels like, but simply the word, cat. The word cat on paper is simply that, a word. It doesn't have meaning until we give it one. When we give it meaning in our minds is when it becomes the signified. The signified could obviously change and be very different depending on the individual. I say the word cat and some of you think of Garfield, some of you think of a pet you had years ago and some of you think of allergies. Bottom line: there is a book full of signifiers, it's called a dictionary. What you think of when you read a particular word is a signified.

We could also say this: the signifier is the external reality and the signified is the internal reality, right? I mean, cat is generally accepted in our society as a four-legged feline that can be a domestic animal/pet. It purrs, meows and scratches. That is the signifier and in this case seems to be a generally accepted external reality.

The signified could mean various things to different individuals. Those meanings tend to be internalized and therefore exist only in our mind, a kind of internal reality. This does not mean that those internal realities are false and/or imaginary. On the contrary, they could all be true and authentic. The unique quality is that the signified usually differs among individuals because of experience and personal identification. After all, being scratched by a cat is very real to us.

Okay Federalist, where in the hell are you going with all this?

For the soldier, the war in Iraq has two distinct and very different realities: an external reality, what the German philosophers called Umwelt and an internal reality, called an Innenwelt.

The external reality, as we have established as the signifier, translates to the soldier as what the Bush administration has coined "The Global War on Terror". This signifier is one that is common to all soldiers and to the American public (Fox News flings this term around every 1.6 seconds). The soldiers have enlisted in the Armed Services. They were called up to go and wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of this coined phrase "The Global War on Terror". They cannot discriminate or use discretion in deciding where or when to wage war. They are forced to go.

I argue that these soldiers are not fighting for nationalistic ideals of spreading democracy, they do not subscribe to the tired rhetoric of "they hate us for our freedoms", heck, they may not even believe in those silly bumper sticks that say "Freedom ain't free". The idea that these soldiers are being injured in combat and wishing to return to the front to fight for such lofty and intangible ideologies like that of spreading democracy is not only the stuff of fairy tales but it is a disgrace to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice! Shame on those who continue to say that this war is just and necessary and that those fallen soldiers gave their lives so you can be free!

What the soldier can and does relate to is their signified, whatever that may be. It usually starts out with a pregnant wife or girlfriend back in the States, one or two young children, it could be a farm with hundreds of animals, it could be the desire to seek a college degree with money earned from enlisting...the list could go on ad infinitum.

In combat the signified for which the soldier fights expands and cements itself in the form of a fraternal bond. Their focus then becomes common protection and survival with the man who is beside them in the foxhole taking mortar rounds. They begin to feel an incredible sense of duty and brotherhood with those who are closest in proximity. When they are injured or maimed and cannot return to combat, my senses tell me that these brave but unfortunate soldiers are not crying out for returning to spread democracy or to eliminate the al-Qaeda network. They are crying out for that signified that represents the essence of their being and their purpose. Their families, their fellow soldiers, their lieutenants, their pick-up trucks and a cold 6-pack of beer back home.

Bottom line: the soldiers fight for these things because they are tangible and they mean something to them. These and only these type of ideals, those that are personal to the soldier and are ones he can identify with, are the signifieds for which that soldier fights, so that those who planned this horrible war and who continue to profit from it, can achieve, perhaps, their own personal signifieds.

(photo is of Jacques Lacan, French pyschoanalyst, psychiatrist and doctor, 1901-1981)