Nothing illustrates the absurdity of war like the magical authority of a uniform. If a human being dons an enemy uniform, that person now becomes a target that deserves to be killed, all good morals be damned. Because if you do not kill the target in enemy uniform, that person will kill you just the same for the uniform that you wear. If that same human being removes the enemy uniform, you do not have authority and certainly not a responsibility to kill that person. A moral code now applies. I’m talking abstractions here if not philosophizing, but the simple truth is there, so basic that no one sees it anymore if they ever had.
With this in mind, let’s consider the deceptive swapping of uniforms as is done in a wartime false flag operation. Here the raw deal only gets more absurd—human beings opposing one another in war are each presented as targets but dressed as the others’ target to kill. Catch the other in your uniform, and he gets a firing squad for the crime. It's called "perfidy" under the so-called laws of war. But, if you get away with it, chances are you end up a national hero. It’s so absurd, it’s difficult to describe as such in simple words.
The absurdity is practically as old as history itself. And there’s a larger issue behind it: Throughout history, this setup that makes untold hordes of poor scared bastards square off to the death has served as just another tool used by the power hungry, the greedy, the honchos in charge. Sometimes the honchos do have to don a uniform of their own—whether it’s adorned with medals or a finely tailored suit—but it’s all part of the setup. They will never have to see their own threads bloodied. Only their tools get used.
Something about the insanity of all this has obsessed me. A notoriously desperate German false flags operation run during World War II became a theme in a novel, The Losing Role, in a brief nonfiction history Kindle Single, Sitting Ducks, and in my new novel Under False Flags. In this latest story the insanity is stripped down to two opposing soldiers who are each sent on a suicidal mission during the Battle of the Bulge of 1944. Isolated amid the horror of a winter war, they must face off against each other as the two dogs have been bred to do. But this time, the two dogs don't bite on command. They face facts. They question what and whom they are fighting for, and why. Their answers make them give up on the sick game they play out for higher powers, even though they know the game will punish them with extreme prejudice.
In this tragic view of war, the game is rigged. In an earlier post I’ve proposed this as the extremity of crime noir: “Modern war spawned noir. The monarchical proto-fascism that willed WWI sparked the new realism of the 1920s, which shouted out that all we were being told was not blessed but bleak. WWII, with all its raw power unleashed, proved that bleakness worse than any could imagine. Sure, the postwar eras could look fun, pioneering and prosperous in popular culture, but there was always that sordid underbelly in which fermented the wretched truth that had been so deadly proved during war.
“In the noir world, what else is war but a system rigged to serve not only the few power hungry but to dupe the many into believing in that very system? Many know it’s rigged yet few can fight it. You can only survive. You might have to get a little dirty to survive. War, with all its blood-soaked, flag-draped, cynical and gilded champions; with all its grim consequences for the guy, however flawed, who’s just trying to survive. This is the same world as in The Red Harvest and The Asphalt Jungle and right on through to LA Confidential. You have to play along even though you just know it’s going to screw a guy. War is the ultimate expression of noir, whether we’re talking about the thick of it or its grim aftermath.
“In war-tinged noir, the protagonists aren’t bulls on the take, careerists looking to please or greedy industrialists, but Nazis, Soviets or worse yet, a main character’s own officers, comrade soldiers or fellow travelers. The examples are so many—from The Third Man to Alan Furst’s novels to those many hard-boiled types who returned from war only to find out the cards are stacked against them, whether it’s a battle for a general’s glory or a water grab to serve an incestuous LA baron. After the war the powerful are right back at it, only this time with more colorful flags, bigger mansions, heartier slogans.”
And so it goes. In my next novel, Liberated: A Novel of Germany, 1945—the sequel to The Losing Role, German-American Harry Kaspar enters conquered Germany as an ambitious US Captain but discovers that the Allied occupation is just another racket in the long line of rackets.
The soldiers on the front line wear the very uniforms that rig the game and hang them, yet they keep plodding on for reasons injected into their brains that they can never purge. A few do it for patriotism, many do it for their buddies in their unit, but most slog on so they can simply get the damn job done and get the hell back home. It’s always been this way and always will be. Nevertheless, something about the World War II campaigns in which these boys died by the Liberty ship-load has become mythologized in our culture, providing, I suspect, that ideal alternative to the United States’ ruinous involvement in more recent wars. But ask a guy who was there, and he’ll tell you the truth about the Good War: "The Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty,” wrote the late historian, professor and World War II combat veteran Paul Fussell in Wartime (1989).
I write about war while despising everything about it. Who doesn’t despise war, right? So why do we keep going there, and for whom exactly? I see no silver lining of glory in it, little redemption, and certainly few heroes. I see it as brutal oppression and naked manipulation churning out untold victims. Only a few warmongers at the top—those select minds conspiring inside the (war) room—will gain anything beneficial from it, and it’s almost always power and profit. They reap and we’re the ones who get sown.
The well is so poisoned that it reeks like an outhouse in August and yet we keep going back to the well to quench our thirsts as if it’s a mountain spring. I guess that’s why I’ve kept writing about it. Despite all the book loads of elaborate explanations, I fail to understand why we normal human beings keep putting up with this, why we let leaders manipulate us. Call me simplistic, idealistic even. I don’t care. As I write in the Afterword to Under False Flags: “Preserving the sanctity of uniforms fit for killing helps expose the absurdity of war. I’m not placing blame here, not saying World War II should not have been fought, but rather I hope to remind. Morality does not endure in actual war, during close combat, so let’s quit claiming that it does. Let’s honor a man or woman who was there, but never a war itself and those who start it. The latter continue to perpetrate a profound failure of humanity, and all too often a heartless crime against all of us.”
In choosing an epigraph for the novel, I came up with a few finalists:
“War can only be prevented one way: when people refuse to go to war.” — Albert Einstein, Why War?
From Bob Dylan’s classic “Masters of War:”
“You that never done nothin’ / But build to destroy / You play with my world / Like it’s your little toy”
“You want me to believe / You fasten the triggers / For the others to fire / Then you set back and watch / When the death count gets higher”
In the end, the winner was a rare quote from author and wounded WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque, which I found in a 1963 German interview and translated:
“I always thought everyone was against war, until I found out that there are those who don’t have to go there.”