Do you ever worry about what you need to get in order to get what you need? It’s kind of a bad loop to get stuck in. You see it though, right? Stupid, but smart people get caught in it all the time. I know it, cuz I’m smart.
I have had occasion to worry that I was badly equipped to survive the world I was born to. I can make a fire, kill and skin an animal, build a shelter, that kind of stuff. These skills sit pretty directly between life and death, reflecting the essential violence of continued existence. I can also talk about it, ad infinitum, in rhyme if necessary. When the infrastructure of civilization collapses, I will have valuable knowledge. Til then, it isn’t exactly a skill set with a wide demand. While civilization continues, I’m just sort of interesting and entertaining.
We have mediation now between continued existence and that essential violence, and its name is Money. The violence still has to happen (slaughtering animals, warfare, etc), but it isn’t about mere survival anymore, and almost anyone can pay someone else to do it.
At its most basic, money makes sense; and I think others have better established money’s fundamental value as the basis of security (i.e. the illusion that life is under control). But there’s nothing basic about what money has become.
The intricacies of finance are a strange topography to me. My grandfather knew the terrain well, but could not pass that knowledge to his son (maybe because his son – my dad – was more interested in Japanese poetry, the feminine soul, and Bob Dylan). And it’s changed some since then. My dad learned financial survival the way America learned 20th century warfare – the hard way.
Teach Your Kid to Kill
In some cultures, a man who does not teach his child to kill, has failed as a father. He has doomed his line to starvation, conquest, or just being in the wrong place at an inopportune moment.
If he succeeds in this most basic duty, he risks creating a monster. That could be called a failure too.
But now, in this culture, failure to teach your children to manage their money is the ultimate parental failure. And you can create a monster by this means too; but the difference between a homicidal monster and a financial one is like that between a werewolf and a nuclear bomb.
It isn’t his fault really, that he couldn’t teach us – his kids – about money. Early on, I think he barely understood it himself, and we were poorly disposed to listening anyway. By the time he had grasped it, it was too late to teach us. All we could do was try to learn from his mistakes. No risk of causing catastrophic damage to the economy or the environment though, so in a weird way you could call his failure a win.
I guess I should be grateful that my education in homicide was outsourced to the Loyal Eddies, under whose auspices I was an Army Cadet (RCAC #2748) for about four years. They taught me how to stomp, shout, stitch, and shoot; I already knew how to start fires, thanks to Lord Baden Powell and his spiritual children. My dad could do all those things too, but preferred to teach us something I think is more valuable most of the time: Peace. Even when diplomacy has failed, my old man can still snatch peace from the jaws of inevitability. It is not a talent you can fake, and he taught us all he could about it.
Not everybody gets to experience this first-hand, but I grew up in something called peace time. We didn’t have to make connections like the one between teaching children to shoot and the possibility that we might be called upon to shoot other children. Actual killing was something other people did, and they were all adults for some reason.
How to Learn the Craft of Killing… in a Hurry
The first months of America’s engagement with Rommel in North Africa left a scar that they’re still scratching. The US lost over 2700 soldiers to the fact that they didn’t know how to fight a war anymore. Never let it be said that they didn’t learn that lesson, hard and fast. In the space of a year they went from a nation that spoke of murder as a sin, to one that now discusses killing as an unpleasant necessity, a profession, and a daily occurrence – all as though that is the way it must be.
The same General Eisenhower who warned his military colleagues that America would be condemned for its incompetence in warfare, later warned the American public – as outgoing president – to guard against the “military-industrial complex.” There was just no pleasing that guy.
So it makes sense that America is now home to the world’s most expensive armed forces, clocking in excess of an annual $700bn. Military Industrial Complex indeed.
But it goes deeper than just regular old paranoia. Had the Nazis won in North Africa, they would have had the resources to win in Europe. Maybe not Russia, but definitely Europe. America never forgot that, even if many have forgotten what the Nazis truly stood for (Here’s a list. Spoiler: It’s still pretty ugly). Those who survived North Africa never forgot the ones who didn’t. “Whatever comes next,” America vowed, “we’ll be ready this time.”
Eventually everybody who was expected to surrender, surrendered (or killed themselves). When a war ends, traditional wisdom tells us to beat the swords into ploughshares. Be done with killing, and get on with the business of living. The old pastoral image of returning to the farm is no accident, but many Americans had other plans. Still traumatized by the horrors of 2 World Wars, America began to farm weapons. Lots of them.
Can’t blame them, whatever has become of the war industry since the early days. Hurt people, hurt people. And war leaves a mark on everybody.
Of course the argument is often made now that the US has become – among other things – exactly the monster it sought to police. I think it’s ironic that America kills for money now, effectively missing the entire point of having money in the first place.
Stay Out of Sophocles’ Sick Little Hell
The old Greek tragedies are all about one important life lesson: If you’re running from your destiny, you aren’t looking where you’re going. Anyone running from death, runs right into it. Those seeking to establish a legacy, will wreck it. Those protecting their kingdoms, will destroy them.
Basically, we sow the seeds of our own destruction anyway, so the Greek playwrights want to just try and roll with it. Time will pass, and so will you. It won’t make death’s certainty any less uncomfortable, but at least you aren’t hastening it.
The good news: Civilization is completely wasted without crazy little bastards who don’t have enough sense to rub 2 dollars together & see if they reproduce. There are people who know how to kill, but won’t do it. We sort of balance out the equation by seeking to master ourselves, and no one else.
Of course we fail. That’s part of the Job. Success is just the end of a series of failures anyway, or something like that. You know. JK Rowlings and all that.
More good news: I’ve survived nearly 40 years, and it looks like I have a few more to go. You don’t have to be a killer to live, apparently.