Bette Midler can belt them out, but so too can she deliver with a resolute quiet that brings you almost to tears. I have always been particularly taken with her rendition of John Prine’s Hello in There. It’s a poignant song about aging, both the process and resulting loneliness. But the line that always stops me short concerns something else entirely. It speaks to warfare and remains as fresh and disturbing today as it was when written in the early 1970s — we lost Davy in the Korean War. I still don’t know what for…
Prine’s lyric, much as did Robert Altman contemporaneous film Mash, references Korea, but is a proxy for Viet Nam, a conflict still too raw and real for linking Davy’s loss with futility. Midler’s Hello evokes life-fatigue where seemingly matter-of-fact reporting poses the most provocative question, one that haunts so many mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives and children. We lost Davy or Suzy in the war and, truth be told, have no idea what for. Of course, it’s a question left unspoken by both loved ones and the larger society, its implications too unbearable to contemplate.
Stand-in or not, the stalemated Korean War exemplifies the futility that became Viet Nam and extends into the present day Iraq and Afghanistan, all unwinnable conflicts. The victories of the twentieth century World Wars are a dim memory. Replacing them is the image of Kim Jong-il and his pudgy twenties-something heir apparent Kim Jong-un reviewing a military parade in Pyongyang. Korea was a war that never ended and whose lessons remain strikingly unlearned. Viet Nam’s senseless 47,424 combat deaths put that unlearning into sharp focus. But apparently not sharp enough to prevent our repeating its errors and deluding ourselves into thinking wars, especially of the current kind, are even remotely winnable, much less lending themselves to any semblance of reason. Perhaps this stubborn resistance to learning can be attributed to the American psyche, not to mention a good dose of national hubris. The former prevents us from letting go — still seeing Viet Nam as a moment of shame and disgrace that somehow must be redeemed. The hubris, allows for the delusion that the world’s most powerful military is at once invincible and essential across the globe, if only in our own minds.
In these more antiseptic days when mostly other people’s children wage wars, few of us experience the personal anguish and bewilderment of Davy’s mother. A hired professional military and unmanned drones permit us to avert our eyes, become complacent and, most of all, avoid assessing the cost or waste of war. So we delude ourselves into thinking about bad wars and good wars, more a mind game than having any semblance of reality. That it’s a game is evidenced by another Bob Woodward bestseller inside storyline, profiteering if not on the war itself then on our insatiable appetite for the gossip of court squabbles. Who’s up and who’s down? It is life as a TV reality show, allowing us to pretend we were flies on the wall in the room where history was being made. It’s the all consuming world of make believe, or as Ecclesiastes would have it, vanity of vanities.
Sure the players on both Wall Street and Main Street brought our country to its economic knees, but they got a good head start from the twin unbudgeted wars whose foreseeable cost is now estimated to be as much as $2.4 Trillion. We have begun our exit from Iraq and perhaps, the generals kicking and screaming notwithstanding, we’ll start withdrawing from Afghanistan this coming summer. These wars, or our involvement, will end. No peace treaties will have been signed, no victories proclaimed. Most likely none of us will have the courage to say at long last that war doesn’t work. At some time in the future, a mother will report on the loss of her Davy, admitting that she knows not what for. But what should worry us most is the finish of Prine’s lyric line: we lost Davy in the Korean War, I still don’t know what for — don’t matter any more. Sure it matters and that’s what we should be thinking about.