I recently finished “Blood Meridian” for the first time, after somehow not reading this legendary American epic despite my own grandmother introducing me to “The Road” over a decade ago. I don’t consider myself equal to the task of a full-blown literary analysis of the dense textual layers of Cormac McCarthy’s best novel, but one can scarcely read something like that without being intellectually stimulated into some ruminations on the book’s philosophical implications about the nature of war in relation to modern times. Blood Meridian sketches a brutally violent portrait of the Glanton Gang that is scarcely removed at all from the actual historical records of this infamous band of cutthroat savages. Like anyone I had to get better acquainted with the events of this period in American history and I was quite struck with the unflinching barbarism of the mid 1800s and how men like John Joel Glanton seemed unperturbed by the “trauma” of their existence. These men didn’t have PTSD, they seemed positively thirsty for war and there were many such accounts of American historical figures that fought in Mexican-American conflicts followed by the American “Civil” War and virtually any other armed struggle they could sign up for.
This was quite at odds with the current cultural messages about wars and the men who fight them, which is that deadly battles between groups of humans are always horrific tragedies and anyone not psychologically scarred by it must be some kind of sociopath.
But then in my own life I knew of two such individuals that bucked this pervasive societal narrative. One was a World War 2 veteran that I was transporting by ambulance on a fairly routine medical call. In the sterile, clinical light of the truck he related to me a personal story in which he was shot by a Japanese soldier before wrestling away his enemy’s weapon and killing him with it. The old vet told me this with a gleam in his eye and a contented chuckle that communicated only pride and immense self-satisfaction. After 70 years, getting to recount tales of taking a mortal adversary’s gun and butchering him with it was still a signature moment of defining greatness even after so much time had passed.
My second anecdote concerns an unparalleled master of the outdoors, a locally famous kayaker, carver of trails, cyclist, rock climber, spelunker, and demigod of any pursuit in nature a man could turn his hand to.
He also did three tours in Vietnam, because in his own words, “I was addicted to war.”
What I make of this is that for some men, violence and combat are entirely legitimate pursuits that provide them with the profoundest sense of existential meaning. It’s possible for someone to love war in exactly the same way a man might love firing up the sirens on an ambulance, climbing onto a fire truck, or putting on a police uniform. I don’t think there’s anything inherently “sociopathic” about this. I took great satisfaction in starting IVs in the back of a moving Band-Aid bus, but that doesn’t mean I want to plunge needles in the cephalic veins of random strangers on the sidewalk. In likewise fashion I doubt a soldier who delights in putting bullets through the skulls of his enemies has any such desire to kill his neighbors. Why would it be wrong to delight in the perfection of your craft, even if that craft is the butchery an opposing army’s humans?
Our post-modern globohomo nanny-state of course treats impulses towards physical conflict as a pathology, as an aberration, as an affront to their project of normalization which is ultimately just thinly veiled hyper-domestication of the human animal. My trips into public spaces occasion a painful awareness of how the Last Men of our dying civilization present as stunted, over-stuffed pets with nervous feminine voices and furtive, shifty eyes. They look like the fat lapdogs of someone’s overly indulgent grandma. I think that by trying to fit men into a Procrustean bed designed by a neo-liberal HR department authentic human qualities are being clumsily lopped off without consideration of the consequences.
First physical confrontation was firmly declared off-limits as a final escalation of “conflict resolution” between disputing parties and The State seized the monopoly on violence. Then to even be in a verbal disagreement itself was suddenly put out of bounds and circumscribed with hate speech laws, “community standards”, and censorship or worse for men with the temerity to harbor objections against the establishment along with its protected classes. You are effectively hobbled, muzzled, and then outright caged if you try something like “political demonstration” to address your grievances.
Make no mistake, this is a pressure cooker.
Right now I know that the burning core of obstinacy still smolders in the hearts of men. Generationally we aren’t that far removed from the savagery of our fore-fathers that scalped human beings with gleeful enthusiasm in Vietnam, the American West and even in the forgotten antiquity of our European homelands. That primal old barbarism is so deeply rooted that even chimpanzees lust for war in complete contradiction of liberal tropes about the unique sinfulness of humanity. To bring this full circle back around to Blood Meridian, I fear that by denying men any other remedy for their grievances they will inevitably bring their dispute before that ultimate tribunal called war.
“Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be? This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.”