The Temple of Mars

In commenting on my friend Luke Skytrekker’s recent post, in which he wickedly skewered the whole military-industrial profiteering machine, I drew out one of my points of comparison between the US and my native UK: namely that “America seems to be culturally more inclined to worship at the temple of Mars than the UK does” (I’m paraphrasing myself).

I’ve talked about this as a point of difference before (at least twice), so I don’t especially want to do another “compare and contrast” exercise as the focus of this post. But the comment, together with some of the things Luke said, got me thinking. (Luke, you dangerous man, you. Look what you’ve started! :P)

I live in Texas, in the heart of the South’s Bible Belt, surrounded by people who consider themselves staunch Christians and who would probably be shocked at the notion of worshipping Mars. That’s, like, a pagan god. We’re Christians, don’t you know?

That’s not quite what I mean, and most people will get that, but better I say it unnecessarily than cause needless offence.

I’m using Mars here as a convenient symbolic handle for war and warlikeness, martial vices and virtues and all the cultural aspects of America that reflect them. And I can see quite a few; I’m not kidding when I talk about cultural worship of Mars.

Firstly and most obviously, there’s the guns. Now, I know I have a bit of a thing with firearms – specifically I have problems with the idea of taking the life of another person – someone for whom my Saviour gave His life, but anyone will tell you that the United States of America is a resolutely weaponed country. The Second Amendment, and all that.

As someone who still doesn’t really believe in an unrestricted inherent right to possess tools of killing, the American love of stuff that makes other people go boom is a rather uncomfortable aspect of US culture. Even when you have no intention of actually killing anyone or anything, many of you target shoot for sport. Bearing arms is what separates the warrior from everyone else, and the United States is the only country I’ve ever been in that specifically delineates this as an inherent right of the citizen. It’s distinctly Martian.

The USA was even born in war. Well I know this, having just survived another Fourth of July as a Brit in America. The American Revolutionary War forms a powerful common popular-historical source of imagery which has no parallel in the land of my birth. We Brits may have a lot more history, but with the possible partial exception of the Battle of Britain or the Blitz, there isn’t any single time period that even comes close to providing a comparable source of universally positive imagery and references. America, born in revolution, midwifed by battle. We’re definitely in Mars’ metaphysical territory here.

Then there’s the current cult of extreme reverence for veterans and military service. Now, there’s something healthy and positive about honouring those who have laid their lives on the line for King and Country (or whatever you Americans lay it on the line for. Constitution, maybe), but I do wonder sometimes if we aren’t in danger of taking things too far. Failing to properly honour veterans seems like the cardinal sin of the current secular pantheon, to the extent that some of our preferment of veterans sometimes seems almost idolatrous.

Mars, I’m sure, is very happy, but I do sometimes wonder what it has to do with the Prince of Peace that so many claim to follow.  I’m sure there’s some historical reason for this, possibly in reaction to the way soldiers were treated after Vietnam, but I’m just waving a yellow flag of caution here.

It goes deeper than surface expressions like the prominence of the Revolutionary War or the love of weapons, though. Americans, as I said in my post during the last Olympic Games, love a contest and will turn anything and everything into a competition. It’s hardwired into the American psyche: the competitive drive to prove oneself faster, stronger, bigger, richer, more powerful, better than one’s opponent. The ancient Greeks called it aristeia, the challenge of single combat between two great warrior heroes, such as between Hector and Achilles in the Trojan War. I’ve referred to it as the Cult of the Winner; the American psychological need for success and victory. It doesn’t matter how you get there; if you’ve made it to the top you’ve earned it, you obviously deserve to be there. Even if you cheat or engage in dirty, gutter tactics, there’s a certain amount of shrugging of shoulders and telling people not to be crybaby losers. It’s the pursuit of victory, probably at all costs.

Not only in the ends of American culture is Mars raised on a pedestal, but also in the means. Mars is rather a god of means: he’s indifferent to his ends, whether the triumph of truth and justice or the plundering of the poor and the liar made lord; he’ll work his bloody, competitive work just as hard for the one as the other. In the thought of the Middle Ages, associated as he was with the planet that still bears his name and the astrological influences it was believed to possess, Martian virtue was a sort of hard, determined courage to do whatever is needed to achieve the goal.

Americans express this virtue in terms of personal drive: “I’m a very driven person”, they say, meaning nothing but positive. You can see it in Christ when He “set His face like flint to go toward Jerusalem”, knowing it meant His arrest and crucifixion, but classically speaking it’s the virtue of Mars. Harnessed rightly and directed towards a Godly end, it’s a glorious virtue that makes possible the facing of adversity and persecution, enabling the martyr to follow in the Lord’s footsteps in the silently courageous suffering of a sheep before its shearers. Ill-harnessed to an ungodly or purely human end, its fruit is a certain hard ruthlessness that will go full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes, prepared to sacrifice resources or family or virtue or truth or whatever on the altar of its ambition.

This is the character of Mars. And America has it full strength; tell me if I’m wrong.

I even see a sort of Martian process-orientation, indifferent to ends, in America’s incredible technological ingenuity. The focus on capability rather than ethical or metaphysical considerations has made the USA home to more inventions and breakthroughs and ingenious devices than anyone could conveniently count, indifferent to their potential uses and abuses. Mars in a good way, but also Mars’ weaknesses and disquieting nature.

Mars’ ancient astrological symbol is used by modern biologists to denote the male of a species, just as Venus’ is used to denote the female. This is interesting, because more than anywhere else in the Western world, American culture seems a prisoner of the old futile stereotypes of masculinity. The stupid, hairy, swaggering near-thuggery. The apparent need to “keep the woman in her place”. The old lie that “big boys don’t cry”, the despite of seeming weakness, the divorcement of the man from his emotions. The endless focus on physical strength. Nowhere else in the West are boys still encouraged to “grow up big and strong”. As if mere strength alone makes you a worthy human being.

The true God, the Creator and Lord of the Universe, we are told, did not choose the strong, but He chose the weak, the lowly, the despised. “Bigness” and “Strength” and “Victory” or success in worldly terms may even be a stumbling-stone and hindrance to seeing the power of God released in us. After all, God refused to use Gideon’s army until it was pared down to the 300 dog soldiers who lapped.

Mars has virtues as well as vices. Courage, determination, endurance. Medieval thought made the Sphere of Mars the heaven of martyrs, both because those who achieve a martyr’s crown usually die by violence, but also due to a mistaken linguistic connection between “martyros” and “Mars”. It takes courage, determination, discipline, persistence – all Mars’ qualities – to face persecution or oppose tyranny. The tyrant may plead “necessity” for his cruelties and abuses, but that doesn’t mean there are not sometimes real necessities that require Mars’ virtue harnessed to Divine justice and mercy.

I personally love most of the old martial hymns; they resonate with me on a level that most of the more recent “intimate” worship songs using Venusian love language do not. But the words are “Marching as to war”, not “marching to war”. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and while it is an epic struggle for which we will need all of Mars’ virtue, it’s not anything to do with real physical war or the massive industrial complex that both feeds and is fed by it.

As a follower of the Prince of Peace, I believe we should be slow to reach for the sword, particularly in anger. There are just causes for which to wage war, but we should remember always Whose we are. We serve the “Lord of Peace/Whose pow’r a sceptre sways/From pole to pole, that wars may cease/And all be prayer and praise”. When we needs must fight, we do so without sacrificing honour or losing ourselves. In the end, Mars too has to bow before the true Mighty Warrior.

Dulce et Decorum Est

For me, Memorial Day (this Monday, for the benefit of my non-American readers) is one of the more familiar and “normal” of American public holidays. A day to remember those who made the final sacrifice in the defence of our freedoms.

It’s honourable and right that we should do this.

We have something similar, but it’s on the 11th of November, and you don’t get a day off from work. We call it Remembrance Day, but it’s in essence much the same idea.

The expression is rather different, though, or at least, it appears so to me. Remembrance Day is solemn, reflective, sombre. The laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph. The wearing of poppies in memory of blood shed on the poppy fields of Flanders and in a million other conflicts since. A minute’s reflective silence. The old words of remembrance:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

By comparison, Memorial Day is a party. A day off work, and the traditional beginning of the summer period. Flags and parades. Marching bands. Salutes to living veterans and our heroes in the armed forces.

It can be a little disconcerting.

Part of it is just the natural and normal difference between our countries. Americans are very good at throwing national parties. Brits tend to be pretty good at dignified public events. We are seeing what we ought to expect.

But it got me thinking about what else it might reveal, and particularly about differences in our attitudes to war and the military.

Now, I can speak for neither America as a whole nor all of Britain, but from my observation there’s a case to be made.

Even some of our historically greatest generals have made some pretty morose comments about the supposed glory of war. My particular favourite is from Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, defeater of Napoleon, and a man with whom I share a birthday: “Next to a battle lost, there’s nothing half so melancholy as a battle won”. People die. Good people. It’s such a waste.

When I was growing up in Britain, we studied World War I poetry in English Literature class. Practically speaking, this is because it’s relatively easy to interpret and thus to teach. I guess it’s a good way to introduce poetry to small minds, but the net effect is that any sense of glory in military heroism is forcibly ground out of you. You are invited to mock the naiveté of Rupert Brooke, who managed to maintain a sense of love for his country, unlike the properly melancholic and cynical Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

In contrast to the cynic Owen, Americans, by and large, don’t believe that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is the lie he claimed it was. At least in Texas, the military have a far higher profile than they do in the part of Britain I grew up in, and gereral approval of military service is sky-high and publically demonstrative. I don’t think I can go a week at any time of year without someone on the radio advertising some kind of special deal for veterans and active military personnel or their families, or some other special event saluting Our Proud Military Service-Members.

If it’s a little alien, in some ways it’s more healthy than the knee-jerk rejection of any sense of honour in military service that Owen and Sassoon tried to engender via my school classroom.

As a child, I mouthed the right cynical words, because that was what all the cool intellectually astute people were doing. But my heart wasn’t in it. Deep down, I believed that Wilfred Owen was wrong.

Not that war was an intrinsically glorious business, or that any particular war was necessarily just or even justifiable, but that despite the tyrant’s plea of “necessity”, there were sometimes real necessities that meant that someone needed to put their life on the line for the sake of the country we love. That there can be virtue in military service, that a hero is a hero because they put their life at risk for the sake of others, and that neither the justifiability of the overall cause nor the competence (or lack thereof) of the commanding generals in any way disparage the honourable service of those who put their lives on the line and who make the final sacrifice.

My high school friends would probably look at me like I was a Martian. It would be ironically apt; Mars was after all the god of battle and warfare. I kept my mouth shut at school, but I’ve actually always felt more kinship with Mars than Venus, metaphorically speaking.

On the other hand, the American practice of Memorial Day seems sometimes to be a form of glorification of war for its own sake. The deep-seated “my country, right or wrong” patriotism of the enchanted. I may be reading it wrong; in fact, as a foreigner from a country who approaches the whole thing from a diametrically opposite angle, it would be difficult for me to get it right. But certainly the United States is a lot more demonstrative and public about loving their military than the United Kingdom. It’s like you’re automatically assumed to be a model of honour and moral rectitude as an active servicemember, whereas among the people I hung out with as a teen, it was almost the opposite. You were assumed to be a violence-loving thug, particularly if you were in the Army.

While America may be in need of a little disillusionment over the glory of war, in many ways I find the way they have made peace with Mars to be better than the alternative. To honour the sacrifice of those who have laid down their lives so that we can enjoy the freedoms we cherish is right and noble.

The ancients were right, after all. It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country.