Camille Paglia: Guardsmen's deaths strike at the heart of America

Their units doubtless had a powerful sense of mission. But it is difficult for me to understand what they died for

Share

For Americans like me who have vehemently opposed the war from the start, this was yet another example of how, in planning and implementation, the Iraq incursion has gone tragically wrong.

Full blame for the misuse and abuse of the National Guard belongs to Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, a testily glib figure of monumental complacence. Unlike many of my fellow members of the Democrat party, I don't hate George Bush or regard him as venal. He is sincere but narrow: most problematic in his presidency is his curious inability to fire those who have given him lousy advice and betrayed their stewardship. Is it some sentimental twist on family loyalty?

The National Guard is rooted in the militias of early colonial history. The US constitution ceded the states primary authority over the guard, which consists of volunteers with steady jobs who attend training exercises one weekend out of every month plus two weeks a year. The guard is the first line of defence in local emergencies - catastrophic natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes or massive power blackouts, as happened in the northeastern US in 1965, when I was in college.

When federalised, the National Guard has often served abroad. But until very recently, overseas assignments were limited to six months, so that disruption to families and jobs was minimised. Thanks to the careless misjudgements of Bush's top team, including Vice-President Dick Cheney (another smug solipsist), the troop strength needed to occupy Iraq was seriously underestimated. Hence enormous, exploitative pressure has been placed on guard and reserve units, which constitute a third of the 138,000 American soldiers in Iraq.

Guardsmen's tours of duties were extended to 18, then 24 months - a gross intrusion into their stateside lives. And the American public has been endangered: the guard frequently draws from police, fire, and medical personnel, the first responders who would be desperately needed after a terrorist attack on chemical or nuclear facilities.

My uncle, now retired, served for over 30 years as an artillery specialist in the New York State Guard. His unit was controversially mobilised by Governor Nelson Rockefeller to put down the uprising at Attica prison in 1971. As a small child in the 1950s, I visited him during military exercises at Camp Drum in rural upstate New York. He once gave my parents a souvenir - a brass Howitzer cannon shell, which they used as a vase on our spinet piano. That gleaming artillery shell, imposing as ever, is one of my treasured possessions, along with my paternal grandfather's heavy bronze plaque from the Massachusetts State Guard, which he joined as an immigrant to Boston in the 1920s.

The Pennsylvania State Guard traces its lineage to pre-revolutionary Philadelphia, when Benjamin Franklin argued against the region's pacifist Quaker heritage to create a defensive force against Indians and pirates; 3,200 members of the Pennsylvania Guard are currently serving in Iraq, the biggest military deployment from the state since the Second World War.

Most of the Pennsylvania Guardsmen killed in August were in a convoy 60 miles north of Baghdad or on patrol near Beiji, about 90 miles south of Mosul. They and their units doubtless had a powerful sense of mission. But it is difficult for me to understand what they died for.

Bush and Blair are rightly convinced that a rising tide of democracy would save the Middle East and the world from the nihilism of jihadists. But was war the only remedy? As William Blake searingly wrote in "London" more than two centuries ago, "The hapless Soldier's sigh/ Runs in blood down Palace walls".

No fairy-tale ending for Madonna

Among less world-shaking mishaps was Madonna falling off her horse and breaking some bones at her estate two weeks ago. Naturally, I followed the scanty news via the web.

I was distinctly unsettled when I saw the August cover story of American Vogue, with Madonna ostentatiously posing in riding habit and boots on a horse whose reins she is awkwardly and incorrectly holding. We are told she has been throwing herself into country pursuits to please her macho husband, Guy Ritchie.As a professionally trained dancer, tireless jogger and practitioner of extreme yoga, Madonna is an accomplished athlete. But riding is not just another routine challenge that she can master through sheer willpower. Along with physical skills, riding requires relaxation and self-subordination, an intuitive opening to the horse. Knowledge of horses needs to be accumulated by riders over a lifetime.

A hyperactive planner with a draconian daily schedule, Madonna may not be the ideal rider. Her tension and distraction can easily be picked up by a skittish horse, as evidently happened here. On this day, she was just back from the US - a point missed in news reports. It was certainly ill-advised for Madonna, a 47-year-old novice rider, to mount a strange new horse the next day in Wiltshire - a thoroughbred that had just been trucked in as a birthday gift from her husband. That misjudgement - which could have had more severe and even fatal consequences - suggests there are dangerous lacunae in the Ritchies' horse sense.

Madonna will surely persist and may well triumph as a rider. But until then, let's hope she avoids the facile, disrespectful use of horses as props and fashion statements.

Speaking of Madonna, I haven't been beating down bookshop doors to find her children's books. The first volume, The English Roses, was cringe-making enough with its preachy messages and saintly, put-upon heroine. As someone teethed on Lewis Carroll's Alice books, I prefer dream tales with less obtrusive moralism. A contemporary author who, unlike Madonna, magically re-creates the child's world view is Lucy Cousins. Her star creation, the amiable mouse Maisy, is a virtual resident of my house. Child entertainment has been my happy duty since my partner Alison gave birth to a son, Lucien, three years ago. Hence I have been absorbed in Maisy's modest wonderland, with its gingerbread and lemon trees. Thank you, Lucy Cousins, for your sparkling imagination!

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Functional/Full Life Cycle

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Func...

SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfordshire - £350 - £360

£350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...

Business Intelligence Consultant - Central London - £80,000

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Consultant - C...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
These young British men featured in an Isis video urging Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria. About 30 British jihadists are believed to have died fighting alongside IS  

Isis in the UK: How the 'War on Terror' radicalised a generation

Alyas Karmani
Dance yourself happy: strutting their stuff is, apparently, better for people than visiting the gym  

How should we measure the 'worth' of our nation?

Dan Holden
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?