"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Harold Ickies, War, And The Wrath Of God

“Destruction…vengeance….Tear down their altars….Smash their sacred pillars, hew down their Asherim,  burn their graven images with fire.…Consume all the peoples whom the Lord your God will deliver to you….Your eye shall not pity the…”

“Wake up, Harold, wake up.  You’re having a bad dream.” Harold Ickies’ wife smoothed his hair and kissed his cheek.  “It’s all right darling.  Go back to sleep.”

Harold mumbled something more about okra and peanut butter, moaned and said, “Behold, the day of the Lord is coming….Its coming!  Oh, it is so cruel, with fury and burning anger….Desolation, all sinners exterminated.”

‘Harold…Harold!”, his wife said, this time shaking his shoulder.  Harold sat bolt upright in bed, looked around the room, said “It must have been the baked beans”, and sank down into his pillow.  “Funny”, he said before turning over to his favorite side of the bed, “There was nothing ecumenical about that dream at all.”

Ickies had been an F-4 Phantom  fighter pilot in Vietnam, and although he never admitted it to anyone, he felt like God when he screamed over the treetops, rained fire down from above and incinerated miles of coastline, hundreds of hamlets and thousands of hooches in a fiery conflagration of napalm.  How was he different from the God of Abraham, full of wrath and vengeance, The Destroyer, an Avenging Angel of Death?

He served two tours in Vietnam, received the highest military honors from the Army, was congratulated by General William Westmoreland himself on the parade grounds of Da Nang, and cited for ‘exceptional service and outstanding bravery’. While he appreciated the military’s recognition of his service to his country, he was unmoved by it.  How could any honors, civilian or military, any commendation, or any grateful thanks from country’s highest brass even come close to the feeling of being a god….No, God himself, the Biblical God, the all-powerful God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth and its Destroyer?

The Navy promoted him, feted him, and offered him a senior Pentagon posting; but he he surprised everyone by retiring.  Not only did Ickies have a distinguished military career ahead of him, but many saw him as a Senator or even President of the United States.

“No thank you”, he replied, thinking of his last sortie over the North, a final run over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, firing all his weapons at the North Vietnamese convoys and blowing them from the face of the earth.  He was an apocalyptic crusader, and when he launched his air-to-ground missiles, fired his .50 caliber machine guns, dropped hundreds of tons of high-explosive ordnance, and and especially fired his M61 Vulcan Rotary cannon – a supercharged aircraft Gatling Gun firing 100 20mm round per second – he felt exhilarated, exalted, superhuman, and endowed with a feeling of thunderous, and Biblical power. 

Ickies was a healthy, well-adjusted Navy Commander when he left the service.  No PTSD, no nightmares, none of the crushing guilt or agonizing remorse felt by many of his fellow-pilots.  He was never accused of delusions of grandeur, never suffered psychotic episodes, and anyone seeing him at Turtle Park pushing his young daughter on the swings would never have suspected his past.  He demurred when asked about his military service, deflected inquiries like “So, what was it really like over there”, continued his law school education, and joined a firm of top litigators on K Street.

Although he never had any regrets about Vietnam or his role in the war, as he got older he became interested in the nature of war and the evolution of warfare.  He read accounts of the Battle of Borodino, recounted by Tolstoy in War and Peace.  Over 70,000 men were killed in one day in that engagement, Russian and French forces alike.  They were killed by cannon balls, musket fire, sabers, and lances.  They were trampled by horses, mutilated by Gribeauval guns and howitzers, burned to death, blinded, crippled and left to die on the battlefield.

World War I was not much of an improvement, and millions of men died in the trenches, torn up by machine gun fire, scorched and burned by rockets, asphyxiated by mustard gas, and like the soldiers at Borodino, left to die on the battlefield.

Tolstoy writes of the exhilaration of battle, the waiting and anticipation – seeing the enemy form his ranks on the nearby hills and begin to march to the field of engagement – and finally the bloody battle itself.  Tolstoy writes of the screams of men, the agonized cries of wounded horses, the clouds of smoke and gunpowder, and the littered field of broken bodies, emptied muskets, and toppled cannons.

How different war was for Ickies in Vietnam, high in the heavens, on a Biblical chariot, master of all he surveyed.  He most definitely felt an exhilaration when he released his rockets, fired his cannons on full automatic, released tons of napalm down on the palm trees and saw them catch fire and flame, and then watched the ashes from the incinerated fronds swirl and fly in the jet stream of the F-4s and F-16s behind him on the run.

Ickies was less interested in the political causes of war, its antecedents, and military strategy.  He wanted to know if in any other previous war, soldiers could possibly have felt what he did; or did God himself finally reveal himself as the frightful, horrible, and mighty avenger he was?

Ickies knew that the age of fighter pilots was ending.  Unmanned drones were taking  their place; and if he and his fellow pilots had indeed been anointed and called into the service of the Lord, that ecstatic period was over.

War, as he knew from his Biblical sorties above North Vietnam, was a religious experience as well as a very practical one based on territorial expansion and acquisition of resources. All sacred and mythical texts from Gilgamesh to the Vedas; and from the Old Testament to the Koran celebrated the fiery destruction of the infidel, the purification of a world corrupted by evil. The heroic battles of Christians and Muslims outside the gates of Jerusalem were epic and ordained by God.

If there wasn’t  something terrifyingly beautiful, Biblical, and frighteningly powerful about a nuclear explosion, then nothing was.

Ickies had once travelled to Southern Mexico and was impressed by the religious expressions of the Zapotecs. There was something exhilarating about their particular paganism, rooted as it was in the powerful, immanent forces of nature.

In the Oaxaca valley under a powerful sun and surrounded by mountains, the temperamental and eruptive forces of Nature and the gods were real, immediate, and frightening.  Farther north in the Aztec civilization, warriors dressed as panthers, wolves, mountain lions, and bears and became them as they engaged the enemy.  They were human soldiers and animals and gods all at once.

The ‘sacrifice of the Catholic Mass’ was nothing to actual ritual sacrifice, Ickies thought as he tried without success to imagine the power, the collective primitive emotional force of thousands of Indians around the sacrificial mount, surrounded by the living gods of mountains, sun, wind.  Not even the 70 million pilgrims who visit Allahabad every 11 years for the kumbh mela could possibly generate the religious feeling that must have been felt at the moment of sacrificial death.

The power, majesty, and absolutely terrifying glory of God had been replaced by a temperate, tepid, and uninspiring New Testament belief.  Jesus Christ’s message of love, charity, peace, and kindness had nothing to do whatsoever with either man’s belligerent, aggressive, and potent nature; or his need for religious shock and awe.  Christianity promised salvation and redemption; but the raw religion of the Mesoamerican plains promised ecstasy and transformation.

The reason why Harold Ickies had remarked to his wife that there was nothing ecumenical about his dream at all was because he had just had a long conversation with his old college roommate, a friend who had dedicated himself to ecumenical causes and inter faith dialogue as a way to end all wars, put an end to violence, and restore a world of peace and fellowship.

The Bethesda Interfaith Council was a group of Washington men who had been brought together by Rabbi Ben Feldstein of the Solomon Israel Temple in Northwest Washington.  Feldstein was a longtime progressive, active in the Anti-War and Nuclear Disarmament movements, and an officer in the International Peace Federation. Ten years ago he thought that if he brought together civic leaders of different faiths, the dialogue that would result would generate practical, if not spiritual ideas that could contribute to the resolution of the world’s ever-present problems.

The group however was comprised of people just like Rabbi Feldstein himself – moderate, ecumenical, progressives who relied on faith and reason as foundations for their actions. Feldstein did not invite anyone from the radical fringes of religion – Southern evangelicals, Muslim radicals, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, or muscular Christians.  Neither he nor any of his colleagues were comfortable with the heat and abrasiveness of the thunderous fire and brimstone sermons by Bible-thumping charismatics.  They were uneasy about a personal, ecstatic relationship with Jesus Christ, and rejected out of hand millennialists cries that Armageddon was just around the corner.

What Rabbi Feldstein missed, of course, was that these fiery preachers understood the need for a primal experience, for the shock and awe of the Old Testament, the sacrificial altars of Monte Alban, and the clash of Saracens and Christian knights in Jerusalem.  These wild-eyed preachers and their followers  didn’t know it, but they were looking for exactly what Ickies had in the cockpit of his F4.

Harold Ickies considered himself lucky, for he had seen the hand of God; and he felt his tremendous and frightening power.  He was without a doubt God’s Old Testament avenging angels of death.  He was the angel of Shiva the Destroyer and Kali Goddess of Time, Change and Destruction

Kali by Raja Ravi Varma.jpg

When Rabbi Feldman spoke quietly of his quest for peace and the abolition of war, Ickies had to smile.  If anything, history was a chronicle of death and destruction.  Surprisingly for a Jew with an Old Testament background, Feldman ignored the sturm und drang of Jehovah as if it had never happened.  Twenty-first century man had magically been catapulted over the Hundred Years War, the War of the Roses, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. 

Everyone lives on at least two planes.  Harold Ickies did not encourage war nor approve of the popular adventurism of the times.  Least of all did he want to see his sons go off to fight in a senseless and venal conflict.  Most wars – as Tolstoy observed – were fought by accident, by the random banging of historical billiard balls with no point at all.  Yet human nature being what it is, wars will always happen.

On another level, Ickies knew that he had experienced a religious epiphany of Biblical proportions in Vietnam.  He knew at once all about the Old Testament, Shiva and Kali, Hindu cycles of destruction and regeneration, Mesoamerican human sacrifice, Aztec bestial incarnation. 

There was a third plane for Ickies like most men.  He woke up the next morning, kissed his wife and thanked her for waking him from a bad dream, brushed his teeth, dressed, and went to work.

1 comment:

  1. Confusing, repeating and long rambling article. Too long and redundant to finish. (Don't quit your day job)

    One things for sure, when the world ends in nuclear holocaust, you can bet it will be at the hands of some scripture spouting nutbar...

    ReplyDelete