Winning the Battle, Losing the War

My sister and I had to laugh when I reminded her of our father’s familiar prediction, usually snarled ominously, “you may win this battle, but you’re going to lose the war.”

“Think about that,” she said, “what does that actually mean, ‘you’re going to lose the war’?”

Leaving aside the most obvious question– what war and why were we in the middle of it? — the most likely scenario, when you lose the war, is that you’re dead, your home destroyed, your bones scattered for hungry animals to pick over.  Or you could be locked up for life in a prison camp in some armpit of the victor’s country.  In antiquity you could be a slave.  In all cases, when you lose the war you’ve lost pretty much everything.  

As for winning the battle, where one side has its ass shot off and the other side has half its faced burnt, you’d need to find a pretty sick ref to declare either side the winner.  “You’re gonna lose the war” is kind of a funny prediction for a father to make to his two kids every night over dinner.  

“Well, look, Elie, that’s how I grew up,” said the skeleton. “Everything was a ruthless battle of the wills.  Why do you think you have such a hard time with tyrants?  The hatred of autocrats gets in your blood.  ‘I’m not going to let this bitch win….’   The desire to get revenge on the person who betrayed you is overpowering, you simply can’t resist it, no matter how civilly you might try to act.  

“Why were you and your sister in a war?  Wrong place, wrong time, bad luck, like any civilians caught in a war.   When the soldiers came out of the trenches and began dashing across battlefields following the tanks with their bayonets fixed, toward the end of the World War, casualties quickly multiplied.  Why were they advancing across scorched earth in long ragged lines, dodging machine gun fire, keeping their gas masks handy?  Why is anyone in a war?”  

I started following you– my sister and I were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, like a Jewish kid born in Vishnevitz in 1930.  No bar mitzvah for you, bubbeh, don’t worry about learning to chant your haftorah, here, put your pants over there, shirt and shoes there, very good, step up, next!  You turn thirteen when they are executing everyone in your village and— today you are a man, a dead man.  Goodnight.  

“Well, we talk about these things like there is an element of rationality to them.  While they were negotiating the armistice to end the Great War, between the German request for the armistice and the signing, during those five weeks, 500,000 soldiers were killed or wounded.  The last day of the war, when the secret deal was already done but they hadn’t had the official signing ceremony yet,  2,738 men lost their lives.  

“As a species we are, historically, very matter of fact about war, you know.  How many Iraqis lost their lives when Cheney gave those enormous truckloads of cash to Halliburton, pursuant to no-bid contracts, to set freedom on the march and liberate those innocent civilians from a modern-day Hitler?   We have no idea, and, beyond that, truly, we do not give so much as a fart.”  

Yeah, yeah.  But we are talking about a father who constantly threatens his young children with the ultimate curse:  losing the war.  After you lose the war, what do you do for an encore?   How insane do you have to be to phrase every interaction with your own children as a skirmish, a strategic battle in a war that, in the end, they are fated to lose?  

“Well, I grant you, you do have to be somewhat insane, I mean, when you put it that way.  But you see, Elie, at the time I couldn’t see it that way.  All you could do was fight me, and that perpetuated the war, not that surrender would have done you much good either.  As long as you would not surrender, and admit that you had started the war by your belligerent attitude as an enraged baby, well… I don’t know what your mother and I were supposed to do.”  

Come on, man, you’ve had more than a decade to let that one dissolve in your mouth.  I’ll let you think about it some more.  I admit, it’s a tricky one.  Go ‘head, you can get back to me on this one.


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