On Enthusiasm for War
On the afternoon of September 11, I was surprised to hear calls for war. I was especially surprised to hear such calls from typically dovish persons.
"This is war," was the refrain.
I could see where the attacks were the worst kind of terrorism, and deserving of capital punishment, but I could not see where it was necessarily war. Of course, if it turned out to be state-sponsored terrorism, then perhaps war would be in the cards.
And war seems justifiable based on the facts we've received. Osama bin Laden appears to me to have been responsible. The attack fit his modus operandi, as in the embassy bombings and the U.S.S. Cole.
Even so, I continue to be surprised at the nearly uncritical enthusiasm for war.
War is a terrible thing, as Robert E. Lee observed, lest we should grow too fond of it.
In the years since the men of the United States fought a major war, it seems that we have grown too fond of it.
I found Saving Private Ryan to be an excellent film. I was particularly struck by the closing scenes, in which Private Ryan (if you haven't seen it yet, stop reading) is told to earn the sacrifice of his comrades.
There is something to that idea of earning the sacrifices of the defenders of liberty which has been lacking in America. Political correctness and deconstructionism, not to mention Marxism, cavalierly and foolishly sought (and seek) to dump all that is good in America with anything that might be bad.
Saving Private Ryan, however, happened to be on ABC television on Sunday night. This struck me as verging on propaganda. Yes, it was a great movie, but with the White House pushing Hollywood for propaganda films, the timing struck me as not quite tasteless, but not praiseworthy, either.
On the one hand, the film shows the horrors of war up close and personal. On the other hand, if we are supposed to make the syllogism (as more than a few commentators have urged) that we must now sacrifice our lives and liberty as our fathers and grandfathers sacrificed in World War Two, I object. The present threat is not nearly equal to the threat of World War Two. And besides, our course of conduct, to my mind, continues to risk making things much worse for America over the long-term by causing yet more Arabs to despise the United States. I very much hope that things do not turn out that way.
In that regard, I continue to consider what it is that causes men to cheer for war as if it were football. I am not a pacifist; war is sometimes justified. Furthermore, I am not anti-gun (far from it). War, however, is not football. It is killing, death, and destruction, the waste of human lives and valuable resources, which might otherwise make the world a better place for everyone.
Paul Craig Roberts observes that "Liberal-stifled patriotism, pent-up for decades, has burst forth in response to the events of September 11. It is in fashion again to be a proud American."
There is some truth to that. I am old enough (not that one has to be that old) to remember the days before Rush Limbaugh and the American Spectator, when left-wing shibboleths were the order of the day. Limbaugh was so enjoyable precisely because he said what no one else was willing to say out loud.
The left-wing has indeed stifled patriotism in America for a long time. There was something of a rebirth during the Persian Gulf War, but because there was no similar attack on Americans as occurred on September 11, it did not grow deep roots.
The roots now run very deep indeed.
Aside from such historical explanations, however, it appears that some people regard war as an alternative to their usual routines.
Hillary Clinton once blathered about "the politics of meaning." Americans, not so long ago, were looking for meaning in their lives. War and questions of human existence have always provided opportunities to find meaning.
And so perhaps many Americans are latching onto the swell of collective feelings in an effort to lend a higher meaning to their perhaps hum-drum lives.
If so, they ought to consider the very great risks entailed by the war. Unlike the wars of history or the silver screen, the present war is presently real, and so poses a very real risk to those of us alive today. In the month since September 11, Americans have perhaps reverted to seeing war as something which takes place somewhere else, and feeling themselves safe from attack.
As the anthrax attacks should make clear, our safety is not quite so absolute as we would like. As Roberts adds, the terrorists are not only in Afghanistan, but likely hiding out in the U.S. and Europe as well:
Ali Mohamed pleaded guilty to assisting in the terrorist conspiracy that blew up the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998. Mohamed was a sergeant in the U.S. Army in a sensitive position at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Mohamed told the FBI there were hundreds of "sleepers" in place in the U.S. who do not fit the terrorist profile and are not dependent on orders or financing from abroad. Trained and in place, the separate cells act at their own choosing.
Terrorism expert Simon Reeve recently told C-SPAN's audience the same thing.According to the FBI and to a report compiled by the Michigan police for the state legislature, most of the Muslim terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Al Gamat, are present in Michigan, which, thanks to former Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham, is home to the largest Arab population outside the Middle East.
These are not comforting facts. Recall as well that the government has announced that future terrorist attacks on American soil are 100% likely.
Perhaps, then, Americans continue to support the war because they see its successful prosecution as a way to ensure their own safety. If that is the case, then Americans ought to think about other measures designed for long-term safety, such as a fundamental alteration of the way the United States conducts foreign and domestic politics. More specifically, we ought to consider whether Americans would enjoy being treated by other nations in the same way that other nations are treated by the United States, i.e., as pieces on a chess board. (In that regard, see the treatment of Guatemala over mercantilist American trade policy ).
In closing, the enthusiasm for war is a puzzling thing. I am an avid student of military history. And yet I am not enthusiastic about war. The maneuvers of Stonewall Jackson and Erwin Rommel, not to mention Julius Caesar, reward study. Personally, however, I have come, over the course of my adult life, to have a greater appreciation of what is going on in combat. At Chancellorsville, for example, when Union troops fired into waves of retreating Union troops, men died. The lives of families far away from the fighting were forever changed.
Again, this is not to say that combat is evil. There is such a thing as a just war, in particular, in defense of home and family. Which is why the right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution.
Even if it is a choice of us or them, however, (and at this point, it does not seem to be), it seems proper to be temperate in our enthusiasm for as great an evil as war.
December 4, 2001
Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
© 2001 David Dieteman