The Valor of the Columnists

The war appears to enjoy wide support, which gives the warmongers an opportunity to appear populist in their writing. National Review, for example, seems to have suddenly discovered that wisdom of the common man in contrast to the "cultural elites" who are said to have the most doubts about the war. Completely out of character, Ramesh Ponnuru, Rich Lowry, and the gang have risen to the defense of the workers and peasants.

What National Review doesn’t mention is the absence of support among the working class for the foreign policies that got us into this mess in the first place. I’d venture a guess that there’s less than 1 percent backing among full-time workers who earn less than $30,000 per year for permanent stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia, for example.

War populism is one thing. Far more bizarre is a related phenomena: the rise of blood-soaked rhetoric among the non-enlisted punditry class as a substitute for the display of classical virtues. This style is called various names, like Jacksonian or Churchillian. In this model of writing, nothing you say is too outrageous. The stronger your rhetoric, the more elevated the language ("we must vanquish the forces of evil"), the more courage, valor, and moral conviction it is said to represent, even when what you are advocating is immoral.

The idea is to appear, as you type into your word processor, to be unflinching in the face of the enemy, to contemplate and mentally conquer the possibility of horror. The ultimate objective is to break down the normal sense of morality that readers have ("Isn’t it wrong to punish or kill innocent people?") and replace it with a new wartime ethic and language ("No robust defense of national interests can rule out the possibility, however regrettable, of civilian casualties").

Another trope is the use of the first person plural. "We must send in ground troops." "Our resolve must not lag." Never mind that the writer is neither a decision maker nor a fighter. This by itself is strange. If I said, "We must increase the production of Cadillacs," the normal response would be to ask what executive position at GM I hold. The listener would be confused to discover that I hold no position at all. Writers who use the first person plural to discuss US foreign policy do this all the time, but hardly anyone raises a question.

Let’s go on to an example. Rich Lowry has issued a call "to send U.S. troops in on the ground to capture key cities and hold that which we consider strategically essential…. there is no avoiding these hard decisions — because there are no free lunches, including in Afghanistan." Thus do we see how the courageous Rich, as a mere web journalist, has conquered the natural reluctance ("hard decision") to send young men and women into a poor land, where there are hardly any paid lunches, to conquer and occupy civilian areas.

Rich is himself impressed by an even more vivid example of this style of thinking: Senator John McCain in an article for the Wall Street Journal:

"War is a miserable business. The lives of a nation’s finest patriots are sacrificed. Innocent people suffer and die. Commerce is disrupted, economies are damaged. Strategic interests shielded by years of patient statecraft are endangered as the exigencies of war and diplomacy conflict. However heady the appeal of a call to arms, however just the cause, we should still shed a tear for all that will be lost when war claims its wages from us."

Very chilling indeed. But McCain would have us believe that his frankness and courage have permitted him to deal with the awful realities to a greater extent than mere mortals.

"We must expect and prepare for our enemies to strike us again…. We cannot fight this war from the air alone. We cannot fight it without casualties. And we cannot fight it without risking unintended damage to humanitarian and political interests…. We must destroy them, wherever they hide. That will surely increase the terrible danger facing noncombatants, a regrettable but necessary fact of war…. We shouldn’t fight this war in increments…. War is a miserable business. Let’s get on with it."

Bracing stuff. We are supposed to respond with awe at his supposed toughness of mind. And yet even McCain couches matters just a bit more than is necessary in these times. He is still too guarded and not fully embracing the grim reality. For example, there’s no need to talk of "unintended damage" to "humanitarian…interests" when he really means imposing massive suffering and death on wholly innocent people.

And what’s with this "unintended" qualifier? Let’s say I wave a gun around the room and shout: "When I shoot this, I may unintentionally kill you." In court, will I be convicted of involuntary manslaughter or murder? McCain is talking here about doing exactly what he intends. Let’s not pussyfoot around.

McCain has stepped up the rhetoric, but not enough. If he and his editorial cohorts are really serious about this war, and truly committed to appearing brash and brawny to the readers of the world, they must move beyond euphemism altogether. Thus do I offer my own contribution to the escalation of courage notable among the writers of our time:

"Now is the time for us to stand up for honor and decency against vile foreign elements that threaten our way of life. Let us murder every foreign Muslim man, women, and child, and starve those we can’t find with cruel blockades, allowing anyone who remains to die miserable deaths from disease, even if it means hurting our economy and sending thousands of American men and women to their own violent deaths, leaving their own children and spouses abandoned. Let us flatten every mud hut, kill every goat and goatherd, blow the arms off little children with our bright yellow cluster bomblets. Do it with strength and honor, and do it now.

"This may incite more terrorism at home. We will endure it. Our cities may be bombed, our water poisoned, our highways wrecked, our hospitals turned into morgues. No price is too high.

"And, friends, we may never get Bin Laden. May we never stop trying. The Taliban may actually grow in strength, as governments attacked by foreigners tend to do. We will not flinch. We may cause every decent person in the entire world to despise America. But we will show the world that no insult can break our will. Our government may never again allow a foreign visitor or product to pass our borders. We will adjust and prevail.

"Yes, we will have to give up our liberty, property, and even family members. The money we earn from our jobs will be taken by the government and spent to create more weapons of mass destruction to be dropped on foreign people’s homes, hospitals, and water-treatment plants. They will thirst but have no drink, because we paid to destroy their clean water. They will hunger but find no food, because we made it possible to destroy their crops and any means of transport.

"Your son, whom you have nursed from sickness to health many dozen times from infancy through his teen years, may be slaughtered on some godforsaken mountain between China and the Caspian sea, because that’s where your government sent him to kill or be killed. Your daughter, whom you comforted through adolescence and later dressed so beautifully for the prom, may be ripped to shreds. So great is your courage and determination that this is the price you will pay.

"This war may never end. Every bomb we drop will create more enemies, and thus more people who must be killed. We will go anywhere to do this. If we discover that the Czech Republic or Costa Rica or even Berkeley, California, harbors these enemies, they too will become targets of our wrath. There is no place safe from the sword of justice!

"Your fellow citizens who have lent aid and comfort to the enemy, in thought, word, or deed, will be humiliated, robbed, jailed without trial. As for war supporters, we are safe so long as we never disagree with our government’s official line, which is the very definition of truth.

"To eliminate freedom and replace it with a police state is what our high ideals require of us. For we know that no matter what happens, it is the fault of our enemies, for they dare to believe of themselves what we believe of ourselves. Let us get on with the war!"