Twenty-three years ago, Ronald Reagan asked voters the famous question: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago."
The voters said no, sent Jimmy Carter back to his peanut farm, and Reagan went to Washington.
The Republic wasn't much better off after four years of Reagan than it was after four years of Carter, but in any event it seems an appropriate question to ask after a war.
The blood having been shed, a nation having been destroyed, is anyone, victor or vanquished, better off?
The Civil War
Let's start with the War of Northern Aggression.
Those who swallow public-school propaganda, that the war was fought to free the slaves, would say yes, the country was better off. The slaves were freed; the union preserved.
Asked another way, however, and you come to a different conclusion. Throw the costs of the war into the question. After 600,000 dead and half the nation wrecked and impoverished for nearly half a century, was the United States better off?
What if the union had split temporarily, but, after a number of years, had reunited and the slaves had been freed peacefully. Would that have been worth saving 600,000 lives and sparing the South the unspeakable brutality and wreckage of the Yankee invasion and occupation?
Everyone seems to believe the implausible: That the South was the real threat to the union and had to be destroyed.
But let's move along to World War I. The Kaiser was not a threat to civilization or the United States. Some 14 million died. Nations were razed. Was the United States or the world better for it? World War II, after all, was partly the result of "the war to end all wars."
For the sake of argument, grant that World War II was the "good" war; i.e., that the United States fought and destroyed an international menace (and leave aside the international menace who was our ally).
But were we better off after the Korean War? After 10 years of Vietnam? Even if one concedes that both wars were important battles in the global crusade against Communism, we stalemated one and lost the other, to no tangible detriment to American national security.
War in Iraq
Now, 13 years after the first Gulf War, we are fighting in Iraq, a war declared finished but still claiming American lives, one or two at a time. The other day, the Washington Post reports, a 19-year-old American boy was shot in the face and drowned in his own blood. Is he better off?
Hussein's removal from power is the only goal this war has achieved, an appalling expenditure of treasure and blood to depose one man. Oddly, our nation readily kills and maims thousands of civilians in "precision" bombing, but resists assassinating one man with a well-placed bullet between the eyes.
Anyhow, American leaders told the public, implausibly, that Saddam Hussein threatened us. He had "weapons of mass destruction" ready to smuggle into the United States for a sneak attack.
Our soldiers cannot find them, and more than once, authorities have upgraded the federal "terror alert" in anticipation of terrorist attacks.
Are We Better Off?
Are we better off, now that Iraq is destroyed and we must pay for reconstruction and stage an indefinite occupation?
Are we better off living in the regime of codes yellow, orange and red?
If not, ask this: Why the war?
June 14, 2003
Syndicated columnist R. Cort Kirkwood [send him mail] is managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.