Tuesday, August 21, 2007

War, what is it good for?

I am reading Flags of Our Fathers, written by a son about his father and 5 other men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. His description of the battle of Iwo Jima is extremely vivid and detailed--descriptions of men literally cut in half by bullets, the top half of a body standing upright in the sand, and the incredible number of men killed, more Americans in a few days than in the entire Iraq War so far.

One of the things that struck me is the extreme youth of the "men" who were fighting. I always thought that calling them "our boys" was a kind of odd thing, but in fact, they were boys, most of them Kristen's age, many of them younger. Too young to drink, too young to vote, too young to marry, but old enough to see unspeakable horror (flamethrowers used to burn men alive in front of their eyes, buddies with their guts in their hands, heads rolling from bodies). What must it have done to the survivors?

I wondered about the eagerness and willingness of so many young men to volunteer in WW2, but a little thinking about the great Depression makes it a little more understandable. A kid who was 18 in 1942 was born in 1924 and was 5 years old when the stock market crashed. His entire childhood was spent seeing his father and uncles struggle to find work. His family probably could barely afford to feed him, and the odds of going to college or starting a career must have looked pretty grim. Then along comes Uncle Sam, offering steady work and prestige--become a man, save the world, be a hero! After watching his father's humiliating struggle to stay afloat, this must have looked like a great opportunity. And for many young men, it really was. 18 and 19 year old kids were given heavy equipment to operate, tanks and trucks and even airplanes. And thousands of excess workers were killed during the war, so that those who came back intact really did have a much brighter future than their elders ever had.

An article in this month's Harpers Magazine discusses whether war has now become obsolete. It speaks of war as a cultural choice, not a part of human nature. Human beings have to breathe and eat and have sex, but they don't have to wage war. One of the oddities of the viewpoint in Flags of Our Fathers is that it partakes of the WW2 opinion that the Japanese fought unfairly. It is rather striking that the Japanese are pictured as barbarians because they refused to surrender and were willing to fight to the last man and to undertake suicide attacks. This struck American soldiers as an unfair, unsporting position.

The fact that there is such a difference of opinion as to how the game of war ought to be played makes it clear that it really is a cultural construct. The Americans didn't think they were playing dirty pool when they used tanks of gasoline to send sheets of fire into a position where they knew Japanese soldiers were hiding. But they were horrified by the fact that the Japanese didn't need the assurance that at least some of them would come back from a mission alive. The Japanese also committed many atrocities--mistreating prisoners, whom they believed to be shameful cowards because they had surrendered. But while the Japanese were cruel to individual soldiers and apparently to captured cities in China and elsewhere, were they any crueler than the men who firebombed Tokyo and nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Is torture less cruel when done at a distance?

Is it really possible that the human race is beginning to reach the point at which wholesale war such as the American Civil War, WW1 and WW2, in which millions died, no longer seems supportable? The war in Iraq is really notable for the very small number of Americans killed (and probably the number of Iraqis killed is relatively insignificant compared to say Russia in WW2). And yet large numbers of Americans oppose this war. Imagine if we were losing this number of men, not in years but in days. Would anyone support such a cause?

Sure, radical Islam would like to attack us, but there is no threat that Islam will mass millions of soldiers and actually invade our country. Islam doesn't have a military. It has martyrs. Rather a different concept. And it is clear to the rest of the world that Islam is attempting to live in the past, in an imaginary 12th century golden age or something. It may nip at our heels and cause some trouble, but it's a far cry from the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. Or the United States or Great Britain.

The only country in the entire world today that actually contemplates using military force to invade and pillage other countries is the United States. And even our appetite for such adventures seems to be waning. Young men (and women) of today really do have better options than 17 year old children of the depression had. The propaganda that it is sweet and lovely to die for one's country is slowly losing its hold on our imagination.

Perhaps like slavery and child labor and wife beating, war will gradually come to be seen by almost everyone as immoral and self-defeating. It can't happen too soon.

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