Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Shocka! War is Hell

A nation that goes to war with the primary goal of not killing or hurting people is setting itself up for a mistake: If you don't want people to get killed or hurt, don't go to war.

Just so, I'm confused by those who wring their hands because our war is getting ugly. If you want a tidy, clean war, you have to first invent tidy, clean warfare. I won't be holding my breath waiting.

There must be 20,000 military titles published in the U.S. every year. It seems like a third of the shelves in my local Borders are taken up with books on World War II or the Civil War. Is it possible that a nation so wrapped up in its military history has so little idea what the dogs of war really do?

I suspect the anti-Iraq War people rarely read such books and thus are shocked by what they see in the news. Their only frame of reference is Vietnam -- by definition, to them, a "bad war." So their calculus looks like this: X happened in Vietnam. Vietnam was bad. X is happening in Iraq. Therefore Iraq is bad.

Which is a fallacy unless you also know enough to answer the question, "Did X also happen in World War II and the Civil War and every other war in American history and perhaps human history?" (Bombing people to death in the process of liberating them, for instance.) Until you can answer that, you can't draw any conclusion about the current case.

As for the rest of us, perhaps we spend too much time reading the heroic version of history -- the "Greatest Generation" stuff -- which is true, but only part of the truth. Books like Max Hastings' "Armageddon," or John Dower's "War Without Mercy" or Stephen Fritz's "Endkampf" (or Hans Erich Nossack's "Der Untergang") ought to put America's World War II experience into perspective, but is anybody reading those? They're better-written than Tom Brokaw's book, I assure you.

The question is, how can any nation enter into a prolonged and dirty war without losing its soul, without strangling its own virtues for the sake of victory? A national character check ought to be a regular feature of a nation at war.

In this war, it's going to be particularly difficult. Because the enemy's tactics include the most brutal intimidation of civilian populations, combined with religious appeals to the Islamic community. They also make extensive use of cities as battlefields and civilians as human shields -- precisely because they know we have a moral repugnance for "collateral damage" and they don't.

If that fact isn't completely obvious to European media, etc., as something that sets America apart from the jihadis, if they insist on writing that "we" are no better than "them," nothing we do is going to convince them.

As for our enemies, people who saw the heads off little old lady aid workers from Ireland are not going to be impressed by our virtues if we stop taking naked pictures in Abu Ghraib.

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