Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Good Wars

There are no good wars; people who have been in them know that. Studs Terkel titled his book of collected American World War II reminiscences "The Good War," and the phrase turns up many times in the talk, but almost never with an absolute and universal sense of good: "This neighbor told me that what we needed was a damn good war, and we'd solve our agricultural problems ...." ... "I'm not talking about the poor souls who lost sons and daughters. But for the rest of us, the war was a hell of a good time." ... "It was one war that many who would have resisted 'your other wars' supported enthusiastically."

I have no doubt that few if any of the people who saw the war up close would have called it an absolute good. Instead, much of what is admirable to us about that generation is their willingness to do what they saw needed to be done, knowing it wasn't good at all.

Crushing and burning the ancient nations and peoples of Germany and Japan may have been a necessary thing, but that did not make it good. Good was something else. At the end of August 1944, Ernie Pyle sat down in France in a break in the fighting and typed:

I am sure that in the past two years I have heard soldiers say a thousand times, "If only we could have created all this energy for something good."

I think part of that sentiment they brought home with them, and infused it into our post-war role. Pyle's comment on this remark was, "But we rise above our normal powers only in times of destruction." Yet the post-war American military, while always ready to fight, proudly takes on disaster-relief missions for friend and foe. That wouldn't have been something envisioned in the Constitution.

World War II was good, for us, also because it didn't last too long. And until then the United States was blessed in fighting wars that did not last longer than about one presidential administration. The wars were short enough that our governments never become too skilled at wielding the temporary powers they acquired.

The threat is not the brazen fascism that the anti-war left loves to believe is right around the corner. Those excesses are the government's blunders: The wholesale internment of minorities, the malicious muzzling of media, the arrest of mere opposition politicians as opposed to traitors. All that is the work of a doubtful week in the White House or an overzealous subordinate in the field. The excesses spark popular revulsion, and in time the legislature or the courts correct the excess.

Given time, however, the powers of the national executive can weed out such blunders and learn to run the process smoothly, keeping outrage at a minimum. A firebrand party leader won't be imprisoned without warrant or charge, but some worthless trash from the streets might be. Nobody will much care. Domestic surveillance won't target the party out of power. But it will grow.