Sunday, July 24, 2005

War in Our Spare Time

In my last post I asked why Americans seem--at least on the surface--so unconcerned by the big numbers of civilian deaths and injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maybe part of the answer lies in how little these wars seem to affect Americans practically.

Our soldiers are starting to figure that out. I've been reading reports recently about US soldiers and officers wondering why our government hasn't asked US citizens for even the smallest sacrifices during "wartime."

Beyond waiting longer to get through airport security to catch a flight, I wonder how much "the war against terror" affects most Americans in a personal way.

Not much.

From my perspective, the war on terror is mostly an abstraction for everyday people.

It's a lucrative living and a good way to stoke the ideological flames for the extremists who control both ends of the political spectrum these days.

War is usually good business and it's often the best way to build careers quickly. So it makes sense that ideological and political elites flourish during wartime.

But beyond the satisfaction of participating second or third hand in abstract ideological battles, I'm not sure the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had a lot of real impact on everyday people in the US, no matter what their political take or persuasion.

Patriotism is pretty popular these days. But it's an abstract kind of nationalistic fervor that requires little effort or committment.

The vast majority of US families want nothing to do with the military. That makes sense since very few people really want a career where the competition actually wants to behead you or blow you up. And who wants that kind of thing for their kids?

Most sane people--and especially sane and educated people--understand that war is a bear market. Only people with the strongest sense of patriotic duty or people who really need a paycheck join up.

That means only a very small percentage of Americans--or American families--are involved in the military right now. That's very different from the situation in past American wars.

Our casualties are so miniscule from an historical point of view that only the tiniest percentage of American families have felt the ultimate cost of war.

Our primary political leaders and their children--George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice and the vast majority of our congressional leadership--have never heard a shot fired in anger. In the case of Bush and Cheney, they used their wealth and family connections to avoid real military service during Vietnam.

The loudest and most powerful political voices for war these days don't have personal and human experience in actual combat. The only real soldier among them--Colin Powell--became an outcast because he raised questions about the headlong rush into war and about the way the war in Iraq has been managed.

Big business leaders from industries that specifically profit from the wars--and especially their children--are conspicuously absent from the rosters of soldiers and officers.

Because of severe military restrictions on what the media can show, and because of some of the unique characteristics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of us see or hear very little of what's actually happening--whether good or bad--in those countries.

Americans pay no war tax to finance the immense deficits created by these wars (though our children will). We haven't been asked to conserve a single thing to advance the cause of these wars. Even the immense financial deficits themselves are so large that they seem unreal and abstract.

In short, we're fighting a war on terror in our spare time and with no real discernable cost to everyday Americans. The death and destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq have had little personal impact on most of us and have required little or no sacrifice.

Well, that's not exactly true. The military itself is overstretched and our weekend warriors--The National Guard--have bitten off way more than they thought they were going to have to chew. These folks have seen what's really going on and have felt the cost very personally.

But since rank and file folks in the military can't speak honestly and since civilian politicians overseeing the military and high ranking military leaders themselves know they risk their careers and reputations in the current political climate if they tell things like they are, there isn't much chance--at least in the short run--that we'll get an honest and detailed take from the people in uniform.

It may only be in retrospect--through the emails of soldiers that historians and journalists will someday obtain--that we'll get a more straightforward picture of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It seems to me that past generations of Americans understood the realities and costs of war more clearly and in a much more firsthand way. They seemed less glib about killing--which is what war is really about without all the spin and caked on makeup.

My father was one of the "greatest generation." He served in General Patton's Third Army command group in Europe. After the killing stopped he helped direct the army's massive effort to serve the millions of European refugees displaced during that war.

He was rarely willing to speak about his experiences. When he did he expressed wonder about people who celebrated war and dressed it up in patriotic and especially religious garb. He had contempt for politicians and others who made careers out of fanning war, particularly when they had no personal experience of it.

In my own view, the more concrete the experience of war the more people on both sides of the conflict are personally moved and affected by the death and destruction. We're arguably in the midst of a very abstract war.

That, rather than a basic lack of human feeling and compassion, may explain why Americans right now appear to have so little human connection to the very real deaths of tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Blogger Jennifer said...

It's interesting how people comment so quickly on the benign stuff and you get nothing on the really deep stuff. I'm sure that disappoints you...

I appreciate your thoughts and they seem quite accurate. I think the reason I (and perhaps others) don't have anything to say is because I feel so powerless to actually respond in a meaningful (read: change inducing) way. The petitions, the marches, the letters, they all seem to fall on deaf ears.

What can we do that might actually change something???!!!

11:10 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Thanks for your thoughts Jen.

I go back and forth on the disappointment thing. Sure, I wish people were more willing to engage in a back and forth.

But everyday stuff is just as important as the more abstract and intellectual stuff.

I spend most of my time experiencing and thinking about what I just ate or how silly somebody's clothes look just like all of us do.

And I think there's a ton of important stuff along those lines that can be mined indirectly.

I've tried to get to know the blogging world over the past 6 months.

From what I've seen so far, the only folks who get lots of hits on "serious" topics are obvious partisans who predictably feed their constituency.

When I started blogging I naively thought it was about a free exchange of ideas without all the normal social constraints of face-to-face community and tradition.

There is a some of that.

But it's mostly a place for people to do self-expression. I don't think most bloggers really want other people to interact with them beyond praising and encouraging them. People are protective and territorial about their blogs.

That's cool with me and I truly think it's important. Clearly, blogging is meeting a need that isn't being met elsewhere.

So I'm trying to take on more of that perspective. The fact that few people respond to serious stuff is ok. I know lots of people are reading and in blogging that's the goal.

Re the war, I think the petitions and letters and marches have had a major impact. 60% of Americans now think the war was a mistake from the start. No American government in the coming decade or so will be able to launch a pre-emptive war again because of the way lots of people have responded. Don't be so hard on yourself.

The biggest change will come when Christians help fellow Christians to understand alternative and more biblical social teaching. Well meaning and misguided conservative Christians are the swing vote right now.

The real battle for hearts and minds isn't in Iraq. It's in the local church.

10:15 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Good thoughts.

The local church...that's something I might actually be able to influence, and Lake Avenue is certainly a good place to start (so is Comunidad). I did throw a fit (though it was delayed) when someone put out these VERY conservative voter guides. It is possible that won't happen again as a result of my comments, so that's something.

1:01 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Here's an idea for Lake. Why don't you suggest voter guides before each major election written by a committee of serious Lake members who represent a political cross section? The key would be highlighting the key issues involved and any biblical values or principles that are at stake. The guide wouldn't even have to recommend how people vote on an issue but rather would lay out values and principles at stake. In a way, it could be a Christian version of the voter guide the state puts out before elections--it doesn't recommend how to vote but it does give lots of info and pros and cons on each issue. I've never seen anything like that, but if done well it could be a great way to encourage people to think in a Christian way about their vote without resorting to a partisan guide.

6:30 PM  

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