What Is It Good For?

Posted on June 30, 2010


I have never been to war. I don’t know how to write about it, other than to say I hope my son never goes. My thoughts and feelings are simplistic in most areas, and especially so when it comes to this topic. I can’t get much past the level of a young child who asks “Why?” about everything, and when given an answer, replies again, “But why?”

We seem to be addicted to war. I can’t remember a US president who didn’t conduct a military campaign somewhere. Many historians say presidents all need a war to prove they aren’t wimps. Who came up with this definition, and why did we all buy into it? I can’t think of anything that represents strength more than the ability to defy mindless tradition or public criticism for the sake of saving lives. Nor can I think of anything wimpier than sitting in a comfortable office and sending other people off to die.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion of Grenada, a tiny island in the Caribbean whose government had been overthrown in a military coup. I won’t go into details, because I don’t know the details. These things are very complicated, even when they involve a small island nation of 100,000 people. But military fatalities included about twenty Americans, at least two dozen Cubans, and forty-five Grenadians, with an additional five hundred wounded. There were reports that twenty-four civilians were also killed.

What do those numbers mean? We seem to accept wartime deaths with a cold resignation. It reminds me of the scene at the end of so many action movies. There’s a long chase that climaxes in a multiple-car crash. Vehicles fly through the air, flip over, and burst into flames. We ignore that. Our eyes are focused on the hero. Is he all right? The fact that there are people in those other cars doesn’t matter. Many of them were just killed, but what’s important is that the film’s main character has survived. The fate of the others becomes a background abstraction, mainly because we don’t know those people.

This is how we so easily accept the loss of dozens of soldiers, and the wounding of hundreds more. And it’s how we so effortlessly come to terms with the deaths of twenty-four civilians. The heroes — the president, his cabinet, and the generals — are all okay. The dead don’t seem to matter. And in the case of Grenada, they are especially insignificant, because that little invasion doesn’t even appear on most lists of American military campaigns.

Wars are almost always the result of irrational decisions made by a tiny group of political leaders. Somehow, those irrational leaders always have the power to send thousands of young men and women to some unfamiliar place to shoot at other young men and women who have been sent to fight by their leaders. This power is rarely questioned. Why? If a political leader is caught cheating on his wife, or giving money to cronies, or lying, he is often driven from office. But shipping the children of his citizens off to be mutilated by bullets and bombs and land mines is acceptable. It may even make him a hero.

Go to any bookstore and find the History section. Most of the books are about war. Why? How did we come to associate history with war? Maybe it’s because most of human history has been stained by fighting. Forty-five million people were killed during World War II. That’s the equivalent of killing every person now living in the states of Texas and New York. If we hadn’t been so in love with war, could we have possibly found another way to stop the Nazi threat without losing forty-five million lives in the process? Could we have found a way to compel the Japanese to surrender without dropping atomic bombs on cities filled with innocent people?

Every week I get emails imploring me to “support our troops.” What does that mean? If I were in charge, I would support our troops by not sending them overseas to get killed. Wars grind people up. They leave human beings dead, crippled, or traumatized. And they leave almost everyone involved hopeless, weighed down by the knowledge that the war that just ended will flare up somewhere else, and they have little or no power to stop it.

Our own collective confusion about war is evident in the way we vacillate between neglecting our soldiers and worshipping them. So many end up unemployed, homeless, permanently disabled, or mentally ill. Then, after decades have passed, we honor the few surviving veterans with parades and tear-stained Hollywood salutes and meaningless standing ovations.

The leaders, the irrational people most nations keep choosing, are addicted to war, to the blood of others, while they hide safely in their headquarters and their bunkers, eating meals served by silent butlers and attending briefings and high-level meetings. They confer with their chiefs of staff, studying charts and drinking from clean glass goblets, while the sons and daughters of the people who put them there lose their lives in the jungle or under the rubble, thousands of miles away.

These views, I realize, are considered naive. Life is complicated, and there are evil people out there who wish us harm. I know that. And I’m not suggesting that we don’t protect ourselves. What I am saying is that in most cases throughout history, the real threat has been created by lunatics — power-hungry lunatics. Then, thousands of people with absolutely no grudge to bear have willingly killed each other at the command of those lunatics.

The Fourth of July is a holiday of flags and fireworks, baseball and barbecues. But let’s not forget that American independence began with a fourteen-hundred-word document and was won at the cost of fifty thousand lives. Since that time, the United States has rarely been able to avoid war for more than twenty years. Soldiers are dying right now in Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars will end sooner or later, but it seems inevitable that within a decade or two, American blood will soak the soil of some other country.

I hope before that happens, we take a good long look and at least ask the question: Why?