Sunday, August 26, 2007

regular joes

Jim Henley ponders the persistent attraction of war:

War is beguiling. Even those of us who have spent years opposing this war, and the next one, are testament to this. We could be writing every day about tax policy or drug laws or health care policy or Lindsay Lohan. We write about war because it’s important, but also because it’s fascinating. Even as we abhor it we are mesmerized.
I'm reading now A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin. British commanders and politicians in WWI were at least as clueless, ineffectual, and bloodthirsty as Bush and Co. have been, and hundreds of thousands of troops died needlessly as a result of their stupidity. Contemporary public perception of who was competent and who to blame for wartime screwups was almost entirely wrong. Most striking was the unquestioned view, shared by 99% of the people in charge, that it would be in the Arabs' best interest to be ruled by Britain and that, in fact, this was what the Arabs wanted. There was never any evidence to support this view, and there’s little evidence American troops are welcome in Iraq today.

A good portion of the problems of Britain in the Middle East in WWI and of our problems today can be attributed to troop worship and the free hand given the military. Service in the military doesn't endow regular people with exceptional intelligence and judgment—perhaps the reverse is more true.

War gets disproportionate attention in part because people feel war is world-changing and historically important, so they view it and those who carry it out with a sort of sacred awe. Yes, when countries fight wars, governments are overthrown, borders redrawn, and lots of people die. But the pervasive sense one gets in discussion about the Iraq War is that each action, each decision taken in wartime is weightier and more meaningful than routine peacetime decisions. Politicians and generals use this public feeling to circumvent normal decision-making processes and insulate themselves from criticism. Not subject to normal constraints on power and often blind to inconvenient facts or contrary narratives, they make predictable errors and overestimate their capabilities. Also, they often view human beings as just so many Risk pieces on their global gameboard, to be shuffled around and sacrificed as contingencies of the moment require. Consequently, incompetence and meaningless destruction are the rule in wartime, not the exception. War, then, fills me not with a sense of awe and import, but with disgust and sadness.

Treating members of the military like regular human beings subject to the same temptations, aspirations, and obligations as the rest of us would help deflate the false religion of war and show it for what it invariably is: a bloody mess.

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