Friday, August 1, 2008

Childhood's End Someday? (Quote of the Week w/Commentary)

“It’s time to be patriotic about something other than war.”

- John Edwards

Alone among the developed nations of the West, the US still glorifies war and the “warrior.” This serves as an object lesson to the rest of the world about what happens when a nation obtains the means to wage war at will anywhere around the globe without also maturing into the wisdom to abhor the idea of war. I have come to believe that the love and glorification of war is something that a nation outgrows, and the US has a very long way to go before it is mature enough to turn its back on war. Indeed, I doubt that there can ever again be conditions dire enough to pull the US kicking and screaming out of its warlike childhood.

We can look to the nations of Western Europe as our benchmark for a sane, realistic attitude towards war. The thing we need to understand about Europe is that it did not achieve its maturity just by being in existence a lot longer than the US. Nor was it the result of philosophical reflection and rational critique. No, Europe turned its back on war because Europe bled. The countries of Europe bled and bled, and when they thought they’d finally managed to “end all wars,” they bled worse than all the other times combined. Europe has bled on a scale that the US cannot begin to imagine. The numbers that follow are in no way intended to trivialize US deaths in its wars – I’m of a mind that every single death in war is a moral outrage and an affront to reason – but simply to highlight the vast difference in the scale of death between Europe (which has moved beyond war) and the US (which has not).

The total US casualty count in its 10-year war in Vietnam was 57,000, less than the British casualty count on the first day of the battle of the Somme in July 1916. US casualties in its 5 years in Iraq are small compared the 18,000 French war dead in their “Iraq equivalent” in Algeria. Even in the European theatre in World War II, the US suffered less combat deaths (291,000) than some surprising countries such as Romania (500,000), Hungary (300,000) and even Italy (330,000), a country widely seen as having waved the white flag at every opportunity. Even the French – still seen by most in the US as having played no meaningful combat role in the war – came close to the US numbers, with 250,000 combat deaths. And mind you, these numbers do not even take into account the massive civilian casualties in Europe’s wars. The civilian population of the US, by contrast, has been essentially unscathed by its wars .. which perhaps explains a lot about the US’s continuing infatuation with war and “warriors”.

Again, I feel the need to emphasize that these numbers are not intended to trivialize the horrors experienced by US military personnel (and their families) in the country’s various wars, but simply to suggest that the scale of the bloodletting necessary to cure a people of their addiction to war is not something that the US has ever approached. Europe had to be bled white before it could arrive at childhood’s end and step beyond their strutting bluster and testosterone-saturated militarism. The US has never come close to that scale of wartime suffering, nor (absent some unexpected, game-changing apocalypse) is the US ever likely to bleed on that scale. On a human level – which is where, ultimately, all our moral decisions must be made – it is a wonderful thing that the American people will never have to suffer so. But if the US will never go through that awful fire and emerge on the other side cured of the disease of war, is there any other way that the US can arrive at its own childhood’s end someday?

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