Why do so many conservatives — most of whom oppose abortion, the killing of human fetuses — so readily, even eagerly, favor war? Not just this or that war, but nearly every war?
The idea of war seems to conjure in their imaginations a picture of a battle between a virtuous America and a purely evil enemy who deserves whatever he gets. In World War II movies, for instance, German soldiers are always shown as cruel, usually beefy men, more than 30 years old, each of whom is capable of strangling Ann Frank with his bare hands. They are never shown as scared kids, drafted like our boys to fight for purposes they don’t understand.
Even Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, so realistic in its depiction of the violence of war, maintained this stereotype. All the Germans were rotten adult Nazis, in contrast to the fresh-faced, morally sensitive American boys who wrote home to Mom. In the movies, German soldiers never seem to have moms.
Yet the memoirs of veterans like Paul Fussell are full of touching stories of the enemy’s humanity. Fussell recalls looking at the bodies of dead Germans after one battle and finding not the hardened men he expected to see, but teenaged boys who probably didn’t shave yet. He realized that war is tragedy, not melodrama.
Today we have become inured to depictions of Arabs as swarthy, unshaven fanatics, also momless. This has prepared us psychologically for the coming war with Iraq. Who ever heard of a scared Arab kid, sent by his government to fight and die? We’re told that Saddam Hussein is a ruthless tyrant, which he surely is; yet we’re expected to believe, too, that his armies are composed of his willing servitors rather than his victims.
And what about civilians? In modern war, civilians — women, children, old people — always die. Some children who survive lose limbs. We have a phrase for this: “collateral damage.” Given its inevitability, we should at least hesitate before resorting to war. Yet conservatives can’t wait for the bombing to start. They view war not as a regrettable necessity, but as a positive good, the prospect of which elates them.
Feticide is wrong because killing the innocent is wrong. War kills indiscriminately. Conservatives used to have deep reservations about war. Why are this generation’s conservatives so different from their ancestors? Their casual acceptance of war is one of the most striking cultural changes in American life.
Conservatives usually oppose wasteful spending programs, yet war is the most wasteful spending program of all. Enormous amounts of wealth are diverted from production to destruction. Is it worth it? Will the costs of devastating Iraq be justified by any gains? Would peace be more costly than war? The Bush administration is avoiding these basic questions, and conservatives aren’t demanding answers.
Recall one of our recent wars: the war on Panama. The overthrow of Manuel Noriega was supposed to disrupt the illicit drug traffic in Latin America. It didn’t. In terms of its announced purpose, that easy victory totally failed.
Will the easy defeat of Iraq destroy terrorism? The idea is absurd. It will provoke even more terrorism, and Americans around the world — including us in America itself — will be in greater danger than before. Everyone knows it. The Bush people don’t even deny it.
And conservatives don’t seem to care. War is the one government program they assume will succeed. Their talk shows, magazines, and newspapers clamor for war. Their think-tanks ask no skeptical questions, issue no cost-benefit analyses. The same people who ridicule liberal welfare programs for “throwing money at the problem” are willing to take exactly the same approach to terrorism. And the liberal programs at least aren’t meant to kill people.
Fussell’s masterpiece Wartime puts great stress on the sheer inefficiency of war. War always begins with optimistic talk about “precision bombing” and “surgical strikes” that will quickly vanquish the enemy. But armies and air forces are unwieldy things, and people are hard to kill when they don’t want to be killed. So the material costs of warfare always far exceed the expected costs.
Nor does victory bring the expected results. Conservatives rightly lament the “unanticipated consequences” of welfare programs, but they don’t seem to notice the unanticipated consequences of war. If they want a cost-benefit analysis, they might start by reading Aeschylus and Euripides.