Wednesday, October 25, 2006

On War

We are not at war. There is some danger inherent in this thesis, but in a world where people perpetually claim that we must sacrifice our liberties in the interest of war, let us assume we are not at war. In my Congressional district, a retired National Guard adjutant general runs for the seat on the Republican ticket; in a restaurant, a man at a nearby table suggests that she would be an apt representative because, “after all, we’re at war”.

But what if we’re not at war?

I’ve heard about war from my grandfather, who drove a tank destroyer through France and Germany during World War II. He has told me that the purpose of the army is to kill people, not to provide a college education, and not to be fooled by messages to the contrary. He lived in foxholes, ate K-rations, was shot at, and killed people. In many ways, he is representative of the men of his generation. Forty years later, he promised to take his grandsons to Canada if we were ever faced with going to war.

During that same war, my great grandfather worked for my hometown supervising air raid drills. He combed the streets as people darkened their windows, stayed inside, extinguished their lights, waited for news. Even the Capitol dome in Washington was darkened. Life did not go on as usual in wartime.

My grandmother was a high school student at that time. She went without nylon stockings and painted on her hemlines with eye liner. Food was rationed, the yellow dye for the margarine was sold separately to be mixed in by women across the country. Scrap metal was to be saved and reused, as were all other resources. This was not hard for a generation used to scraping by on the edge of poverty and fleeting employment. Pennies were the color of nickels because copper was reserved for ammunition. You didn’t eat whatever you want and you didn’t throw away whatever you didn’t want. The president didn’t tell people to go shopping, burn oil, or forget about mourning.

A dear friend of my great grandmother lost her son in that war. He was a good boy who doted on her and was always patient and kind to his mother. She lived for fifty more years without forgetting him. She wept and pointed to the black and white photograph on her wall at least once every time I visited her as a child. Mothers who didn’t lose their sons knew what it meant to awaken each morning not knowing whether their boys were alive or what country they were in.

During Vietnam, every man in my father’s generation had, at least, to think about his response to a summons from his draft board.

In the wars I learned about, people made sacrifices. They sacrificed luxury, routine, basic needs, loved ones, innocence, and their own lives. The danger is in imagining that this somehow made acceptable the propaganda that led us into and through wars, the rights sacrificed by workers and citizens, and the disproportionate burden borne by the poor, the uneducated, immigrants. This is not the case; war is wrong and sacrifice does not make it noble.

But in a time when we are told that we are at war, perpetual war, experience and evidence don’t justify the claim. Except for one gruesome day five years ago, this country hasn’t been under attack. Yet the duration of this so-called war against terror has now gone on for longer than American involvement in the Second World War. We have not been asked to sacrifice luxury, routine, or leisure. Only a limited number have been asked to sacrifice time with loved ones. Though too many have lost their lives, that sacrifice is far from universal on American soil. In so many ways, we are not at war. In so many ways, this war is a cruel farce.

Despite this lack of universal sacrifice in true defense of each person’s well-being, our government has engaged in the worst domestic abuses in the name of a distant foreign war. It has deluged the citizenry with propaganda in an effort to silence dissent. It has sacrificed civil liberties and increased corporate wealth under the cover of national interest. And, as ever, it has required the greatest sacrifices of poor people, the least educated, and those who have been most discriminated against. In 1984, George Orwell warned of the dangers of perpetual war, when the appearance of war causes us to subjugate individuality to the dictates of the state and to pave the way for injustice in the name of nationalism.

Let us stop this talk of war when we are safe in our beds, happily vacationing, driving SUVs, buying on credit, producing inordinate amounts of garbage, and numbly watching our televisions. Let us reject the fallacy that wars are just or necessary, and let us unmask the intentions of leaders who use the illusion of war to manipulate us in the intervals.