So Sept. 11 came and went this week. I know newspapers had some coverage of commemorations, but in the last 17 years, it seems like the whole “War on Terror“ has become a backdrop in our lives.
I‘ve felt this whenever I’ve turned on a baseball game in recent years, and during the seventh inning stretch the crowd rises and sings that odious Irving Berlin ditty, God Bless America, instead of Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Why they couldn’t at least sing America, the Beautiful à la Ray Charles, I don’t know. The first thing that springs to mind during these interludes is George Orwell’s 1984 and how the world is in a perpetual state of war. There is, it seems, a banality to war now. Is it the more technology-reliant, less labour-intensive scale on which the battles are fought? Perhaps. The absence of a draft means war does not invade everyone’s lives as it did in the past. However, if you’ve even heard of post-traumatic stress and the awful time many veterans face when they return, it’s evident the experience might not be so different from the days of “shell shock.”
Since Vietnam, the shock of war has become much more visceral at home because of televised images. That war no doubt forced Western democracies to re-think how easily they could mobilize a conscripted army. Yet, have we become immune to the atrocities? We didn’t on Sept. 11, at least for a while.
Over the years, people have uttered phrases like “Support the troops” or “Support the mission.” I’m not really sure what these mean; they sound as robotic and reflexive as Orwell’s “War is peace” or “Ignorance is slavery.” Certain supports seem obvious, such as providing proper resources for people in the military while on active duty and when they return, yet these aren’t necessarily provided.
One thing we owe the troops is to ask ourselves whether we should be putting them in harm’s way in the first place. This begs a broader, much more complicated discussion surrounding the nature of war. Too many politicians simplify things, like playing the Hitler card to justify their foreign adventures. Others like my fellow secular humanists simplify things too, such as blaming religion for war. This is grossly overstated as a cause, and even situations that involve religion to motivate people often have their origins in more mundane political matters like border disputes.
There have been wars for territory or to gain colonies, wars of succession to the throne, wars of secession from the empire, class wars, wars to overthrow unsympathetic foreign governments, wars to support allies, guerrilla wars and, yes, religious wars. It’s worth asking what kind of war are we fighting?
If it’s a defensive war I realize all debates have to be put aside in the interests of protecting the beaches, but as is often the case for us now, wars take place far away. If the war is over foreign policy, don’t we at least owe it to those willing to sacrifice their lives to make sure we are making the right decision? The debacle in Iraq should make us think twice.
If not that war, how about flipping the calendar back a century. This November we’ll mark 100 years since the end of the First World War, and perhaps no historical event should make us question going to war more. This shouldn’t for a second diminish the sacrifices of those who fought, but can we really look back at that war, based in the failure of diplomacy and European alliances, and say it was worth 15-19 million military and civilian deaths? After all, it was supposed to be “the war to end war,” in the words of H.G. Wells, but instead we’re stuck living in Orwell’s state of perpetual war.