The Myth of the Good War

Love thy enemy? I get a chance to do so on a regular basis, thanks to the email (or nasty-mail) I sometimes get in response to my column, e.g.:

“Must be a dearth of anyone with anything intelligent to say for the News to put your drivel out for us to chew on. Not going to go over ridiculous points you made . . .  not worth my time. Next time offer a cure. Otherwise it’s just reportage that we already know.”

I have an advantage here. When I get a communique like this, I know the writer read my column in a regular newspaper, not a progressive site on the Internet — and that’s a good thing for multiple reasons.

One: The mainstream media is often fearful of a viewpoint like mine, which is critical of war and nukes and nationalism and border cages and such, so I always feel delight on learning I’ve made it into mainstream print.

Two: Hearing from someone who hates what I’ve written is the essence of across-the-aisle communication. So what if the letter hits me like a verbal bullet? The writer exposed himself to a counter-viewpoint, expanding his awareness of the world. Let me do the same.

Sometimes I get challenging emails that address actual issues, to which I always respond. But when the email is just angry bluster (sometimes profane, sometimes containing a threat), I shrug and usually let it go. My primary rule in such cases: If I do respond, wait till the emotion ebbs. Tossing a counter-insult back at the writer — using words as weapons — is just playing High Noon. Gotcha! It accomplishes nothing of value.

The above letter, from a guy named Tom, was in response to a recent column called “Poisoning Ourselves with War,” which, in describing the vicious harm caused by our drone warfare, attempted to make a transcendent point: As we dehumanize and kill the enemy, along with collateral children and other innocents (“the cameras showed women and children staggering out of the partly collapsed building, some missing limbs, some dragging the dead”), we also dehumanize ourselves. And the consequences of this are destroying the world.

Drivel, eh? A second response, from Jim, was a little more informative:

“War is hell, no sh*t. Tell it to the Jews, The Chinese people, and anybody else that would have been COMPLETELY wiped out by the likes of Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini. Maybe the people who fought and died in a war they didn’t start should have done so more politely. Easy for you to say when you have never had to fight for your or others people’s lives, just sit-back and second guess others that were clearly superior to you. The next time some petty dictator comes along maybe you could try your best Chamberlain and see how that works for you.

“As for the Jihadists I’m sure they would love to hear from an infidel, especially an American. Why don’t you drop in and say hi to ISIS, I’m sure they would make you feel right at home.”

I don’t normally make such commentary public, but when Hitler came up, I found myself wanting to throw the Fuhrer back at them. Then it started occurring to me that the barbed-wire divide between our respective viewpoints was more than a personal difference of opinions. This is national! This is how the military keeps on trucking, snatching its trillion-dollar budget every year, pushing on with the alleged war on terror that it’s been losing for the last 20 years . . . and by “losing,” I mean producing results that are the opposite of its alleged goal (to eradicate evil, or at least terrorism).

As Nick Turse points out:

“in the two decades since Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which he called a blank check (‘now worth $5.8 trillion and counting’) to wage war, it has been invoked by four presidents thus far “to justify counterterrorism operations — including ground combat, airstrikes, detention, and the support of partner militaries — in 22 countries, according to a new report by Stephanie Savell of Brown University’s Costs of War Project. During that same time, the number of terrorist groups threatening Americans and American interests has, according to the U.S. State Department, more than doubled.”

And beyond the financial costs, how many people have these efforts killed? How many have they displaced? And what, in God’s name, is the difference between the multi-millions we have killed, in all the wars we’ve waged (and lost) since World War II, and those killed by Hitler?

The only difference is this:

“Every American exercise of military force since World War II, at least in the eyes of its architects, has inherited that war’s moral justification and been understood as its offspring: motivated by its memory, prosecuted in its shadow, inevitably measured against it.”

So writes Elizabeth D. Samet in her recent book, Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness.

The myth of the good war! This is what Jim evoked in his email to me and it’s what George W. Bush evoked when he launched the war on terror. Bush’s words to the nation were “decidedly old-school, the comfort food of martial rhetoric,” Carlos Lozada writes at the New Yorker, in his review of Samet’s book. “With the Axis of Evil, the menace of Fascism (remixed as ‘Islamofascism’), and the Pearl Harbor references, the Second World War hovered over what would become known as the global war on terror, infusing it with righteousness.”

The myth of the good war may well be the most destructive certainty misleading the crumbling empire known as “USA! USA!” Here’s the problem, though. Building global and environmental peace — listening to and understanding one another — is a slow, extraordinarily complex process. It’s so much easier to keep waging war against the bad guy of the moment, who will never go away.

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.