April 21, 2003

I haven't heard it voiced out loud yet, but I know it's only a matter of time before someone says, "the US's ability to wage war while sustaining almost no casualties means they're much more likely to engage in future conflicts." On the face of it, it even makes sense. It's the cost of a thing that determines how often we use it, right? By minimizing the cost in human life to the victors, war will automatically become easier to engage in, yes?

One of the more crass but no less predictable comments on the Columbia disaster was, "there were just seven people on that thing! Thousands of people are killed [by whatever petty injustice is on their mind today] every day, how dare you be upset by seven people!"

The difference is, of course, that we can know these seven people. We learn their names, know how many children they had, what each individual's history was. Instead of faceless statistics, they become real in our minds. Further, they were our best and brightest, doing something that nearly all of us see as worthwhile and meaningful. We know that every one of them understood the risks, and considered what they did not brave, but simply part of the job.

It's simply a cold, hard truth of humanity that we sympathize only with what we can identify, humanize, or incorporate into our own experiences. The most effective way of motivating people over an enormous humanitarian crisis is not to drone on with statistics, or even tell stories of refugee camps or show pictures of dozens of skeletal bodies mummifying on a road, it's to focus on a single person and tell their one compelling story as effectively as possible.

That's what this so called "modern war" allows. Cynics at Hollywood parties and college cloak rooms will eventually crow about "video game warfare" and "the puppet press brigade", all the while missing the real point. We can never know the thousands of faceless soldiers who marched shoulder-to-shoulder at Gettysburg, who went over the top at Verdun, up the cliffs of Omaha Beach. When death is counted in the thousands, we can't understand that each statistic represents the body of a high school linebacker being rolled in the surf, a sophomore chemist in a frozen foxhole with his eyes fixed open, or a pharmacist floating alone in the middle of an ocean, the nearest land a thousand miles away.

But when the casualties number in the tens, instead of ten thousands, every soldier has a name. Every one of them is mourned not only by their families, but by communities, counties, states, a nation. We can know their faces and their history. They have a future we can all see was cut short too soon, and by seeing their sacrifice on a personal level we work all the harder to make sure it has a meaning.

Some may say fighting a war that kills a mere hundred is no war at all. To them I ask how many is enough? To them I say how dare you make yourself the judge of the amount of death needed to create "equality." To them ask if they will say these things to the faces of the families of those hundred, that the death of their child, a child the rest of the nation mourns, means nothing. I call coward any who prevaricate, refuse, or bluster.

When money is like water it is spent as if the gates of heaven have opened wide. But when each penny leaves dear, each dollar let go only with regret, the wisdom of Solomon himself can't convince a people to part with it. That is the lesson of this war. By individualizing every death an entire nation re-learns the wisdome of Robert E. Lee when he said, "It is well that war is so terrible--we should grow too fond of it."

Posted by scott at April 21, 2003 10:11 PM

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One of the men that died in Iraq this past week graduated from the same High School as me.

War is hell, which is why we try to avoid it.
Let Hollywood make movies. It doesn't mean we have to watch them. And let those "prevaricate, refuse, or bluster" as they wish, it's their AMERICAN right, though I call them foolish as well as cowards.

Posted by: Cindy on April 21, 2003 11:13 PM

Excellent essay!

Posted by: Pat on April 22, 2003 03:53 AM
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