The Costs of War

02 October 2005

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the New York Times did its best to run an informative obituary of each of the victims, those at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in the airplanes that were hijacked.  So there were in the neighborhood of 2000 of these obituaries.  Reading them, day after day, made a very deep impression.  To lose your life is a bad thing for the victim; philosophers may have a little bit of difficulty agreeing as to exactly why, since one is alive until the loss, and so hasn't incurred it, and dead afterwards, and so in some sense no longer capable of harm.  Be that as it may, the real harm to the rest of the world, to one's family, friends, community and the like is no great mystery.  Most of the victime of 9-11 were enmeshed into businesses, families, and communities in all sorts of ways.  The loss of someone in the World Trade Center was not just the loss of a businesswoman, say, but of a mother, a wife, a friend, someone who played an important role in her community.

The obituaries were written by many of the Times best reporters; although written in  factual, non-florid way, they brought home the real costs to others of these deaths.  Most clearly, the families; to lose a father or a mother when still a child or a teenager is a life alterning thing.  Sometimes, no doubt, for the better, but surely in most cases for the worse.  The consequences spill over then into the lives of the victim's children, and their children.  And, as the articles made clear, also nephews, neices, kids that lost their Sunday School teacher, and in all sorts of other ways.

Soldiers have mostly been men in our nation's history, but there have been plenty of women too, and now they are among the battlefield dead.  Every loss of a mother or father means one of those non-paradigmatic families that bother many of our leaders, led by a single parent, and one who didn't choose to be that way.  The soliders are all  are sons and daughters, too, and losing a son or daughter before their time is a life-altering experience for parents.

We tend to dwell on the dead in war, but there are also the injured.  Many of these injuries are horrible, life-altering tragedies, with considerable impact not only on the solider but also on his or her family.  But even the less horrific injuries, and especially the psychic injuries, have profound effects on the families of the soliders.

American soliders are, by and large, not a special military caste or class; not a collection of losers like the French Foreign Legion is portrayed in films, not a bunch of mercenaries who intend to spend their lives fighting for the highest bidder.  They are  just ordinary people, which is to say, people enmeshed in families, communities and often ordinary jobs from which their soldiering is a unwelcome break. 

So who takes this all into account?  Before the war; few to none, one suspects.  The possible numbers are added up, but is their meaning really digested?  The most realistic projections, in terms of numbers and what the numbers mean, are probably made by the commanding officers who will be faced with prosecuting the war on a day to day basis, and writing letters to survivors; they are seldom the ones who decide to go to war.

How about afterwards?  Historians, one would hope.  But there is a great invisibility to the dead.  When you drive by the rows of crosses in Colma on the way to San Francisco, there is a moment of reflection.  But the dead are silent and don't haunt us the way they should.

The consequences of fighting a war that are mostly likely to be taken into account are the visible, measurable consequences; that is, presences rather than absences.  In America, these have often been good.  Our poster-wars are the Revolutionary War (Independence), the Civil War (End of Slavery), and World War II (Nazi-ism defeated, U.S. dominates the world).  The only fair way to evaluate the outcomes would be by comparison with what would have happened without all of the deaths, dismemberments, and the like.  How long would slavery lasted, without the 500,000 or so deaths of the Civil War?  What would the world have been like if America had stayed out of World War I?  Of World War II?  Or continued to pay the Brits their onerous tax on tea?  Or left Spain alone?  Or Mexico?  These are the sorts of hypothetical that historians, understandably, can't feel very sure about, and don't like to make an important part of their narrative.  But, it seems to me, every time an historian makes a positive appraisal of the results of a war --- and they do this quite often --- they are implicitly making a judgement about these counterfactuals.

I am not a theoretical pacificist; that is, I don't think going to war is in all instances, real and imaginable , morally wrong.  I do wonder how many of America's wars would appear justified in restrospect, if we really took their costs into account.  It seems to me that if we are willing to fight wars, we ought to be willing, we ought to be required, to make detailed retrospective analyses of the costs and benefits of past wars and present wars.  These should be informed by work from social scientists about the real costs to families and larger communities of the loss of key individuals.  They ought to require historians to attend to the very difficult job of figuring out the effect of absences as well as presences, and to at least giving us the tools to be skeptical of  restrospective certainties about how bad things would have been if what did happen had not happened. 

And, of course, they ought also to take account of the effect of our wars on the soliders and inhabitants of other nations.  If, eventually, peace and democracy comes to Iraq, that will be good for the people living then and there, against which the negative aspects of their war experiences and losses have to be taken into account.  It won't help the dead Iraqi's much.  On the counterfactual side, there is Saadam.  Getting rid of him was worth something.  How much?

Comments (1)

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

do you have any info on conscription???

do you have any info on conscription???