Sunday, September 23, 2007

America and war

Over on Crooked Timber, John Quiggin shreds the standard US claim (currently being made by Presidential candidate Fred Thompson) that the US has “shed more blood for other people’s liberty than any other combination of nations in the history of the world”, pointing out that this is pretty much the opposite of the truth. The US has fought in remarkably few wars, and suffered remarkably little compared to other participants. Quite apart from the low number of military casualties, the country hasn't been invaded since 1812, its civillian population has never really suffered wartime rationing or shortages, and its population centres and factories have never been bombed into rubble. And this, according to Quiggin, is why the war party is so strong in the US:

The problem now is that most people in Europe and elsewhere have learned from experience that war is always bad, and usually worse than even bad alternatives, but many Americans have not. For the Republican core, war is a positive good, and victory the manifest destiny of the United States. The myth of American invincibility is modified only by the possibility of domestic treason, which accounts for the defeat in Vietnam and is already being used as a pre-emptive explanation for defeat in Iraq.

The Republican core can’t be ignored. They make up 30 per cent of the population, and count for even more with the opinion elite, and the Foreign Policy Community. Worse still, the rest of the Foreign Policy Community, and most of the opinion elite more generally, differ only in degree from this position. You can’t be taken seriously by the Foreign Policy Community unless you accept the premise that “America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened”, and the practical implication that such threats are common enough to require regular resort to war.

Perhaps this will change when Bush is gone and the scale of the disaster in Iraq sinks in. It seems that the lessons of the futility of war can be learned only through repeated bloody catastrophe. The best that can be said is that, if the US can learn from Vietnam and Iraq the lessons that it took two world wars to teach Europe, perhaps some progress is being made.

Unfortunately, I don't think so. Weaning Europe off war required the repeated devastation of their cities and cultural centres and the loss of an appreciable fracation of their population, so that everywhere you looked you saw the consequences of such insanity: the ruin, the wreckage, the crippled and the bereaved. World War I killed 2% of the population of Europe, with another 2% wounded, and decimated an entire generation. World War II killed 3.6% of the population of the participants (which included most of the world), and essentially destroyed the industrial infrastructure of an entire continent. And Europeans are reminded of this every day, by the gaps in their architectural record, and by the bullet holes that can still be seen in the older buildings which survived. The Iraq war has inflicted worse devastation on the Iraqis, having killed an estimated million people (from a population estimated at 26 milion), but American has been completely untouched. 4,000 dead? Tens of thousands wounded? They'll be invisible, and with the Republicans already crying "treason", I doubt it'll do anything to cure America of its mindless jingosim.