Friday, November 03, 2006

I Heard A Mosquito Buzz When I Died

As I have been arguing in recent posts (and previously), Americans (and humans more generally speaking) would be well-served to recognize, acknowlede and attempt to mitigate our innate war-like tendencies. I actually agree with Michael Ledeen when he says this (a first time for everything!):

...I mean, it may sound like an odd thing to say, but all the great scholars who have studied American character have come to the conclusion that we are a warlike people and that we love war...[emph. added]

But the love of war can be a dangerous form of affection. Within the American body politic, as I have stressed, there has been far too much emphasis on the redemptive force of war (assuming war is capable of rectifying any number, and variety, of problems), and a frighteningly low threshold applied to decisions to go to war.

In fact, we celebrate and honor those individuals amongst us that are the most willing to start wars in the broadest set of circumstances, with the shortest amount of deliberation or diplomatic efforts beforehand. On the other hand, we denigrate, dismiss and show contempt for those that counsel caution, circumspection and restraint. One side is strong, the other weak.

Once the war drums begin beating, it really doesn't take much to convince us that war is the only viable means to resolve a given conflict - be it the need to obliterate entire Panamanian neighborhoods in order to "apprehend" our erstwhile ally Manuel Noriega, or to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people through "shock and awe."

To be clear, I am not saying that war is never the necessary last resort required to address a crucial strategic/humanitarian concern, it is just that I don't think we always reserve war for those extreme circumstances. Further, we are also guilty of paying less attention to measures designed to prevent the emergence of situations that make war inevitable or unavoidable (for the Bush administration, this a feature not a bug).

This hyper-willingness to resort to war stems, in part, from the fact that there are aspects of war that fulfill certain of our desires. War motivates us to action, and provides a sense of deeper purpose that might otherwise be lacking in a more mundane existence. Nations, tribes and subgroups bond tightly around war. Nothing, in fact, brings a nation closer or broaches internal disagreements and differences like the state of war (at least in the early stages of the conflict, or for however long the conflict is deemed legitimate by a plurality of the population).

In service of the exalted task of war, we agree to spend otherwise unthinkable amounts of money without a commensurate level of consideration. Once a war begins, it is as if the blank check is signed and there is no real, substantive debate about costs and benefits. Quite the contrary, oversight is anathema and such discussions are often deemed to be improper - in bad taste if you will. Instead, most discourse surrounding the war is relegated to abstractions about morality, grand strategy, jingoistic accusations and defenses, as well as other "enlightened" subjects.

It is this ability to spend-beyond-reproach, and summon all other manner of resources, that has led politicians to cast other domestic or non-military policies in war-like language. It is a signal to the population that the underlying matter is urgent, serious and requires our utmost cooperation. Hence, we get the "War on Poverty," the "War on Drugs," the "War on Terror," and, in reverse, the "War on Christmas."

The moral dimension of war remains an important ingredient in terms of ensuring the public's cooperation. As such, prior to and during every war, the war-makers must convince their constituents that they are the morally pure, while their adversaries occupy the lowest level of immorality. Demonization is standard operating procedure. There is no room for much-maligned "nuance."

And so we are often treated to impassioned arguments concerning how the [insert here] war is going to right some deep moral wrong, repair some hemorrhaging humanitarian crisis and otherwise redeem the targets of our missiles, bombs and other lethal ordnance (lucky them?). Almost always, this ploy works (for better and for worse, depending).

Due to the humanitarian component included in the sales pitch, war supporters often strike a pious and self righteous posture that sucks the air out of any debate or possibility of dissent. Yet many of those same "morally superior" war proponents seem willing to tolerate much human suffering that doesn't require enormously expensive, destructive and murderous wars to relieve. A commenter over at Jim Henley's place summarized this phenomenon rather succinctly:

...[T]here is no one more contemptible than the people who are filled with sympathy for residents of poor countries only when it’s an occasion for dropping bombs on them.

Yes, it’s terrible that people were killed by Saddam, or the government of Sudan, or Milosevic, or whoever. It really is bad.

But it’s also bad that people are dying of water-borne illnesses, malaria, and many other problems that can be dealt with much more cheaply and reliably and without killing anybody. Someone whose empathy for the poor expresses itself only through advocacy for violence is much worse than someone with no empathy at all, who at least will leave them alone.

Along these lines, I wanted to highlight a post by Mark Leon Goldberg which discusses the plight of Africa's children, and the ravages of malaria on this vulnerable population. Here is a truly disturbing factoid:

Every thirty seconds, an African child dies from a malaria infection transmitted by a mosquito bite, making it the number-one killer of African children under five.

Just imagine if it was tyrant, and not a disease, that was culling his/her nation's children with such ruthless regularity. Do you think it would be hard to convince Americans to spend billions of dollars to topple said despot (again, for better and for worse)? Yet, are we anywhere near as motivated to spend a far less significant amount of money on non-bellicose solutions - solutions that don't also involve bombing the brutalized people we are intending to "save"?

The answer is "yes" and "no." Mark's post has the details of how Americans, and others, have helped to ameliorate the terrible scourge of malaria through nothing more than small donations. This unfolding story is at once encouraging, and discouraging. It is inspirational to see the cumulative effect of a little generosity in action. But it also reminds us that we all-too-often ignore and overlook the easy, relatively affordable problem-solving tools because they lack the illicit excitement of war.

If it would help, I propose we call this the "War on Malaria." There, now go support the troops.

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