I Do Choose to Run: War in pieces

Oct. 10, 2011, 12:29 a.m.

I Do Choose to Run: War in piecesThis fall, I enrolled in Religious Studies 103: Psychospiritual Dimensions of Violence. It’s a wonderful course, though the material is dark and its implications are sometimes tough to grapple with. The class meets once a week, on Mondays at 7 p.m., to watch and discuss award-winning films about the traumatic effects of war and violence on individuals, societies and nations.

At the end of each film, there is always an empty, aching silence. We leave quietly, not sure what, if anything, to say. There is no post-class chatter here. We then take two days to reflect before writing a brief response to each week’s film.

It was during this period of reflection that I thought about why we felt the way we did — so horrified and shocked. I thought that shock generally flows from inexperience, and I thought about what our inexperience meant. Here assembled was a class of exceptionally bright young minds, and we did not know what war was. We were shocked by the face of war because we had never looked it in the eyes.

That was a bit odd, I reflected. After all, our nation has been at war for a decade now. Should we not know by now what war is?

But we don’t, and it troubles me. It signifies, I think, the emergence of a new and disturbing paradigm in our nation’s conduct of war.

It is an escapist paradigm that allows us to cheer for more war without bearing any of the cost, to call for more killing without doing any of it, to cavalierly send troops abroad without fearing that we will be some of those sent. It is a new paradigm, very unlike the one that animated my grandfather’s generation during the Second World War. It allows us to watch our wars on our TV screens from the comfort of our easy chairs, in a twisted sort of virtual First Manassas. Where everyone once chipped in a little, a few now give their all. There is no gas tax, no fuel rationing, no calls for spare scrap metal or food for the war effort, no draft, no GI Bill.

Most of us bear none of the costs of war, and consequently we do not have much reason either to end the war or to support it. Most of us do not send care packages to our soldiers or demand a cessation to war by protesting its injustice. We do not write letters to our representatives in Congress asking them to devote money to psychological counseling and body armor for the troops or asking that they vote to withdraw those troops now. We can afford to have other concerns, and hence we do.

For the people who fight our wars, war is everything. For the rest of us, war is nothing. Our society once experienced war as a totality, each and every individual involved somehow and in some capacity. Today, we glimpse war in pieces and fragments — mentioned, seen, soon forgotten. We have outsourced our wars as effectively as we have outsourced our jobs.

That is a shame, because only those who have fought can truly know how much we stand to gain by not fighting.

Last spring, I took an incredible Ethics in Society course called Global Justice. In one class session I remember particularly well, we were discussing the ethics of armed humanitarian intervention in Rwanda. The conversation was intelligent and well-reasoned — standard Stanford fare — if, also in quintessential Stanford style, rather abstract and divorced from reality. Then a student in the front row raised his hand.

He had once been en route to Rwanda as a Marine, he said, charged by President Clinton with stopping the genocide there. He talked about how the thought of having to shoot a child soldier — a very real possibility at that time — troubled him deeply, and how that possibility eventually forced the president to recall American troops from the war zone before he fired a shot. He then followed up his story with a nuanced analysis of war crimes law, drawn from his own experience.

It was real, direct, qualitatively different and somehow more vivid than what we had heard from everyone else. His story reminded me powerfully just how valuable the experiences of the soldiers among us at Stanford are. And it reminded me that we cannot let the deepening rift between soldier and society grow too wide, because each would lose an understanding of the other vital to citizenship, to democracy and to peace.

It’s easy to let slip the dogs of war when you’re holding the leash. It’s a bit harder when you’re on it.

Miles wishes we cared a little more sometimes. Let him know you care at milesu1(at)stanford.edu.

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