02 May 2011

War as Spectator Sport

On a long flight last year, while I was waiting in line for the bathroom, I saw a kid looking at the door, puzzled. It took me a second, but I realized that he didn’t know how to tell if it was vacant, or how to open it. He’d never been on a plane. He had a baby face and despite standing my height he couldn’t have been more than 19. I showed him, let him go first, and when he came out I thanked him for his service. This impossibly young kid, in full fatigues and buzz cut, was going to fight a war around the world from wherever home was, and he’d never before been on a plane.

What have we been asked to do for these wars? What have you done for these wars? I’ve personally done nothing that could in any way be called a sacrifice. President Bush didn’t ask us to pay for them, instead dropping taxes during a war for the first time in American history. President Obama has ramped up a second war and is testing the waters of a third, with no broad tax plan to pay for them, no conscription, no request for shared sacrifice. The boys and girls and men and women who are fighting these wars for us are doing so in a vacuum, away from what most of America sees or experiences.

When I watch sports, I see incredibly talented young men do things I could never do. They are not from the same places I am; they don’t hang out in the circles I do; I’m not likely to meet them at my local pub, or see them on the train or bus. They do things that are so rarefied in terms of skill, discipline and dedication that it is nearly unreal. I have almost nothing in common with them. I love to watch them pursue excellence, and I usually choose not to think about the corrosive effect that pursuit might have on the universities or communities that subsidize these spectacles. When my teams win, I run out into the streets in a shared, communal experience with others, celebrating the things these exceptional young men have done, and chant “we’re #1” despite the fact that “we” is a fiction.

I was profoundly disturbed when I saw the coverage of my fellow Americans dancing in the streets last night, on the news of Osama bin Laden’s execution, like we’d just beaten the Soviets in the Olympics.

At first I couldn’t figure out why I was disturbed.

Because it’s unseemly? Yes, of course it is. Civilized people do not dance and chant when someone is killed, it’s barbaric, intemperate and base. But might that be just subjective?

As I thought more, I realized that people were celebrating what can only be considered in fact a sad event. Death is never cause for celebration except perhaps for someone who is aged, has lived a good life, and is ready.

It is not the case, in my opinion, that the state never has the right to take a life.

It is not the case, in my opinion, that military action is never justified.

It is not the case, in my opinion, that a greater good can never demand the ultimate forfeit.

We live in a world populated by religion-addled people, people who are immune to rationality, who are drunk on power, who are sated only by blood, who are evil as shown by the depravity of their actions.

I believe that someone who revels in death, who fantasizes about the deaths of millions and evinces the deaths of tens of thousands, who through lies and demagoguery and fear and faith motivates families to send 12 year old girls to death and to murder, who has stated a claim to continue to pursue death for all who don’t share his views – that for such a person execution is justice.

But when that justice is served, it is not cause for celebration. We cannot celebrate an execution, ever, and claim that we respect life. We cannot, on one hand, hold the truth of the primacy of the individual to be self evident, and then act like we won the state championship when the ultimate demand is required and the sentence is served. By chanting in the streets upon achieving a military objective – one that was just, yes, but odious to execute, and one whose ultimate demand was unspeakable murder – we reduce a most somber duty to intemperate chauvinism and frivolity.


Those incredibly skilled and disciplined young men and women who fight our wars are publicly lionized by all sides; they fight in our name; we are not asked to contribute in any real, present way in terms of sacrifice for their success; and “we’re #1” when they win. Maybe for the (mostly, from what I saw) kids in the streets last night it has the same sense of remoteness? Maybe because the milieu are segregated in which many university kids and many military kids live, so it is easier to be cavalier about what “they”, our warriors, do in our behalf, precisely in the same manner that spectators are cavalier about what athletes do? Maybe if there were conscription, or the threat of conscription, or if there were higher taxes, or a mandatory period of national service (as in Israel, Germany, Singapore) then we would all know someone who knew how to fly those helicopters, or a brother or sister would know how to shoulder those guns, or perhaps we would learn the heavy burden of a duty that requires us to look at another human being through a scope, and pull a trigger.

On V-E Day, there were exuberant celebrations in the streets of nearly every American city. We had defeated an implacable, evil, fascistic enemy in Nazi Germany, and four long years of sacrifice, rationing, lost loved ones, and daily, visceral knowledge of war and its costs were nearing an end. There was a justifiable sense of relief, of common cause, courage, fortitude, stamina and sacrifice. Some had paid the ultimate sacrifice, of course, in the cause of justice, but as a people Americans shared in the enterprise. “We” had done it.

There is no question, in my mind, that the world is a better place without Osama bin Laden. I do believe justice has been served, in this case. But “we” didn’t do it.

It’s not a hockey match. That implies a next season, and a score, and therefore a score to settle.

War is not a hockey match, and it ought not have been celebrated like one.


Ellie said...

Thanks you - incredibly moving and puts into words the unease I felt on watching the celebratory crowds on TV.

Ellie said...

Sorry obviously that should've said 'thank you'!

hina333 said...

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Unknown said...

You saw (and "Liked") my like-minded comments the night this all went down. I agree. One minor contention though: the very definition of a government is that it is an entity that is empowered to impose sets of rules upon their constituents and enforce them, including by means of deadly forces if judiciously decided necessary by the executive or the judiciary ;)

Bren in SoCal said...

Thanks, Ellie.
Hina, that is not an MLK quote; the first sentence, at least, is from another source. I appreciate the sentiment, though.
And Ray: agreed.

CFox said...

I do agree (of course, and with most of this post than others might think) and I've thought a lot about this. It's striking that the demonstrators were almost all college-aged kids, i.e., people with whom I spend every day. I think that: 1) this was the only way they knew to celebrate. The people who mostly found it discomfiting were us geezers. We know some history and have heard the stories of how V-E Day was celebrated. This generation? Nope. So, the only way they know to emit emotion is to behave as though this were a sports victory. And, 2) I think that OBL was a fairly big "bogey man" to this generation. Their parents freaked and imposed all kinds of restrictions on their lives after 9/11. They can remember people crying, but couldn't understand why. Suddenly everyone was frightened, and everyone became much more overprotective. 3) When the war is fought on TV (agreeing here with the point you made about not knowing the soldiers and existing in different circles), it looks like a video game. So they celebrated like it was game.

Your points about shared sacrifice were very well-taken, but these kids don't understand the concept. We find all of this distasteful, but it was, as the Romantics would have said, "a spontaneous outpouring of emotion."

Great post, btw.