The Weaponization of Tragedy, And Its Cost

The acrimonious public debate over the present war in Iraq contains several constraining factors that distort the range of possible views on either side of the question. Chief among these is that, following Vietnam, both sides have realized that the public debate is but another front of the war, perhaps the most important front, and whoever wins the battle at home will win the war abroad. The debate thus takes on crucial significance: it is not an exchange of views or an attempt to convince others of the truth of your position, it is meme war. Ergo, when you argue for the war, you are necessarily acting as an ally for the Imperialist-Neocon-Haliburton Conspiracy; when you argue against the war, you are necessarily acting as an ally for the terrorists and dictators. At least, that is how the other side must see it. Your opponents, whether they argue in good faith or not, are actively assisting the true "other side" in the war (whichever side that may be) by propogating their memes or memes that give them material assistance.

That means that any data that could perhaps detract from your position is not simply a complication in your argument that must be accounted for, but a weapon of the enemy that must be discredited, rebutted, denied, or—when all else fails—suppressed. True intellectual openness to new ideas or conclusions, the proper willingness to loook at all sides of an argument, becomes a liability in this age of meme war; to be open to ideas within the opposition becomes tantamount to treason, just as surely as crossing battle lines and firing on your former comrades would be treasonous for a soldier.

Aside from the intellectual depravity of such a situation, it is damaging to all parties in a practical sense. Ideological rigidity leads to a refusal to examine your premises to account for new data, which leads to spectacular failures when your model of the world diverges from reality. More than that, the tactical needs of the moment can make you accustomed to deceit, or to belittling unpleasant truths without actually refuting them. Such habits are corrosive to the human soul.

Which brings me to combat deaths.

The media is fond of doing stories about soldiers who died in action or their surviving family, or as the media calls it, "Putting a human face on war." Regardless of the justice or necessity of a given war, it is always tragic (in the original sense) when a soldier dies. Especially in this age of volunteer armies, the dead were often men and women of outstanding courage and character, who had lives filled with promise and family who loved them. Their deaths are heartbreaking.

Death is everpresent in war, naturally. In many senses, death and war are interchangeable: "If we go to war, some of us will die." That makes it tempting for many to use the death of a soldier as a judgement against the war itself. Indeed, this subtext shines forth from most of the "human face" stories in the media: "Look at those who died. Their deaths are a waste of their youth and great potential as human beings. Therefore, we should take care that none else die in this fashion, by ending the war."

Some consciously bring the subtext forward into the text itself, for example Cindy Sheehan [warning: the linked post contains several pieces of extremely profane hate mail received by the author], who uses the death of her son as a club against the war itself. As much as she and her fellow-travelers have the right to do so, such arguments say nothing at all about the justice or necessity of the war. Soldiers will die in just and unjust warsalike. This sort of argument is noise, not signal.

How does the pro-war camp respond? I have seen (and used) a few variations, the most common being:

1. Combat deaths in this war, not yet over 2,000, are insignificant compared to Vietnam, Korea, or World War II, or even such prosaic killers as drunk driving.

2. The soldiers, being volunteers, knew what they were getting into. Furthermore, the soldiers in theater overwhelmingly believe in the justice of their mission.

3. Unduly focusing on the tragedy of their deaths (particularly the reactions by their surviving family members) in order to cast doubt on the war itself is effectively propoganda that undermines the morale of the soldiers still living.

As valid as these points may or may not be, they have the pernicious side-effect of cheapening the true value of the soldiers' sacrifice, and the pain that their families and friends go through. Worse, they force defenders of the war to take the position that such pain is practically irrelevant to the main question. That is not to say that we are insensible to the families' pain; for example, many of the most outspoken warbloggers are current and former military or their families, who have known good men who died in Iraq. But that families' grief has become just another front in the war makes us colder as people.

Now, whenever I see news reports of grieving families, my first reaction is disgust for the reporters and their singleminded agendas. Empathy for the families themselves comes much later, if at all; and that disturbs me. It is no longer instinctual to appreciate another's pain, only to consider it as a data-point in a larger context of a vicious struggle against the neo-appeasers. As can be seen in these articles themselves, a similar (if inverted) mindset has taken hold among the anti-war faction; combat deaths, and their accompanying anguish, are simply another opportunity to undermine the war itself in the popular imagination. Remember the media frenzy that broke out at the 1,000th combat death, an event with intrinsic significance only to government accountants and aspiring numerologists.

In short, by turning the deaths of our soldiers into just another front in the war, we on both sides of the question are sacrificing some of our humanity. I am not casting blame, though I have no doubt who is responsible. I am warning people on both sides to take stock of their souls, to not let the pressing needs of the moment turn them into mere caricatures of people who give up their humanity for the sake of the cause. If we do, what will happen when the war is over?

1 comment:

Cathy said...

Wow...just, wow.

Great post!