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There’s no such thing as war on the cheap

We need to rethink war. Even more, we need to rethink peace.

There are 40-odd wars in progress just now, but Kosovo has our attention. Its horrors force one of those examinations of conscience that our hectic, self-absorbed lives don’t otherwise allow.

Our generals and politicians looked the other way as long as they could. No “national interest” was likely to be served saving lives in a backwater of which most of us had never heard. Yet some vague world dynamic forced Kosovo into the spotlight.

Very well, then: We would go to war. But only on condition that none of our soldiers got killed. The ultimate perk of being the most powerful nation on earth is that we can do whatever our national interests or political expediency suggest without any of us getting hurt.

To achieve this dominance we have been on a technological binge, from Reagan’s Star Wars to this year’s watered-down version. We pounded the daylights out of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. True, we sent in some troops, and some actually got killed, but we were learning. We could win wars by sending smart bombs down the enemy’s chimneys.

It’s time to rethink. Despots everywhere are doubtless noticing what Saddam and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic have learned: You can survive and thus win against a nation, even a powerful one, that is afraid of sacrifice.

Humans have argued for and against war since time began. The wars they were arguing about took a toll. The United States, in recent years, thought it could win wars that took no toll, wars on the cheap. And that’s why, at press time, the NATO intervention in Kosovo, far from intimidating Milosevic, is defeating its own ends and fueling greater atrocities. There is no such thing as war on the cheap.

The other way to rethink war is not to wage any. That will remain a pious thought so long as our culture relies on military solutions. And anyway, in the real world even heroic nonviolence falls short when ethnic cleansers enter one’s village or one’s home. Few of humanity’s ideals are upheld by allowing the women and children trudging between life and death on the roads of Kosovo to be slaughtered.

Even a well-intentioned nation like ours can’t resolve every conflict, can’t police every trouble spot. So our leaders, all too often following the polls, pick and choose among wars. And above all, the polls say, don’t bring our soldiers back in body bags. Our military, which swallows up so much of our national budget, which is by definition committed to risking life, which surely wants to save those poor Kosovars, wants it to happen without the typical toll wars take. Because our pampered culture has lost its appetite for sacrifice.

We need to rethink not only war but peace.

In the early days of this confrontation, TV anchors frequently asked whether this war might be over in hours or might extend to days. Behind such questions lay the assumption that this dimly identified place didn’t warrant any more of our attention or resources. The Serbs, by contrast, were mobilized to carry on a 600-year-old war. Nearby, the other fragments of the former Yugoslavia slaughtered each other over similar ancient grudges. The United States, repository of so much data, so many scholars and think tanks, fails to fathom, as it failed to understand in Vietnam and elsewhere, that neither money nor guns can readily unravel the complexities of history, of ossified hate. Ours is a form of arrogance that refuses to see points of view complicated by hundreds if not thousands of years of living, of warring, of surviving.

A world viewed by us only in terms of our “interests” is an out-of-focus fragment of reality. A world that can be subdued by bombs down the chimney is a depersonalized, dehumanized world that is not true. It would be a great mistake, in our rush to personal fulfillment and prosperity, to forget that a Bosnian child would, like us, be devastated to see a parent shot in cold blood; that a Kosovar family would be as traumatized as we to lose home and everything.

All lives are created equal. But when war looms, the value set on one U.S. soldier’s life becomes disproportionate, almost mythical — the mythology of war. What about the loss of each American killed in the inner city? We pay scant attention. What about the thousands killed in Bosnia and Kosovo because we looked the other way? The tens of thousands killed in Rwanda and elsewhere because the polls were not favorable?

Such killings happen while we are at peace. While 40-odd wars happen, we are at peace. That is why we must look again at what we mean by peace. We emerged from the Cold War the only superpower. We had the money and might to do what we wanted. Or so we thought. Peace, however, is not so simple. Peace, too, demands sacrifice. If you want peace work for justice — it’s a cliché only because of its resounding truth. Self-absorbed, we don’t look hard at the tattered nations until their blood spills onto our living room floors, disturbing our comfort.

Given the human condition, cheap peace is as self-contradictory as cheap grace.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 1999