Are we willing to commit our flesh and blood?

October 08, 2002|By Alexander E. Hooke

THERE IS an art to getting the answers you want by phrasing questions in the right way.

For example, ask about 2,000 citizens (sufficient for a scientific sampling) if the United States should invade Osama bin Ladin-friendly Iraq and its demonic tyrant, Saddam Hussein, and even pacifists would be hard-pressed to answer no.

That the news media and the Bush administration have cited polls showing Americans support a military attack on Iraq is, in this light, hardly compelling. To ask about overtaking a country whose culture, history and language few of us understand is tantamount to a talk show soliciting callers' opinions about, say, firing the manager of the local team, replacing incumbents in City Hall or changing school mascots.

If the media and President Bush were genuinely interested in whether Americans support a military occupation of another country, they should ask citizens a different question, to wit:

If you support a military invasion of Iraq and replacement of Saddam Hussein, are you willing to:

Enlist in one of the armed services?

Encourage your son or daughter to join the military?

Renew a draft of all 18-year-olds?

How does this kind of question change things? According to Elaine Scarry, in her seminal work The Body in Pain, humans are limited in their capacity to verbally persuade one another. Eventually, disagreement over convictions eludes rational deliberation. Ultimate differences can be settled only with the flesh, pain and blood of one another's bodies.

Applied to the current crisis, if we are convinced that American ideals of freedom or justice are at stake, then we should be willing to offer our own bodies, or at least those of relatives or neighbors.

Evidence of this willingness is remarkably absent. Military officials report no unusual increase of recruits since Sept. 11. Neither Mr. Bush nor Congress, regardless of their saber rattling, dare lose votes by proposing a resurrection of a mandatory draft. And pundits, from conservatives such as Mona Charen to leftists such as Christopher Hitchens, have dodged this question entirely while parading under the pro-invasion banner.

One explanation for this obduracy is that an all-volunteer army has insulated us from the horrors of war. Video games and Hollywood -- the usual scapegoats -- are blameless for this insular effect. More likely, knowing that fellow citizens choose a career in the armed forces deludes the rest of us into the notion that we need not join them when the going gets tough.

This delusion rests on an historical anomaly. A scholar on civil-military relations, sociologist James Burk, points out that an all-volunteer army cannot alone sustain a lasting war. Sooner or later it requires the physical support, not just the lip service, of the citizenry. Whether stagnant on the front lines, holed up in makeshift shelters, or scouting the area for snipers or guerillas, soldiers tend to reach a threshold.

To displace Mr. Hussein, American soldiers can expect a lengthy presence, making them vulnerable to counterattacks from loyalists and patriots. Though Mr. Hussein has been painted as a villain in the likes of Hitler or Stalin, we should not forget how they nevertheless garnered the devotion of some of the population. That means millions of potential threats lurking about in a country the size of Iraq.

Hence, the question posed to Americans should be more direct. And if you or I hem or haw about the unlikelihood of our physical contribution, then we are doing more than underestimating the myriad repercussions possible in the Middle East. We are also denying our own civic responsibility.

Being unwilling to offer our flesh and blood is tantamount to confessing that overtaking Iraq has nothing to do with democracy or freedom. If content that a volunteer army should suffer all the wounds and casualties for this enterprise, then we are donning the mantle of an international ogre who consigns its soldiers to mercenary status.

Such a scenario involves more than the slogan that talk is cheap or that the Bush administration is committed to satisfying our appetite for cheap energy. Rather, it indicates that Americans desire a still stranger bargain -- war on the cheap.

Alexander E. Hooke teaches philosophy at Villa Julie College.

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