Sunday, October 31, 2004

Last Men or Spartans—more thoughts on war:

As long as I am on this war rant…Another thing that has struck me about the war is the way in which Americans, after the first Iraq war and Bosnia, expect a very limited casualty war, at least for our side. These seem to be the only types of wars that our masses are willing to gung ho, get behind…unless, of course, some imminent, direct and vital threat to American security is at stake. For instance, in going after the Taliban & Al Queda, I think we would be willing to bear many more casualties than we have lost so far in Iraq and Afghanistan. And certainly if a nation state directly attacked us on 9/11, we would be willing to sacrifice many lives in overthrowing such a government.

But fighting a war to aid another people, even if our security is not directly at issue? Fighting a war for abstract ideological reasons, even if the ideological reasons are ones in which we laud? To bring “democratic rights” to non-democratic nations, even when our lives aren’t directly threatened by the avoidance of such a war? Our people are indeed willing to support such noble endeavors. But only if we can pull it off with minimal casualties. I think the turning point was Vietnam. Before that war, we were willing to make huge sacrifices—even if what we were fighting for wasn’t to save the world from global fascism, or defend us from direct attackers. For instance, in World War I—a war that we certainly could have avoided—for the US total dead was 120,144, total wounded was 198,059. For World War II (probably an unavoidable war), 400,000 Americans were killed, with a whopping 22 million Allied Casualties. For Korea—a war that was identical to the Vietnam War in terms of what we were fighting for—the US sustained 34,000 casualties.

I think we must ask the question why is it that we as a nation were willing to lose 34,000 people for South Korea, but the idea of losing that many for Iraq positively horrifies us. In many ways, the social changes that we endured after Vietnam, “debunked” or “deconstructed” the notion of war. We simply view war differently after Vietnam.

While I certainly don’t agree with the thrust of this passage by Robert Bork, I think he accurately captures the sentiment:

Contrast the reaction of American youth to the wars in Korea and in Vietnam. Both were wars in Asia, both exacted high prices in Americans killed or disabled, both had only the rationale of constraining communism, both soon became unpopular. Yet American youth went willingly, if not gladly, to Korea, while they demonstrated against Vietnam, marched on the Pentagon, threw blood on draft records, fled to Canada, and Sweden, and denounced 'Amerika.' Something in our culture…had changed between the two wars.

Slouching Towards Gomorrah, p. 18.


If I may offer what I think to be a psychological insight of the Straussians—men like Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol—who so eagerly encouraged us to go to war, and were influential in our doing so: I think that they desire for us, as a nation, to go back to a “pre-Vietnam” mindset regarding war and loss of life. I think that they desire American to be a “strong patriotic nation” and a “strong patriotic nation” is one that can go to war, fighting for what is “right,” lose tens, if not hundreds of thousands of soldiers and stick with it for years, till the end.

This quote from Walter Berns’s Making Patriots, is instructive:

A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle. A Helot arrives; trembling, she asks him for news. “Your five sons were killed.” “Base slave, did I ask you that?” “We won the victory.” The mother runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods.

Rousseau, Emile, from Plutarch, Sayings of Spartan Women, quoted in Walter Berns, Making Patriots, p. 10.


I think that the Kristols, et al. are disappointed with the war. But they are probably disappointed primarily with the attitude of bourgeois America and our unwillingness to be like the Spartan woman, to make those necessary heroic sacrifices in pursuit of the greater good. No rather, we are behaving like Nietzsche’s Last Man.

If I understand the narrative correctly (and I understand the narrative thru the Straussians and their critics as intermediaries): The last man is to be the successor to the bourgeois. Eventually, advances in technology and the progress of the market economy would bring a good life to the masses, an easy life. A too easy life—one in which the masses would feel an entitlement to a long life of free of want. Something about a system which produces so much for so many has a way of “softening up” and emasculating the masses.

Bork—very much influenced by the Straussians—captures this very Nietzschean sentiment:

One must not, of course, discount the great reservoir of self-interest that underlay much of the rhetoric [of the Vietnam War protesting youth] of morality. The generation that fought in Korea had not grown up with affluence. Many had served in World War II or grew up during that war. The middle-class youths who were asked to fight in Vietnam were of a pampered generation, one that prized personal convenience above almost all else. The prospect that their comfortable lives might be disrupted, or even endangered, by having to serve their country in Vietnam was for many intolerable. Thus, the student protests wound down when the draft ended.

Slouching Towards Gomorrah, p. 18.


Nietzsche despised the Last Man, as, I think, perhaps do the Straussians. (In Ravelstein, Bellow reveals that Allan Bloom was absolutely contemptuous of the bourgeois.)

A nation willing to make the noble sacrifices for the greater good—one that would be willing to have say 40,000 or more American soldiers die over a mutli-year period—to see it through to the end—to bring the kind of system to Iraq that we brought to say South Korea (that we didn’t bring to Vietnam)…that would be a good start in demonstrating that we are NOT (at least not yet) “The Last Man”—rather that we are a strong patriotic people—closer to that Spartan ideal.

Me—I’m still thinking through these things. I certainly don’t deride the Vietnam War protestors whose “base self-interest” in doing so was to preserve their own lives. I thank God that I live a life of material comfort and would only voluntarily give up such comfort for something vital—like for instance, what went down in 1776, 1861, or 1941. Please forgive me if I don’t “willingly, if not gladly” volunteer to go to war in Iraq (even though I have the utmost amount of respect for those who do. I used to live in Lumberton, NJ which is really close to some military bases in NJ—and many young soldiers would go to the neighborhood bars on the weekend. I sometimes encountered such guys who were weeks if not days away from going to Iraq. Many of them had a hard Southern Twang–so you knew they weren’t natives of NJ. And whenever I encountered these guys, I insisted on paying for their drinks. I figured that was the least I could do).

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