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History Confirms War a Futile Business
24 October 2001
While our allied air forces continue the redistribution of the rubble in Kabul, the objectives and purposes of this "new war" become, like the dust rising from that battered city, more difficult to comprehend.
Historically, there have been necessary wars and wars fought whether necessary or not. But it is a futile business, as history will confirm.
According to one political scientist, who counted the wars of the great powers, from 1495 to 1975, one or another of them has been at war 75 per cent of the time. Astonishingly, one of the more peaceful centuries was the 20th, although it has been, thus far, the bloodiest, as a result of its two world wars.
We have been, if you're counting, marching off to battle much of our time, and here we are, marching off again. There must be something to the view of man as a natural hunter and natural killer.
Still, one would think that man would run out of wars to make or nations to invade or, that at some epiphanous time, nations would conspire to stop the killing, that war would become not the last resort but simply an unthinkable one.
But here we find ourselves at war again, against half the world in general and no one in particular, pulverizing ruins and inflicting "collateral damage" - a euphemism for killing - on people we know nothing of, in a land we have nothing against, hope never to see, in a cause so rhetorical and clothed so much in hyperbole as to be unattainable.
I have been reading of late about the Allied bombing of the German city of Hamburg, in World War II, during July, 1944. At that time we (the Allies) had achieved air superiority. We had also developed superior aircraft and bigger bombs, as well as a means of deceiving the enemy's radar defenses.
On July 25, nearly 800 bombers attacked Hamburg, a nearly helpless city, dropping their loads of 400- and 800- and 1,000-pound bombs and incendiaries. The city was soon ablaze, and without water to fight the fires; in this cauldron, the temperatures would exceed 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. In one week, the number of killed was put at 50,000 - just 1,000 short of those British civilians killed by German attacks in the first four years of the war.
Of course, we "won" the war against infinitely greater and more menacing evil than that of terrorism. But more to the point, subsequent study by professional appraisers has concluded not even all the slaughter of civilians, not the collateral damage wrecked upon Hamburg, Dresden, Essen and the rest made any significant difference either to the result or the war's duration. It did, however, make a difference to those killed in the exercise, including those of our own.
War is an exercise in excess. We emerge from battle choking on the blood of innocents. Self-deception is always helpful to those of delicate sensibility. Hence, we do try to limit collateral damage and imagine ourselves fighting for democracy, justice and - heaven help us - peace. Should one be a refugee, a bombed-out peasant or a child crippled by a mine, a just war is a true oxymoron, at least for those accompanied by a translator.
I have come to be wary of Pentagon briefers. These films of direct hits on arbitrarily defined "objectives" remind one of the underlying irony of this "new war." Bombing has become a kind of elliptical expression of military frustration. When in doubt, bomb. It is to politics what paving used to be to policy.
What is new about this "new war," at ground level where all wars are finally settled, is that the terrorists in our midst - or in their caves - have found the equalizer to war as an exercise in technology. Terror is an extension of war by other means, including stealth, deception and disguise. It is not new that it is a war waged upon innocents; the graveyards of Europe are crowded with those who perished in their kitchens, in their sleep, in their unknowing. What is new is that the oceans no longer protect us from the risks and perils of war because the new enemy has new weapons of an original design and unfamiliar ruthlessness.
Still, when it is finally over, when the struggle is exhausted, when we achieve another peace between another war, we can band together in reunion and, in common folly and arrogance, be reborn in our usual ways, boasting of our superior means and inexhaustible bounty and, while the world will not be the same, can never be so, we will hardly know the difference.
We should not, then, excessively fret over our present condition but view it, as much as we can, as a passing inconvenience. After all, were it a truly serious crisis, we would not, in our considerable genius, be acting like fools and behaving with such compulsive, ruinous mindlessness.
The most dangerous man alive these days is the one who justifies our present folly by asking, "Well, what would you do?" Those who ask the question have no memory and even less imagination. Perhaps, someone will awaken to other Canadian options and possibilities before John Manley does.