How Goes the War?

By Bob Gaydos

 Let’s talk about war. We don’t do that much in this country. Not really, when you consider that we have been fighting two wars in Asia for nearly a decade and all we seem to be preoccupied with at home is a recession born of greed. We talk about mortgage foreclosures ( but not so much about the foolish loans that led to the foreclosures), about huge Wall Street bonuses at banks bailed out by taxpayers, about people needing jobs, the price of gasoline, politicians who lie through their teeth to get elected then sell their souls to lobbyists to get re-elected, about taxes (which are always too high), about public services (which are always inadequate), about the cost of health care, the newest best deal on a cell phone, about Ipods and steroids and the Super Bowl and tuition and 401Ks and chicken wings and “American Idol” and the Oscars, the Grammies, the Emmys and, for sure, about the weather.

 But we don’t talk about war. Not really. When’s the last time you had a real conversation with someone about either the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan, beyond the question of whether George W. Bush should have started either one? World War II defined the lives of a generation, brought home in weekly newsreels. Korea was not a backburner topic. Vietnam was a nightly visitor in our living rooms.

 Yet, while we have borrowed our way into economic near-Armageddon Iraq has dragged on forever. And now, with the end in sight — President Obama has pledged American troops will be leaving this summer — the messy question about whether or not Iraqis can put together a government that will last and resemble the democracy Bush said he wanted to create there doesn’t come up much around water coolers. Odd, since some would say that is the only way to determine the ultimate “success” of the U.S. invasion.

 But that’s not war talk. Not really. War talk is a headline reporting that a dozen  civilians were killed in a rocket attack on Marjah, a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. The civilian deaths were described in news stories as a blow to efforts by NATO and the Afghan government to gain support among local residents. Almost lost in the newspaper and TV reports on the U.S. Marine-led assault on Marjah was the fact that it was a major military success, cutting  off logistical support for the Taliban and the opium money that keeps them operating.

 It was the largest ground offensive of a war begun eight years ago to destroy the Al Qaida terrorist group that was hiding in Afghanistan with the blessing and protection of the then-ruling Taliban government. In other words, it was a serious moment in a war which has not been taken nearly as seriously as one would think by politicians and a populace who routinely proclaim their commitment to destroying the people responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001.

 The military term for the unintended deaths of civilians is “collateral damage.” Not particularly compassionate. But then, war has little room for sentiment. It is about territory and killing. Military people are the ones who are most aware of this when the war talk begins. It is U.S. Marines who are going door to door in Marjah today, seeking insurgents and looking out for booby traps and explosives with every step, their lives on the line. Their lives are more on the line because two rockets — described as “sophisticated” weapons — went off course and struck a home instead of their intended target. The U.S. general in charge immediately apologized to the Afghans and suspended use of the rockets. He said the best way to ensure that such accidents don’t happen is to use more “boots on the ground.”
 That certainly makes the war more personal. Which is the harder decision — putting a few thousands U.S. troops in harm’s way or firing off some “sophisticated” rockets to do the job? More than a few “smart missiles” missed their mark in Iraq as I recall, but there was so much devastation no one seemed to care much after awhile. Except maybe the Iraqis.
 The point is there will inevitably be unintended deaths in war. They are tragic and the warring parties should do all they can to avoid them. Unfortunately, in the kind of wars we are fighting today, the enemy doesn’t much care about rules of engagement or whom he kills. Innocent bystanders are terrorists’ primary weapon. That’s why the United States and its allies must remind Afghan civilians, a war-weary people if ever there was one, that we are different. We are not the Taliban. We are not Al Qaida.

 But we are, finally, fighting a war to defeat those two forces in Afghanistan, with more American boots on the ground, as per Obama’s order. It’s a war that seemed necessary and just to most Americans when Bush sent our troops to fight it. But at some point we stopped talking about it back home and became obsessed with Blackberries and McMansions and SUVs. Not those with loved ones serving in the military. They have those conversations every day. But most of the rest of us want to know why they can’t get the damn weather forecast right and how so many people can take Sarah Palin seriously.

 There’s something wrong with that. When war is an after thought, when there is no sense of shared risk or sacrifice, it is dehumanized. Life is devalued. “Smart” weapons seduce us into thinking there will be no “collateral damage.” In and out. Neat and clean. Boots on the ground remind us that war is about capturing a snowy hilltop or a city built of mud, one careful step at a time. It is about facing death as much as it is about obtaining justice or retribution or whatever word is used to justify it.          

 War is not neat and clean and it is certainly worth talking about.

Bob can be reached at


One Response to “How Goes the War?”

  1. LeeAgain Says:

    Bob, you say that when war is an afterthought it becomes dehumanized and life is devalued. I somewhat agree, but the sad fact is that war, by its very nature, is dehumanizing and results in life being devalued. Is a war in which the folks at home are gung ho really any better than a war they don’t speak of? There are those who follow wars the way some people follow the play-offs to the World Series. They talk about it eagerly, swear allegiance to their country, and declare God to be on their side (whichever side they happen to be on.) The current war may be promoted eagerly by the government. Children will be encouraged to knit blankets that soldiers don’t need, people will eat “freedom fries,” and certain items will be rationed, even though there is plenty to go around, so that everybody can be reminded to sacrifice and feel a part of the war effort. Does this make war any more ethical? The people who are killed are just as dead either way. The devastation is just as bad, whether we know about it or not. The only good thing about people losing interest in whatever the current war happens to be at the time is that war ceases to be glorified. Those who sign up for the cause are less revered. If everybody loses interest, why bother fighting? It leads back to the old question, “What if they gave a war and nobody went?”

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