Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The dogs of war

A cherished old friend recently sent me the following e-mail:

“US Navy Carrier ... no wonder the Iranians want this vessel out of the Persian Gulf. This is a great example of technology, teamwork and strength in action. This is impressive... Go for the ride! Just click HERE

If you don’t want to watch the video right now, it’s enough to know that it’s a ten-minute Discovery Channel video showing an American aircraft carrier in action.  It’s a very impressive display of hardware and skill.  And as the captain says during the video, that one aircraft carrier has a larger and more powerful air force than 70% of the countries in the world.

It brought back memories.  For three years I lived within a few hundred yards of what was then Lakehurst Naval Air Station, in New Jersey—also, incidentally, the site of the famed von Hindenberg disaster, in 1937 (?).  One of the benefits of having the NAS nearby was that we merited a yearly visit from the famed Navy stunt-flying team, the Blue Angels.  They put on a performance every year that was breathtaking, and I always looked forward to it.

It was not just grandstanding.  Having such powerful machines moving at such speeds, so close together and so close to the ground, posed real risks, and once in a while one of the pilots died—in what was clearly a noncombat situation.  So the Navy had obviously calculated that the risks involved were justified by the positive visibility they gave to the U. S. Navy before the civilian population—and, I assume, the base personnel as well.

But as I watched with awe and admiration the beauty of these huge and powerful warplanes, I couldn’t help being aware that this display was not why they were designed, built, and purchased.  These were warplanes—designed both to kill and destroy, and also to make clear to the world that they were ready and able to kill and destroy.  And I wondered, over and over, at the irony that some of the most beautiful machines built in the history of the world were built for purpose of killing and destruction.  Missiles, drones, helicopters . . . there is a great deal of military hardware that carries the same paradox—esthetically beautiful, but designed primarily to be deadly to human life and property. 

What I thought many times, as I watched the Blue Angels perform, was that I would have liked to have seen an additional show, after the first one.  I wished just one of the Blue Angels, fully armed, could designate a nearby hillside as its target, and allow us to see what a single plane and a single pilot could do to a small town or village.  I imagine that it would have been terrifying—not the sort of impression the Navy might want to leave with the civilian population, though perhaps far more accurate as a representation of what those planes were.

Americans are incredibly good at building and operating gadgets, especially big military gadgets—among the best in the world.  It’s a skill in which we can justifiably take pride, and that ability has had a significant impact on the history of the world.

The aircraft carrier, astonishing as it is, is just one facet of American military power, and we civilians never even quite know all the dimensions of the power that has been built and is being operated in our name.

But it’s also quite clear that we tend to be far better at designing and building the gadgets than we are at dealing with the ethical dilemmas posed by having them.  The possession of power always, always, always, changes things.  And the decisions regarding whether to do the things we are capable of doing is, for all of us, full of pitfalls and temptations. 

If we are unhappy with a small country (or even a larger one) somewhere, and we know that one of the solutions is simply to bomb it into submission, that inevitably raises the question of whether that is the wisest solution to the problem.  And the decision never rests (and should not) with the American citizenry.  It rests with our leaders, military and civilian, who bring their particular information, wisdom, and ethics to the table.

My point is a simple one:  having this much power at our disposal means, almost inevitably, that at some points it will be used in ways that are less than wise.  There will be times when wiser voices would point to the actual (and lasting) costs of using military power as the solution to the problem, and to the wisdom of working harder to find other solutions before resorting to that one.  Those voices are not always listened to.

So when we’re confronted with a video hymn of praise for American military technology, or a bumper sticker appealing to me to “Support our troops”—it’s appropriate to remain aware of the dangers posed to us by our very possession of this much power.  And it’s appropriate always to “support our troops” by doing all we can to ensure that they are never “sent into harm’s way” unless it’s as clear as possible that no less destructive an option can be acceptable.

The availability of a military solution to international attention must never cause us to forget the price—to us—of using that power.  We must always be cautious, careful, and when we unleash the dogs of war, do so with foreboding and regret, not just punitive rage.  To do less means that we have forgotten what war really is.


annie said...

It came up in a discussion recently that we don't see the coffins coming home like we did during the Vietnam war. People said if we saw more of that, there would be greater outrage over the war. But we have a record number of veterans committing suicide and suffering psychological trauma.

It makes one wonder, who is counting the cost?

David J. Fenech said...

As always, you are wise, insightful, and thought-provoking! I couldn't help from wondering, though, if the opposite isn't also true sometimes. Might there be times when we ought to use our power to stop tragedies in places such as Syria, for example, but we don't. But we justify it places such as Kuwait and Libya. I absolutely agree with you, anytime the dogs of war are unleashed it must be done with wisdom and prudence. Sometimes, though, it seems it is done for profit (oil) or political gain, instead of for freedom, liberty, or humanitarian purposes.

Ralph Milligan said...

Ah, friend Dave, there's the rub--the wisdom of those whom we elect to make the decisions. Staying out of Syria could be the cowardice of narrow self-interest--or it could be intelligent geopolitical calculation about the dangers and costs of straightening out other people. I sure don't know! Juggling wisdom and self-interest . . . never an easy task . . .

PhilB said...

It becomes a vicious circle. Having this power available causes frequent overuse, and the use causes more to be built, and we end up spending an awful lot of money blowing people and things up and intimidating countries, that could (a) be better spent feeding and housing and medically treating people who need it, and/or (b) be better spent by the people whose money it was in the first place by letting them keep and use it instead of taxing it away to pay for policing the world.