Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Understanding war

Interesting op-ed in yesterday's New York Times by John Tirman, of MIT: "The forgotten wages of war". Tirman points out that Americans rarely debate, or even think about, civilian destruction caused by their war efforts. This is problematic because, as Tirman argues, "The consequences of how we fight wars reveals [sic] a great deal about how and why others fight us."

Tirman has an important point, but I think he overlooks a deeper issue, one that bears on why the United States has shown rather less reluctance to go to war than have European countries in recent decades. In the American imagination, a war is something you go out and fight elsewhere; for many continental Europeans, a war is something that comes and destroys your country, and nobody is immune. Different experiences during World War II and the Cold War account for most of this difference, so it may be waning. Perhaps that is too bad: as Tirman points out, a greater understanding of what war means to those who have it visited upon them is salutary.

(By the way, Tirman has apparently written a recent book about the issue: The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s War, which looks at American wars going back to World War II. The table of contents looks pretty interesting.)

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