TCS Daily

Suffering and the Forgettable War

By Douglas Kern - August 25, 2005 12:00 AM

About fifteen years ago, a teacher of my acquaintance opined that the Super Bowl should be cancelled. A terrible set of racially motivated murders had come to light, and this teacher could not bear the notion that, in the face of this appalling tragedy, America was going about its business, unmoved, untroubled, and indifferent. My teacher wanted America to react to this new horror in some manner proportionate to its gravity. He held no resentments towards football players or football fans. But only some massive symbol of transgression, some monumental violation of the status quo would fulfill his need for justice - his sense that the scope of the evil demanded a grave and solemn response. He wanted suffering, not for its own sake, but because through suffering, attention must be paid.

Attention must be paid. Willy Loman's wife utters that phrase in "Death of a Salesman." She demands that the world take heed of her husband's failures and struggles; she demands recognition of the injustice in the world, or at least the injustice in his world. Suffering consumed the whole of Loman's attention, and his wife insists that the world should be similarly consumed. Loman's suicide at the end of the play does not surprise. G.K. Chesterton observed that the man who commits suicide does not simply kill himself; in a sense, he kills everything, for the sum of the world gives him no reason to live. The true horror of suffering lies not in pain but in senselessness; you are thrust into a vortex of agony that you cannot ignore, but that the world does ignore, without explanation or excuse. It is easier to fight ignorance than to forgive the world for its cruelty. So attention must be paid.

Political activists agree: attention must be paid to the war in Iraq. To the left, war-as-an-afterthought numbs us to the horrors of murder, abuse, and imperialism that we impose on the Middle East. To the right, war-with-a-shrug deadens us to the broader threat of surging Islamofascism, even as it lulls us into the false belief that we can triumph against this adversity with something less than total, focused war. The motivations differ, but the message is the same: attention must be paid. And as suffering commands the attention of man, we behold the spectacle of bereaved mothers and torture survivors and veterans and prognosticators all maneuvering to stake some unimpeachable claim to the highest point of human suffering. From that point, voices may be heard clearly. Attention must be paid.

I have read too many essays from too many of my fellow conservatives that dwell at morbid length upon the megadeaths and unthinkable agonies that will ensue when al-Qaeda strikes with weapons of mass destruction against American soil, and then won't you lazy distracted half-hearted weekend-neocons be sorry you didn't get as mad as we are right now. The mirror images of these conservatives are the Deaniac Move On minions, salivating over the latest casualty figures and bad news coming from Iraq, and now aren't you war-mongering POW-torturing nuance-ignoring sheeple as mad as we are? These partisans don't want suffering as such, but they relish the awful epiphanies that suffering will bestow upon the complacent masses.

The American people don't favor the war in Iraq. The American people don't oppose the war in Iraq. The American people are bored with the war in Iraq, and with the war on terror generally. 9/11 was a lifetime ago, and the end of the ground war in Iraq was several years ago, wasn't it? We have argued this war to death, and yet the red and blue armies can gain no ground across the trenches. The losses of war do not compel us to reconsider our convictions, and yet the potential losses of war's absence do not trouble us very much. After three years of safety, our fear of terror attacks has deteriorated into a vague apprehension of an unlikely threat, akin to traffic accidents or serial killers. Yet this loss of resolve does not prod us to withdraw our troops. Why should it? We easily absorb the costs of war. Our brave soldiers endure maiming and death, yet these losses never seem worse than the casualties from an unusually lethal Fourth of July weekend. Expensive gas? A trifling expense for most of us. Long lines at the airports? Show up for your flight earlier. ID checks? A preoccupation only for the most driven of privacy fanatics.

We're sick of the same stale arguments, rehashed by the same stale people. We're tired of news updates that are never good enough to sound like victory and never bad enough to portend defeat. The war is just a slow, steady trickle of mildly good news, mildly bad news, small-scale casualty reports, and recycled rhetoric. We are bored, but we do not suffer. Absent suffering, we care less and less.

Says the punditocracy: You should care more. And only suffering will make you care as you should.

Does war require the war-maker to suffer in order to be moral?

We have spent untold billions of dollars designing weaponry that is lethal, effective, and accurate - accurate enough to minimize collateral damage. Our soldiers routinely risk their lives in order to prevent needless harm to enemy civilians. Military professionals now work ceaselessly to relieve suffering in Iraq, rather than inflicting it. It is difficult to imagine a modern war conducted with greater mitigation of death and destruction. Indeed, some say that our compassion has hampered our war effort; by surgically dismantling the Iraqi Army, we failed to convince many soon-to-be-insurgents that their cause was hopeless, and that surrender was the only option. Having reduced the horror of war, we may have inadvertently replaced it with the horror of rebellion.

Even just wars are hazardous to the soul of a nation. A war that can be fought without great sacrifice is a war in which the moral risks of combat might be too easily ignored. Through our immense wealth, superb weapons, and matchless volunteer soldiers, we can now devastate great armies and impose our will upon huge swaths of the world, all without requiring the average American to forego a single Christmas present or miss a single night of television. A citizen with no particular interest in current events could go for a long, long time without being reminded that America is at war today. And the road from indifference to callousness can be a very short one.

But aren't we fortunate that we can fight our wars without suffering? Given the choice between a war that drains our economy, slaughters an entire generation, and distorts our way of life, or a war that we squeeze in between episodes of Big Brother 6, shouldn't we prefer the latter? Perhaps it is worth the risk of moral detachment to enjoy the sweet luxury of forgetting those miseries and terrors that must be inflicted in the name of justice and security. But does a forgettable war make us less capable of assessing misery and justice - or more so?

Does suffering make us insightful, engaged, and empathetic? Or does suffering make us more vengeful, obstinate, and irrational?

Attention must be paid. But if the price is suffering, is it worth paying?


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