Politicians, Public opinion, Media and War

I must confess, that I am losing confidence in our ability to win the war on whomever it is we are fighting now...or any future wars with Iran, North Korea, China, or even France. I am losing confidence in the ability of the United States of America to prosecute and successfully conclude any war on foreign soil at all.

I had a conversation recently over pizza with a friend - an older man with more personal experience with these things than me - about fighting a war in the information age, whether it was even possible (for a democracy) to do so: what follows is a reconstruction of the themes of that conversation (not necessarily my own convictions) and I would like to know what you all think about this:

We all know what it takes to win a war - absolutely decimating - that is, HURTING - the enemy. Consider World War II - we brought Germany and Japan to the brink of the stone ages in the firey and sometimes atomic onslaught. Much the same thing happened in large portions of the South in the Civil War. We fought "total war." Those wars the USA (and her allies) won. This one, like Vietnam, we will not win.

So what is the difference between Vietnam and Iraq on the one hand and the Civil War and World War II on the other hand? It is certainly not a case of diminished skill or competence of our military. The new mass media is one primary difference. In the past (before the 1950s) the media was optimistic and nationalistic on the one hand and limited to mainly to newspapers on the other. The only video footage Americans saw of World War II was the news-reel at the local cinema that was of course controlled by the Government: it presented the nobility of our cause and our sacrifices and the ingenuity bravery of our soldiers. If the deaths of American soldiers were mentioned at all it was a means to demonizing the enemy (rather than our own politicians or president).

Consider the issue of collateral damage. Americans, as basically good and soft-hearted Christian-ish people are loathe to cause civilian casualties in the course of our wars. For some reason, cotnrary to all historical evidence, we think soldiers not civilians ought to die in wars (this was connected to my initially opposing the invasion of Iraq for religious reasons). The news media knows this and so every time a daycare or an oldfolks home gets hit by a stray smart bomb (one of the very expensive weapons of our very expensive war that exists for no other purpose but to prevent collateral damage), CNN will be all over it like flies on rotting meat. Compare that to WWII: certainly no one in America watched close-up and detailed (and continuous) news footage of the total incineration of German cities such as Dresden, when our tactics were to use massive bombing raids to deliberately create "fire storms" that would create a vacuum effect, pulling tens of thousands blond-haired, blue-eyed women, children, old people, infants, and German soldiers alike into a firey oven with its intense winds. We did not constantly view their charred remains - of mothers hovering over infants, nor did we interview their relatives to see what they thought. We can be assured that if THAT is what the American public was constantly reminded of (or were watching it live on TV and on the net), then we would have lost the heart to fight very quickly.

Or consider the issue of casualties - in three years less than 4000 soldiers have been killed in Iraq. Compare that to the 400,000 we lost in 4 years of WWII or the 600,000 in the 4+ years of the Civil War, or even the 59,000 in 15+ years in Vietnam.

Basically, at our current rate of losses, we would have to stay in Iraq roughly until the year 2056 (for a nearly-sixty year long war!) to hit the number of casualties we had in Vietnam. We would have to stay there until the year 2366 (for a nearly 400-year-long war!) before, at our current rate of losses, we would hit the number of casualties suffered in World War II and we would have to stay in Iraq for over 500 years to even approach, at our current rate of losses, the number of losses we suffered in the Civil War (when our total population was much smaller)! In other words, this is, in terms of American lives, one of the LEAST COSTLY wars ever fought by our nation. Yet if you read the headlines, watch the news or ask your friends (who are reading the headlines and watching the news) you would think the War was a dibacle beyond comparison to all other wars, since every time we look up we hear about (or better yet, watch live footage of) another HUMVEE being destroyed by a roadside bomb killing a half-dozen servicemen (and the occassional woman). And then we see the biography specials of soldier after soldier - watching interviews with weeping widows and mothers and fatherless children. No wonder we and our politicians are loosing our nerve in the face of this war. And, in a more inter-connected society, we are all more likely to know and care for an individual killed. I personally know two or three who have been killed and at least one more who was injured, and several more still who are in the service - and I come from a small town!

Consider abuses: what happens when a few hot-headed, bored, and drunk US soldiers take pictures of a few POWs with their underwear on their heads (that naturally end up on prime time new the next evening)? Brave and righteously-indignant politicians and church-leaders start condeming "the war" and "the administration" (and, oh yeah, "the perpetrators") using over-the-top rhetoric, words like "torture," came quickly to many lips. But on the whole, this has been a closely scrutinized and therefore marvelously sedate war (relative to previous wars). Yet there is an uneasiness we feel about how the enemy is treated (that I suspect was not the case in WWII) in part because if they are mistreated, we will certainly watch/hear about it on TV. And we are supposed to be "the good guys"...right?

The bottom line is that War is, always has been, and always will be HELL. In war people die. Innocent people, women, children old people, little boys and little girls die. In fact, the country that wins is usually the one that causes the most of the other people to die. In the past our news media, both by its technical limitations and by its nationalistic agendas shielded us from close proximity to Hell. No longer. Now we can see it close up, now we can study intently its hideous features. And now an envelope-pushing, nationalism-deconstructing, scandal-driven, bad-news-selling mass media is more than happy to press our faces right into it, and that continually. And no one likes to be in hell. So we call for an end to the war - at any cost - perhaps even the cost of losing. This is what will happen in this and all future wars that are scrutinized by a free and ideologically diverse press like our own. Americans are fickle and therefore so are our poll-watching American politicians (ALL of them - we should not forget it was large majorities in both parties authorized this war to begin with, regardless of how the Democrats will try to pin that on the Republicans in the coming months - I mean 2 years - leading up to the presidential election); we do not have much resolve. The war has scarcely affected our standard of living at all, yet we feel weighed down by it - maybe such that we do not know what we want to do next. And this may be appropriate for normal people given the horrible nature of war.

The above is basically what was discussed in the conversation which left me with several questions: In a mass media society, where the masses also elect the leaders, is it no longer possible to fight and win a war (or at least, a war on foreign soil)? Is this even a bad thing? Might it simply mean that "wars shall cease" - or at least become more rare if they are found to be more difficult to win? One can hope - but I sorta doubt that, given what we learn from history about human nature. What can the government do to address this new difficulty? They cannot very well control all media in the information age. Maybe we will really learn that war is hell and not commit to prosecute one (in the future) unless we are willing to go to hell and to stay in hell until the war is won (since the media is not likely to spare us the hell, as it would cost them ratings and ultimately money to do so). But are we contemporary Americans really willing to do that? I doubt it. Maybe the government, if it wants to win its wars, should arrange massive public spectacles and entertainments to keep the people distracted and apathetic as the Romans did? Well, I doubt that would work either.

So as I sit and listen to the politicians (who have all suddenly become expert military strategists) debate whether they will vote "no confidence" (whatever that even means) on the new "surge" plan, I cannot help but think that they (we) are not willing to "get their hands dirty" - to do what it takes to win the war (whether that means a "surge" or whatever), yet at the same time they are not (yet) willing to lose it either, since most all are agreed that "throwing in the towel" would be colossally irresponsible - even wicked since our invasion has de-stabilized everything.

Now, I have not even begun to get a really good handle on the complexity of our problems (this post has not addressed cultural or religious issues either on our side or that of the terrorists, nor the difficulties of fighting an insurgency vs. conventional war - but only the relationship between mass media and public resolve because that is what the conversation was about), much less begin to propose an answer. But what do ya'll think? I would like to broaden this conversation. Is it possible for a society like ours to maintain the sort of resolve it takes to fight a war? If not - is that a good thing? Bad thing? Depends?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, believe the U.S. will have trouble prosecuting wars; and I think media is largely the reason. I don't know what the solution is, or even if there is one.

I also believe that in our "soft" society, many citizens are quick to brave "fighting" the U.S. military and government (instead of the enemy), precisely because they know neither of these institutions will harm them.

8:56 AM, February 05, 2007  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Isn't "prosecuting a war" fun to say/write? I don't really know what that means...
Well, I am not sure that the media is wholly to blame. It just seems to me that the world has changed so much in so many ways (media chief among them) that the ways that we fought wars in the past is really not too likely to happen anymore. And that is related to all the popular anxiety over the Iraq war.

11:22 AM, February 05, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Media was more involved in Vietnam than in previous wars, and our resolve was shaken. It is the same now.
Media brings a lot of good and unity among different peoples, but it does have an agenda. The problem is not so much media, but the agenda behind media. The goal is to be unbiased...but no media corporation appears this.
I think the question should be "How do we overcome our presuppositions and preunderstandings" rather than how much of this media caused.
Great job using all of those stats, etc. And now I'm going to start paying attention in my ethics class! --Bethany

2:19 PM, February 06, 2007  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

haha, well I hope the numbers are even right since they 1) were rough estimates from memory and 2) had to go through the mathematical process of being multiplied...by ME! I freely admit my math skills ought always to be taken with a grain of salt.

5:33 PM, February 06, 2007  

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