If there is any human activity which should be approached with caution, or rather which should be avoided by all possible means, resisted and shunned, that activity is war... [for] there is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive, more hateful, more unworthy in every respect of man, not to say a Christian.
Man, says Erasmus, is the one creation made entirely for friendly acts, yet in war his social disposition turns him into "a brute so monstrous that no beast will be called a brute in future if compared to man." After all, "When did anyone hear of a hundred thousand animals falling dead together after tearing each other to pieces, as men do everywhere?"
How is such perversion even possible? It is due to concerted campaigns for amnesia by which the bitter lessons of the past are unlearned. Though experience teaches that the expenses of bloodshed are ten times higher than those of peace with results much worse, the propaganda of clerics, lawyers, and princes has again made war "such a respectable thing that it is wicked -- I might almost say 'heretical' -- to disapprove of this which of all things is the most abominable and most wretched."
Five centuries hence, another thoughtful commentator reflected on the difference between West Europeans and North Americans in this respect. William Pfaff, writing in The International Herald Tribune in January 2003, is worth quoting at length:
West Europeans, generally speaking... are interested in a slow development of civilized and tolerant international relations, compromising on problems while avoiding catastrophes along the way. They have themselves only recently recovered from the catastrophes of the first and second world wars, when tens of millions of people were destroyed. They don't want more.
American commentators like to think that the "Jacksonian" frontier spirit equips America to dominate, reform and democratize other civilizations. They do not appreciate that America's indefatigable confidence comes largely from never having had anything very bad happen to it.
The worst American war was the Civil War, in which the nation, North and South, suffered 498,000 wartime deaths from all causes, or slightly more than 1.5 percent of a total population of 31.5 million.
The single battle of the Somme in World War I produced twice as many European casualties as the United States suffered, wounded included, during that entire war.
There were 407,000 American war deaths in World War II, out of a population of 132 million - less than a third of 1 percent. Considering this, Washington does not really possess the authority to explain, in condescending terms, that Europe's reluctance to go to war is caused by a pusillanimous reluctance to confront the realities of a Hobbesian universe.
Pfaff adds the following observation:
The difference between European and American views is more sensibly explained in terms of an irresponsible and ideology-fed enthusiasm of Bush administration advisers and leaders for global adventure and power, fostered by people with virtually no experience, and little seeming imaginative grasp, of what war means for its victims.
It cannot be emphasized too often that not one of the principal figures associated with the Bush White House's foreign policy, with the exception of Colin Powell, has any actual experience of war, most of them having actively sought to avoid military service in Vietnam.
Evidently, not just individuals but the whole country has ignored central lessons of "what war means for its victims." As International Law scholar Richard Falk has put it in The Nation:
Typically, the Vietnamese are treated as an alien and cruel backdrop for an essentially American encounter with death and dying. A concern about misrepresentation of the war was vividly expressed by W.D. Ehrhart, a Vietnam veteran who was in the Marines...: "You know, the Vietnam War, we imagine it's this thing that happened to us when, in fact, the Vietnam War is this thing we did to them."
In mainstream US discourse, the unforgivable flaws of the Vietnam War are that it was (1) lost at (2) by US standards, a hefty cost in American lives (3) without clear US interests at stake. The scholars debate which was more instrumental in eroding support for the war. It is clear, however, that either dwarfs the fact that it (4) involved grave war crimes such as free fire zones; the deployment of the most poisonous chemical weapons known to science in civilian areas; and the bombing back to the stone age of Laos and Cambodia at an officially estimated cost of respectively 350,000 and 600,000 civilian lives.
Certainly the US military and political establishment had no significant qualms about (4). Anyone in doubt about this should contemplate SIOP-62, the top secret contingency plan for US nuclear first strike. Effective from 1962, this plan mandated a nuclear annihilation of not just the USSR but its enemy China in the event of suspicious Soviet troop movements. Thus it prescribed the murder of up to a hundred million innocent citizens of a non-belligerent nation posing no threat to any NATO country. Anything less, explained the head of the Strategic Air Command, General Thomas Powers, "would really screw up the plan."
The 2004 release of these utterly sinister documents failed to cause any noticeable stir in the US public, even though they prove that America was ready, at a moment's notice, to carry out a nuclear holocaust making every previous genocide pale in comparison. One shudders to imagine what Erasmus would have said of this ultimate deviation from his -- or any -- conception of justifiable warfare.
Or, to return to the current malaise, whatever would he have made of the following sermon, given at a time when only 25 percent of Americans thought the Iraq War a mistake?
We're all neocons now... We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who's president. Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It's simple.
Chris Matthews, MSNBC Hardball, April 2003
Now the warmongering pundits who shilled for that bungled war are using virtually indistinguishable rhetoric to enable another "preventive" onslaught; one that might need to avail itself of nuclear weapons as a tactical necessity. The leading political commentator on America's most trusted television network thunders: "You know in a sane world, every country would unite against Iran and blow it off the face of the Earth. That would be the sane thing to do."
Are such odious operators met with a firestorm of popular derision from the US public? Not outside of liberal blogs.
Apart from 9/11 and the events of 150 years ago, the American people still has no experience of being at the receiving end of "this which of all things is the most abominable and most wretched," but which remains so sweet to the inexperienced.