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If Western humanism has a preeminent advocate of the ages, it is Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1456--1536). His Adagia (1515), a collection of proverbs with commentary, was the first bestseller in history. And its most popular essay is composed on the ancient aphorism dulce bellum inexpertis -- "war is sweet to the inexperienced."

Crossposted from my blog, Booman Tribune, My Left Wing and Bits of News.

Written at a time when war had for perhaps the first time risen to rival disease and starvation -- the two traditional scourges of humanity -- Erasmus' essay has been called the founding tract of pacifism. But he was not a pacifist. Rather he insisted, against the grain of his times, that war be confined to a last resort of self-defense, for the excellent reason that "even the most successful and just war," waged by a good prince for a noble purpose, is prone to descend into unspeakable atrocities. Thus:

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.

Originally posted to Sirocco on Thu Jun 01, 2006 at 06:18 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Written for Memorial Day (18+ / 0-)

    and belatedly crossposted here in the light of the news that another major massacre by US Marines is coming to light.

    This is the sort of stuff that occurs in any war that isn't extremely brief, and even in some that are. It's unacceptable, yet to think it won't happen because "our troops are good" is just naïve.

  •  this should be on the REC list (10+ / 0-)

    this is an excellent intellectual discussion of war and the nature of humankind.

    •  Appreciated, Teresa (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Shockwave, Eddie C, begone

      I suspect it's much too long and maybe a little too abstract for that, however...

    •  Agreed 100%... (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Shockwave, Eddie C, Sirocco, docangel, begone

      ...part of my frustration with current events is that the Clinton years lulled me into the belief that humanity was evolving to a better place.

      These days it appears as though my idealism was tragically misplaced!

      "We improve ourselves by victories over ourselves. There must be contest, and we must win." - Edward Gibbon

      by bluewolverine on Thu Jun 01, 2006 at 06:32:36 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I can't recommend it now (0+ / 0-)

      "Time expired," or so it says (?!?!)

      I do have one quibble with this elegantly written diary: Don't bring up anything related to Mutually Assured Destruction.

      Nuclear reprisals on civilians were absolutely central to that much-maligned theory. The theory states that restricting attacks to military targets would have made the launch of a nuclear war more likely, not less likely, and led to the deaths of more civilians, not fewer. While the theory may feel repugnant, it seems to have worked: the US and USSR never launched a nuclear attack on each other.

      You may agree or disagree with this perspective, and can certainly question why it would relate to China, which had already broken with the Soviet Union forty plus years ago. However, please recognize that a great many intelligent, moral people who remember the Cold War feel that the structural threat to civilians kept us all safe; there's no point in raising that hackle while we're discussing another issue entirely.

      •  I disagree (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Warren Terrer

        First, this was not Mutual Assured Destruction. It was a first strike policy aiming to preempt a conventional attack by means of nuclear annihilation -- unilateral assured destruction, if you will. MAD, based on robust mutual second-strike capability, would later render this is plan obsolete.

        Second, yes indeed one can certainly question -- that must be the understatement of the week! -- the ethics of annihilating China on suspicion of imminent Soviet attack, presumably to rid the world of socialism once and for all.

        To my mind this presidentially approved genocidal plan represents the absolute moral nadir of American, if not human, history. Which is why it wouldn't pass it by.

  •  We forgot the lessons. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sirocco, carneystaff

    It's been too long since we had a major war on American soil, not that we need one, but we should understand what it does to the people , the soldiers, and the country.

  •  Recommended, Bookmarked and one more thing, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    splashy, Sirocco

    There is another aspect of not understanding the suffering of war. How many generations will pass before Iraqis forgive us?

    Just ask any teenage Russian what they think of Germans. They were born fifty years after World War II but they are told of the lives cut short.  Your grandfather, your great grandfather, your great uncle Diema and his wife Anya with all of their children, all of those people were killed by Germans.  

    The children born in Iraq two and three generations from now will be given a list of ancestors that have been killed by Americans. George W. Bush has personally created generations of hatred for Americans.

    This is an exceptional diary. Thank you Sirocco and thanks to TeresaInPa for leading me to it.

    •  Thanks for the kind words (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ybruti, RickBoston

      My own country was invaded by the Germans in 1940; I am aware of old people who still hate Germany (though that is the exception). And disturbing as it may sound, if you set aside the persecution of Jews and some of the Gestapo's most nefarious acts, German troops behaved better than US troops are doing in Iraq. No massacres of civilians, for one thing.

      •  Germans are easy to forgive... (0+ / 0-)
        They are the most contrite, unpatriotic bunch of people I have ever met in my life. When I travel, I can't really find a German who is "proud" to be German, or who thinks their country is the "Best Nation on Earth." They just shrug their shoulders and say, "we're just another country."

        Contrast that to American "We're Number One"ism. I can stand the bastards, and I'm supposed to be an American myself. I can't imagine what I would do if Americans had killed half my family to "support democracy" and then supported a puppet regime that killed the other half of my family.

      •  Germans are easy to forgive... (0+ / 0-)
        They are the most contrite, unpatriotic bunch of people I have ever met in my life. When I travel, I can't really find a German who is "proud" to be German, or who thinks their country is the "Best Nation on Earth." They just shrug their shoulders and say, "we're just another country."

        Contrast that to American "We're Number One"ism. I can stand the bastards, and I'm supposed to be an American myself. I can't imagine what I would do if Americans had killed half my family to "support democracy" and then supported a puppet regime that killed the other half of my family.

        •  Agreed on the Germans (0+ / 0-)

          If I have a favorite nationality it has to be them.

          As to Americans, sure, the jingoistic demographic is a pain. But don't forget that Americans rank in global surveys as the most popular brand of foreign tourist. The ease with which they separate from their money is to be sure one explanation, but not, I think, the only one. There is also a characteristic friendly openness, even if it comes with a bit of the "there's a similar thingy in city X, only four times as big" attitude. Brits, by the way, were the most disliked in the survey I have in mind. They do tend to be absolutely horrible abroad, shedding all inhibitions.

          Then again I'd much rather be occupied by British Marines if it came to that.

    •  Eddie (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Eddie C, Sirocco, ybruti, carneystaff

      It amazes me that the Vietnamese and Japanese seem to have forgiven us.  On the other hand the Ukrainians still hate the Russians for forcing them in to the Soviet Union, outlawing their religion and of course the forced starvation death of 7 million people by Stalin has not been forgotten.  

      •  But how long will 'forgiveness' hold? (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Sirocco, carneystaff

        I often think, what if it were me who saw his parents gunned down in front of me. Would I want revenge? Yes. How to deliver it? That is the open question that the U.S. refuses to confront.

        Can we be ignorant of the pain we caused Nicaragua and El Salvador? Remember democratic Iran and Mousadeg (sp)? And what the bloddy hell are we really doing in Colombia? Will the memories be as long as the Irish (my background)?

        Thanks to both Siro and TIP for this. To face the present, we must refer to first principles.

        Do you have a child? Will you send her to the war?... anon

        by andreww on Fri Jun 02, 2006 at 06:20:50 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Great diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sirocco, carneystaff

    Thanks, TeresainPa, for letting us know. Maybe you broke rules, but ... you gotta break some eggs to make this omelette ...

    Your essay, Sirocco, echoes a lot of things I know about but can hardly discuss with anyone. Some of the implications, I think:

    1. America is a teenager. This nation is young, and I think decidedly foolish. At just over two centuries old, we're in training pants compared to Europe, which accounts for much of our blustery nonsense in the face of Europe's experienced counsel. If the Civil War was our toddler temper tantrum, what will be our teenage blow-out? A middle east Armegeddon? The pre-emptive, pimply-faced, gun-the-car folly of nuclear weapons despite worldwide attempts to make us obey a curfew?
    1. I am depressed. Bush as president, the Iraq war, the impending economic meltdown, the possibility of Avian flu. But what I feel cannot be laid at the feet of any of these things. I believe I live in a state of great forboding. I think Pfaff is right when he says:

    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.

    I think I'm hopeless and depressed because deep down I believe we're gonna get it. I think we're itching to be taught a lesson that will make 9-11 look like a rug burn.

    1. Ignorance is rampant. We have nothing but stooges on TV and writing in the papers. Shit, if Erasmus can write what he does in the 1400s, why the fuck are we listening to this in the new millennium:

    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.

    I would be embarrassed -- absolutely embarrassed -- to say shit like that. That someone is paid a lot of money by the media to spout such utter crap undercuts any hope I have for the fourth estate to honor its traditional role as questioner, moderator, and revealer of truth to the people.

    1. The question should be, as Erasmus posed, why war should be anything BUT a last resort. In this country, we are still clinging to the idea of "good wars" (i.e., wars we win). We have infantile men running the country, who are using the world as their backyard, running around with cardboard swords -- hardly any (including Powell) have seen the true horrors of war. I more and more believe that it's time for women to run for every office in the land. It's time we ended war, fed the hungry, cured diseases, nurtured the environment. Instead of this, I have to watch Bush in a codpiece land on a military ship -- has anything ever been more clear? Or more clearly wrong?

    Why do you have to be a nonconformist like everybody else? - James Thurber

    by JuliaAnn on Thu Jun 01, 2006 at 09:15:34 PM PDT

  •  Glad to catch this again... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sirocco, carneystaff

    ...my browser crashed yesterday, with a full suite of tabs with diaries that I'd pulled out to read.  I wasn't able to recover 'em, and so today have begun rediscovering several -- this is one.  

    I'm glad I got back to it while I could still recommend it.

    Nicely done.

    Never, never brave me, nor my fury tempt:
      Downy wings, but wroth they beat;
    Tempest even in reason's seat.

    by GreyHawk on Fri Jun 02, 2006 at 04:09:26 AM PDT

  •  Quote time.... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    OCD, Sirocco

    "I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation.
    War is hell."

    William T. Sherman

    "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." Seneca

    by Ralfast on Fri Jun 02, 2006 at 09:04:25 PM PDT

  •  Great diary! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sirocco

    Thanks very much, and don't worry about the length!

  •  bona dicta, bene dicta (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sirocco

    Well said, Sirocco, and most timely.

  •  Senator Byrd Gave A Speech... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sirocco

    before the invasion which criticized the country for not fully becoming engaged in debate about the worthiness of this war. I would like to think that we can as a nation revisit when war is an appropriate course of action. Even though the Iraq War is now dissapproved of by 60%+ of the population, it doesn't seem to be translating into a debate about the when war is the proper course of action. If there is a debate going on out there, the politicians do not seem to be the ones engaging in it. You would like to think this is a debate that the sole remaining superpower should be having. If the world could listen to the chicken hawks that I come in contact with everyday, they would all arm themselves to the teeth against us.

    Good Government. Traffic Lights Aren't All That Weird. Vote Democratic!

    by HL Mungo on Sat Jun 03, 2006 at 12:22:56 AM PDT

    •  This war is unpopular... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      HL Mungo, Sirocco

      But war remains as popular as ever.

      The left really needs to step up to the plate and begin dismantling the imperial foundations of America. You know who won Vietnam? It was the neoconservatives. People really think we lost that war because of bad press.

      So far, though, there is ZERO political will on the part of the party to say, "We need to stop spending half our budget on the military." There is ZERO political will for saying, "We are one nation among many. We are not God's gift to the earth." There is ZERO political will for saying, "The United States has a history of supporting dictatorships and overthrowing democracies for the most craven of motives. Nobody should trust us with the military."

      But those views are wacky commie-views, and until the Democratic party is willing to stand up to faux-patriotic paranoid bullshit, we will continue to kill people in wars great and small.

      And honestly I don't think that will happen until we have an actual WWII style war on the domestic front. People love their myths of superiority sometimes more than life itself. Only when the war's face comes to America will we learn.

      •  Great Post (0+ / 0-)

        Damn depressing post too. The debate will come eventually over who lost the war in Iraq. I'd like to think the true causes and motives will be examined. I'm an optimist. More people will discuss the parenting styles of Brittany Spears and Tom Cruise in upcoming years here in Chicken Hawk Nation than discuss at depth the lessons of the Iraq debacle.

        Good Government. Traffic Lights Aren't All That Weird. Vote Democratic!

        by HL Mungo on Sat Jun 03, 2006 at 08:00:45 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Very well thought out (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sirocco

    I think America suffers from an excess of gamesmanship and one-upsmanship; we do not stop to consider the cost of our actions.  Not just to the "collateral" damage, the civilian deaths, displacement, disease, but to our own beliefs and principles.  To our young men and women that are returning trained to kill.  To a structure that rewards the arms manufacturers and traders, the dealers of death, far more than it rewards the healers.  Maybe it is just hard to admit that the princples of so many of our leaders have already been lost or hideously compromised.

    Democrats give you the Bill of Rights; Republicans sell you a bill of goods!

    by barbwires on Sat Jun 03, 2006 at 06:25:00 AM PDT

  •  it seems so simple (0+ / 0-)

    great fucking diary. glad i read it.

    as long as the system is structured as such...

    -the military provides substantial benefits for poor people to join it ranks. there is no similiar substitute of the same magnitude that provides poor people a way out that is inherently peaceable.

    -rich people do not face the prospect of war and in fact, some benefit greatly from its execution.

    -pundits and politicians who foist wars on the populace do not face war, nor do their families.

    this system perpetuates an underclass of warriors who, in order to try and better their lives, become fodder for the war machine.  

    why is this never discussed in the corporate media?
    is it too obvious?  is it "just the way it is?" i call bullshit. there are other ways to serve a nation other than being taught how to kill for it.
    please send us a politician who can eloquently and forcefully make this argument.

    one more thing, it also has struck me how politicians who engage in war say things like "nobody likes war." they pay lip service to this concept, you know so nobody thinks they actually get off on playing a real life game of Risk. but then the government will use any means necessary to hide the realities of war from the public. they try and sanitize it because they know it's true, "nobody (i.e., people who do not profit from it) likes war*." so if they can obfuscaste the realties it's almost like we're not at war at all. machiavelli would be proud.

    *not to say that people don't get off on war in an abstract sense, like cheering on the steelers or something, but nobody likes to see decapitated corpses and disembowled children. it sullies our beautiful minds.

     

    god don't like it, and i don't either- willie mctell

    by cereal breath on Sat Jun 03, 2006 at 08:29:10 AM PDT

    •  Exactly (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      melo, nmrwonk

      There is no collective memory of what it means to, say, live under occupation, or what it means to live in a failed state without monopoly of organized violence in conditions of low-intensity civil war. Nor is there an understanding of what it means to be exposed to Schock and Awe, or as it used to be called, Blitzkrieg.

      When the "embedded" reporters and family friendly newsdesks fail to even report that side of the story, of course people think they like war, as long as it is a) winning, b) justified in terms of their personal safety, and c) doesn't get between them and consumer society. I suspect it would astonish most Americans to learn that only 1 percent of Iraqis trust the Coalition for their personal safety. (And that poll was taken before Haditha and assorted other massacres. I wonder what the fraction is now.)

      Meanwhile the miliary-industrial-congressional complex works overtime confecting new bogus enemies, or recycle old ones. I guess that was the upside, from its POV, of not preventively nuking China back in the 60s.

      The resultant drain on the treasury conveniently hinders universal healthcare and higher education, which in turn secures a steady trickle of cannon fodder from among the working poor. It's a thing of beauty, if your name is Frank Carlucci or Richard Cheney.

  •  superb n/t (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sirocco

    why? just kos..... *just cause*

    by melo on Sat Jun 03, 2006 at 02:28:27 PM PDT

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