Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Real State of the Union

Well, our recent trip to Brookings was the first time we did some kind of actual physical reporting on an event. Perhaps this will become somewhat of a regularity as Chris and I (along with Josh, an active reader/commenter) went last Tuesday to go see The Atlantic's "Real State of the Union" at Georgetown University. The night was pretty eventful, but I'll skip the Scientological temples and S+M sex stores to focus on the politics discussed.

The panelists included Norah O'Donnell, James Fallows, Stephen S. Cohen (different from the Stephen Cohen who writes regularly for The Nation), Jonathan Rauch, and William Powers (note: Powers is not as famous as the other panelists and thus the link is to the article he was discussing - which is unfortunately subscriber only).

Fallows had probably the most interesting topic of all the panelists. What he said is available in written form here, but his thesis is simple: that the US's military commitments in Iraq are not at all sustainable, in the medium-to-long run. An original point? Not entirely, but Fallows has several original takes on it. The one I found most interesting was his argument that with American participation in the military (measured as a percent of the overall population, not as a straight number) at its lowest level since before the Spanish-American War, policy-makers in our government have much less incentive to take military casualties into account when deciding whether or not to go to war. This, of course, leads to more poorly-planned wars, in which the lives of American soldiers are not properly safeguarded by the civilian leadership which orders them into battle.

Although there certainly is some truth to it, the big problem with this argument is that the trend Fallows identifies - less and less contact between Congresspeople and the realities of war - has been more than counterbalanced this century by other trends which have increased public awareness of war. Televised broadcasts and improved war reporting in general have made the costs of war quite apparent to the American public, as the history of every military conflict (or at least, the domestic political conflict behind every military conflict) from Vietnam on makes clear. Furthermore, technological advance in the form of things like precision-guided bombs has helped to reduce casualties pretty dramatically since the time of the draft. I think even a cursory (read: if you want numbers, you're finding them yourselves) comparison of casualties in American wars and occupations pre-Vietnam to those in wars and occupations post-Vietnam shows that the American public's tolerance for military casualties has diminished hand in hand with the average number of casualties we sustain in our conflicts abroad. Fallows's concerns are real, but the harms he worries about have been vastly outweighed by positive changes in the ways we conduct our wars.

More on the Atlantic's panel discussion later, hopefully.

UPDATE 2/1/2005 by Chris: I have discussed our visit to the Atlantic a bit more in my Greens Go Nuclear? post. So go there if you were checking here for the update!


At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, you mention television coverage of war as if that makes any difference now (i'll admit i skipped ahead to comment after that, so if you qualified this then hurrah). Do you actually see fighting on your television? Do you see the coffins of soldiers brought home to be buried (a specific piece of negative propaganda the Bush administration has handled smoothly)? Television coverage is not important.

--Josh G-M

At 4:27 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Josh, I think you're mistaken on this, but seeing as how I don't really watch television feel free to correct me if I say anything spectacularly dumb.

That said, dismissing television coverage of war as "not important" strikes me as a little glib. Remember back to 1993, when Clinton withdrew our peacekeepers from Mogadishu and condemned 250,000 Somalians to death by starvation and militia violence. What prompted this? Public outrage over the deaths of 17 Army Rangers - outrage largely caused by CNN's coverage of Somali militiamen dragging the Rangers' bodies through the streets.

In a more general sense, I think you have to acknowledge that the US public's tolerance for American (and even foreign! Now that's something new in the history of human warfare) casualties has declined markedly since the advent of television. Vietnam was the most divisive non-Civil war our country has ever had; it was also the first war that had live television coverage. Television may not generally show live firefights, but it can bring home the war in a lot of ways other media can't - by depicting the lives of those wounded in combat, by showing the immediate aftermath of insurgent attacks/field battles, by interviewing the other side's civilians. In all these ways television makes it a lot harder for us to glorify war in the way I think a lot more people did in the 19th- and early 20th-century. Dulce et decorum est? Not in the age of television.


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