For most Americans, when you speak of war, one war in particular comes to mind; World War II. It is the paradigm of war in our national mind and you could hear its echoes in the rhetoric that so many promulgated after 9/11. We were (and in the minds of many, still are, regardless of our national exploits since the end of Hitler) innocent victims, dragged into a war we did not want by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. But once the Japanese made that mistake, by golly, we were going to set things right, finish the job, walk the line and oppose those twin evils of Japanese imperialism and Nazi fascism wherever they dared hide. And there is, obviously, no doubt that the German and Japanese regimes were lead by people bent on not just power and conquest, but that they sought those gains on the blood and skulls of the innocent. In Germany, the millions who were murdered in the concentration camps. For the Japanese, the Rape of Nanking and similar atrocities committed against "enemy combatants" in occupied lands. We, the virtuous, aggrieved nation overcame them through the selfless (and it was absolutely that) sacrifice of our soldiers, the ingenuity of our scientists and the savvy of our leaders, demonstrating for good and all the power of good over evil.
Or so the national narrative of WWII seems to go, give or take a few points, in the national mind. There are many points about this narrative that could be debated, not the least of which were some of our tactics aimed against civilian populations or the use of nuclear weapons. But that is not my point. My point is that for most Americans, war is ultimately not about death, politics, liberty or even national survival; war is about hope. War, and the subsequent American victory we have come to expect (the war in Vietnam not withstanding) confirms in our national mind that good really will triumph over evil and that we are on the side of good. Wars then become issues of cosmic significance. They are as much about who we say we are and our hope for the future (both short term and eternal) as they are about the real-world political situation that entails armed conflict. They confirm our national identity, bolster our self-regard and help us to look past our obvious failings. And what else could you expect from a nation that has, almost since its inception, been conflated and confused with the Church? The Church/America is God's kingdom, God's agent of justice, God's prophetic voice to the world and the community of the chosen, the elect. Our victory is nothing less than God's victory, and what surer sign exists of God's blessing? I recognize that I am making a generalization and that this is not true for every American, but I think it is true for most. War may be regarded as a regrettable but necessary evil or a positive force for justice, but behind those statements is the sentiment I have described above. For America, war is hope.
The problem is, war is not that for the rest of the world. War is not hope, it is hopelessness. This is a conclusion I came to during my time in Bosnia, but Dan's post really made me think about it again. For most of the world, war is not about the triumph of good over evil or the vanquishing of some distant enemy; war is about lifelong friends and neighbors one day deciding to kill each other for some very petty reasons. War is about wanting what your neighbor has or blaming him for your low position, and so you set out to take what he has or to punish him for the inexcusable crime of being a Serb/Croat/Muslim/Hutu/Tutsi/Tamil/Timoran/Hindu/Buddhist/Christian/Kurd/Sunni/Shiite, well, you see my point. The list of excuses for killing one's neighbors seems endless and include ethnicity, religion, geographical origin, skin color - all the things that we "peacefully" deal with in America, but elsewhere, are perfectly good reasons to view those around you as expendable. But in many instances, this is little more than fratricide once removed and leads inevitably to despair and and an all-pervasive hopelessness. People cling to their hope, to be sure, as I saw in the Serbs who were willing to live on donated land, building their future homes a few bricks at a time as money barely trickled in from the government or their meager salary. But for most of them, the answer for their children was not to stay and rebuild, to heal the wounds of the past and to try to forge a new future with old enemies, it was to flee to Europe, to build a life and a future elsewhere. What is that but a lack of hope? What greater statement of hopelessness is there than to deny that a homeland, a language, an identity, a family is worth suffering for? That is the reality of war. No matter who wins, everyone loses. No matter what injustices are suffered, no matter what atrocities committed, no matter what horrible enemies are overcome, it ultimately leads to dissolution for both victors and victims. War is not about hope, despite what America seems to implicitly believe.
War is hopelessness and that is why I cannot fight.