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Trivializing War to its Nuts and Bolts

November 25, 1990|MICHAEL N. NAGLER | Michael Nagler, a professor of classics and comparative literature, teaches in the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at UC Berkeley

Turn on any radio; you are likely to hear discussion of how fast the rotor blades of our military helicopters are being pitted by Saudi sand, whether Arabs like heat better than Americans, how many tanks have arrived in Saudi Arabia and how many planes have crashed there. What you will not hear is whether we have explored every option other than war or why millions of people believe Saddam Hussein when he claims that Kuwait was artificially created by Western interests and is being defended by those insensitive toward Arab aspirations. You'll hear, see or read precious little about the complex relationship of religious passion to politics in a modern Islamic state.

To gauge the disservice being done by this trivialization of news coverage, ask whether, as a citizen, one needs more to know the models of helicopter in the American arsenal or the feelings of people with whose fate we are now inextricably involved. Ask if Congress had our permission to give away its constitutional responsibility to declare war, which the news coverage, aside from opinion pundits, now seems grant to the President.

But the distractions go further. One listener asked a radio personality to comment on the revelation in the major French journal L'Express that the U.S. military is planning a four-day war with Iraq that would cost 20,000 American lives. The radio guy responded, "What's the going rate?"

By reducing discussion of a potential war to numbers and machinery, we also trivialize the human lives involved. This is quite apart from the absurdity of a four-day war to anyone who understands the state of Iraqi determination and motivation (far more important than the effect of sand on rotor blades).

About 150 years ago, that astute observer of the American scene, Alexis de Toqueville, warned that "nothing destroys democracies faster than war." And nothing may lead us to war as fast as persistent attention to hardware and statistics that crowds out the value of life.

Democracy is founded on the principle that every life matters; that's why every opinion matters, and every vote. By hurtling without reflection toward war, we could discard our way of life more surely than any tyrant could take it from us.

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