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Hitchens on Memorial Day:

OpinionJournal.com presents a Memorial Day essay by Christopher Hitchens. Here's a taste:

it was only after the doughboys returned in 1918 that the former Confederate states dropped their boycott of America's original "Memorial Day," proclaimed by Union commander Gen. John Logan in May 1868. And here one can note the bizarre manner in which war--which is division by definition--exerts its paradoxically unifying effect. If it is "the health of the state," as was sardonically said by that great foe of "Mr. Wilson's war," Randolph Bourne, then it can also be an agent of emancipation and nation-building and even (as was proved after 1945) of democracy. But even this reflection can never abolish the insoluble problem: how to estimate the value of those whose lives were cruelly cut off before victory was in sight. It is sometimes rather lazily said that these soldiers "gave" their lives. It would be equally apt, if more blunt, to say that they had their lives taken. Humanity has been grappling with this conundrum ever since Pericles gave his funeral oration, and there would have been many Spartan and Melian widows and orphans who would have been heartily sickened by those Athenian-centered remarks.

hugo:
It is sometimes rather lazily said that these soldiers "gave" their lives. It would be equally apt, if more blunt, to say that they had their lives taken.



This is what Andy Rooney said on 60 Minutes last night.
5.29.2006 1:52pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Hitchens and Rooney have it only partly right. No warrior "gives" his life. Some warriors do have their lives "taken" from them. But many warriors more or less willingly put their lives at risk for something higher: glory; the lives of their comrades; the protection of their family and friends; the defense of a homeland; or some even higher cause. There's nothing simple about it. And it's worth remembering that when we consider the warriors of all nations -- even those of our bitterst enemies -- many, if not most, have died honorably.
5.29.2006 5:12pm
tefta (mail):
I was moved by the closing: ... and every man and woman among them was a volunteer. This plain statement requires no further rhetoric.

When I read if to my husband he said the suicide bombers are volunteers too. That took me aback. They also believe in their cause and assuming they are volunteers, how can I differentiate between the two sacrifices other than our cause is just and theirs isn't. For some reason this is upsetting me a great deal.
5.29.2006 6:47pm
Dean Moriarty (mail):
tefta:

to some extent, it bothers me to when I look at the loss/waste of humanity. However, while we can break down the barriers of whose side these people were on when lament the loss of life, we can certainly look with more discernment at the causes themselves, separate from the lives lost, and make political/ideological arguments or even philosophical/moral pronouncments as to the "justness" of the cause.

Still, it doesn't detract from the bravery of any soldier. While suicide bomber lack the "honor" component, it is perilous to say they lack bravery or courage. This is a tough pill to swallow, for certain, and isn't it the reason Bill Maher got fired?
5.29.2006 11:47pm
cj (mail):
Quote previous comment:
"to some extent, it bothers me to when I look at the loss/waste of humanity. However, while we can break down the barriers of whose side these people were on when lament the loss of life, we can certainly look with more discernment at the causes themselves, separate from the lives lost, and make political/ideological arguments or even philosophical/moral pronouncments as to the "justness" of the cause."

This is something I struggle with, too. Look at Vietnam and Korea and Japan and China and Russia. I guess on some level the fact that they are now our economic partners argues toward a "win", but still, one has to question the life sacrifice of so many in those wars, given such a "shadowy acceptance of the definition of victory."

How willingly we expend the lives of our younger generation. The older I become, the less worthwhile it seems -- especially when I am not one sacrificing my life; or, more bitterly, when it is my son sacrificing his.
5.30.2006 2:28am
Hoosier:
I find Hitch endlessly frustrating, since he--unlike his hero Orwell--doesn't normally write at all clearly. Is he comparing the US now to Athens in the Peloponnesian War? This is done occasionally these days, to play up the "imperial democracy" theme. But it seems out of character for Hitchens, who is a strong supporter of the war. And the person who most makes me question my opposition to the Iraq invasion.

Thoughts?
5.30.2006 7:30am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
When a man jumps on a grenade in order to save his fellow soldiers, he has indeed given his life. True, it was also taken by the enemy soldier who threw the grenade. All of America's soldiers today are volunteers, and so I think the verb "give" is applicable to all of them, as other commenters have noted.

One verb makes our soldiers heroic, active figures. The other makes our soldiers merely passive victims. On Memorial Day, and all the other days, I know which image I will portray.

Tefta... the difference between our soldiers and suicide bombers is that our soldiers do not intentionally harm innocent civilians (and when some tiny few do, they are prosecuted for breaking our law). It's not just the cause which separates us. Contrast today's suicide bombers with Japanese kamikaze pilots.
5.30.2006 9:58am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
When a man jumps on a grenade in order to save his fellow soldiers, he has indeed <b>given </b>his life. True, it was also taken by the enemy soldier who threw the grenade. All of America's soldiers today are volunteers, and so I think the verb "give" is applicable to all of them, as other commenters have noted.

One verb makes our soldiers heroic, active figures. The other makes our soldiers merely passive victims. On Memorial Day, and all the other days, I know which image I will portray.

Tefta... the difference between our soldiers and suicide bombers is that our soldiers do not intentionally harm innocent civilians (and when some tiny few do, they are prosecuted for breaking our law). It's not just the cause which separates us. Contrast today's suicide bombers with Japanese kamikaze pilots.
5.30.2006 9:59am
Houston Lawyer:
Even in a conscripted military, there is a certain amount of choice involved in going into battle. You could evade the draft or desert or face the consequences of disobeying the draft.

To my knowledge, the US military has never assigned suicide missions. Hazardous with long odds on survival, yes, but not suicidal.

To paraphrase Patton: It's not your job to die for your country, it's your job to make that other poor son of a bitch die for his.

I watched "A Bridge Too Far" again last night. The Germans were shown fighting with courage and giving quarter when quarter was due. It is not necessary to demonize your enemies in order to effectively fight them.
5.30.2006 11:29am
CJColucci:
The valor and sacrifice of a soldier cannot be diminished by the foolishness or even the iniquity of the mission for which his civilian leaders put him in harm's way. But, of course, the converse is also true: the valor and sacrifice of a soldier cannot validate the wisdom or goodness of the mission his civilian leaders chose. I suspect that most of those who confuse the two actually know better.
5.30.2006 11:47am
Shangui (mail):
Tefta... the difference between our soldiers and suicide bombers is that our soldiers do not intentionally harm innocent civilians (and when some tiny few do, they are prosecuted for breaking our law).

You're kidding, right? Our soldiers didn't intentionally harm innocent Germans and Japanese in WWII? Of course they did. They may well have been morally justified in doing so, but fire bombing and a-bombs are not exactly precision attacks and they were both used on civilian targets. Again, before people get all huffy, I'm not saying this was necessarily the wrong thing to do, but it was certainly intentionally harming innocent civilians.
5.30.2006 12:17pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Shangui.

As it happens, Hitch and a British historian did a presentation on C-Span about bombing civilians in WW II. Both were against it.

But there was some hindsight involved. Nobody knew what the strategic result would be. The interwar Italian airman, Balbo, had stressed repeatedly--and apparently been believed--that bombing cities would destroy a nation's morale. Afterwards, it was clearly seen to be false.

In addition, what part of German activity could be convincingly demonstrated to have no part in the German war effort? So whether a given civilian is "innocent" or not, his death may or even certainly would hinder the war effort. Given the work-arounds and the resilience of a modern industrial state, and the huge numbers involved, perhaps any one individual's death would be meaningless. But how about several hundred thousand? It seemed reasonable at the time to presume it would have made a difference. And, taking that one step further, if it made a difference, ending the war sooner, saving the lives of our soldiers, what is the moral calculus invoved in not doing it?

As a practical matter, the Brits' bombers were designed with the pre-war philosphy that the bomber will always get through. 50,000 RAF Bomber Command aircrew are witnesses for the opposite. (Hint: They didn't get through.) So the Brits were interested in speed and bomb load, scanting on armament and armor. They simply couldn't exist in the daylight sky over the Reich, so they switched to night bombing. Given the tools available at the time, cities were the smallest things they could hit. Ant there was military stuff--generally manufacturing or transport nodes--in cities.

American bombers were more heavily armed and the theory was that they could fight their way through. The Eighth Air Force was on the way to Bomber Command-type casualties trying that plan, until the P51 Mustang came along, capable of escorting them as far into Germany as necessary.
Problem with the American bombers is that their accuracy was not good, although far better than the Brits', who by this time were bombing on marker flares dropped into cities by Pathfinders. The Americans could get half the bombs into a circle half a mile across centered on the target. The other half went elsewhere. So, even with the best intentions, unless the target was out in the country, civilians were going to be killed in bombing raids called, by those standards, "daylight precision bombing."


So, given the circumstances, the deaths of civilians in bombing raids was inevitable. There may have been additional efforts to deprive the Reich and Japan of industrial workers, but, as far as I know, nobody did it for grins. No bombing campaign was anything other than hideously expensive in terms of men, machines, bombs and other munitions, fuel, and, importantly, in targets unhit by the choice of targets hit. There is no evidence this was a matter of sheer sadism. Although, if Balbo's view was being followed, the motivation might correspond to terror--indiscriminate violence to promote a political goal.
5.30.2006 2:59pm
Mark F. (mail):
Richard:

Why not just say the ends jusify the means and nothing is intrinsically immoral? That seems to be your position. Would you have been in favor of gang raping German women in an attempt to get a German surrender? Or how about torturing German and Japanese prisoners of war? Why or why not?
5.30.2006 7:57pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Mark. That didn't take long, did it?

I made no moral judgements. Robert Spencer observed that just because he points out something doesn't mean he thinks it's a good idea. "When I note that it's raining, it doesn't mean I hate the sun."

I failed to append the standard-issue gasps of horror to every othe sentence, or use up the week's ration of scare quotes...so I must be making some kind of judgment.

Grow up.

This tactic is both useless in discussion and demeaning to the user. Makes you look as if you have nothing to say but wish to display your moral wonderfulness anyway.
5.30.2006 10:02pm