Poolside in the Middle East: A chat on ‘war’

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I was scrolling through Facebook the other day, as one does, and a status update posted by one of my acquaintances gave me pause. I’m not close with this person. In fact, I doubt we’ve spoken since high school. However, the 24/7 news cycle has percolated even down to our personal lives and I’ve been kept abreast of all of the major happenings in this person’s life. Most notably, that he’s gotten married and joined the Marines.

I learned he was preparing for deployment to Afghanistan when he broadcasted a message to all of his “friends” letting them know he had just purchased “an iPad for deployment” and wanted book suggestions for his time overseas.

When did the conversations about spending a week at a Cancún resort become the conversations about going off to fight a war?

This question is not meant to imply that I believe my acquaintance is going to spend a substantial amount of his time in the Middle East sitting in a lounge chair with a piña colada and an eCopy of “50 Shades of Grey”. However, contrast his pre-deployment plea with the romantic letters of soldiers marching off to battle at the beginning of the 20th century and you start to wonder if maybe we aren’t taking “war” as seriously as we should be anymore.

My guess is that the problem has several origins. Our occasionally lackadaisical attitude toward systematic destruction of human life may have something to do with the fact that in the latter half of the 20th century, the gravity of the mere threat of war—largely because of growing nuclear capability—was massively inflated. Threatening war is much easier than actually going to war, but can still force compliance or achieve desired goals (see North Korea’s early 2013 tantrum). As such, the threats are tossed around more and more and suddenly war means less and less.

I think much can also be attributed to our physical detachment from the day-to-day of war and from the people who are most affected. We got a tiny taste of the human toll that violent actions can take in 2001, but have been virtually isolated since then. Increasingly, even our soldiers aren’t in the field – rather, it appears that much of military activity is being fought from banks of computers operating drones in military bases around the world.

The recent escalation of conflicts at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, particularly those in Syria, have only served to highlight the fact that many of our “war” conversations are tremendously ignorant and one-sided. In addition, I worry that we have an incredibly misguided definition of peace (the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner has gone on to rapidly expand a predatory drone program that inherently contains enormous amounts of collateral damage) that in reality is more in line with “out of sight, out of mind”.
One need only glance at Twitter or the comment section below news articles to determine that we apparently belong to the society of the dichotomy – everyone is either a trigger-happy war hawk or a militant pacifist (heh).

Many of these people seem to be entirely ignorant (or are at least unwilling to address) the actual cost of these conflicts in terms of human lives, the enormous and long-lasting ramifications that war can have in an area, and the fact that military intervention has historically been observed to aid those who are being mistreated.

All that said, I’m not sure that the problem can be fixed. We live in an age where one maniac with enough resources can level an entire city, consequently an age where the “war threat” will never lose its power and “war” will likely never regain its own.
We face some complex challenges as a larger human society and as directors of the world’s most powerful military force. I don’t know what the answer is to the global problems we face, and if I did I likely wouldn’t be writing this column right now. What I do know is that our conversation is sorely lacking in thought, compassion, and ration and that this ignorance isn’t good for anyone.

Our leaders may not change their conversation anytime soon, but we can certainly work to change ours. It starts with recognizing that when you talk about war it is rarely helpful to boil anything down to a pair of black and white extremes… Perhaps “50 Shades of Grey” isn’t such a bad deployment read after all.