Last night I watched the film saving Private Ryan. I had rented it two weeks ago, but never made the time to watch it. I'm not sure why I rented it. I think it was because of the debates about Iraq. I wanted some kind of source material to meditate on the consequences of war. I also just wanted to watch an action film, I think.
It's not the kind of movie that bears repeated viewing - too intense - so it seems strange to me that I rented it at all. The film recreated the waste and brutality of war, and it also forced me to consider my own position, regarding war, and regarding the armed forces. Clearly when the United States joined the war, it was for good reasons, at least compared to the reasons of the opposing forces. But the opening scenes of the film made me wonder... How were the men fighting on that beach connected to the political ends at stake? How did the plans of a few crazed men translate into thousands of teenage boys cutting each other into meat on the seashore?
The only explanation I found, is that it was all a big trick. In a nation primed by decades of economic ruin, ready to believe anything, Hitler and his officers convinced the people that the invasion and subordination of their neighbors was a righteous solution. Thus their pep rallies and vitriol mobilized a force, that required a response in kind to derail.
The instigation or at least encouragement of war by warlords with personal issues is a very common historical theme. Like a latent infection that will never be cured, corrupt men sometimes rise to the top and spread corrupt ideas, that are often only purged through bloodshed. In the 1940's, as the self styled protector of freedom, the United States made an economic commitment to join a war that it first considered someone else's problem, and ended it by deploying a technology that would insure that all future conflict became everyone's problem.
Maniacs with wealth and the right connections can now target anyone. The vast ground forces of every state are irrelevant, and potential damages make the unconscionable chaos of Normandy seem ordered by comparison. At least before, a soldier knew where the enemy was. Barring that, he at least knew who his enemy was. Now, madmen can belong to any country, or none at all, and there is no longer a use for the term "enemy lines".
Likelihood of war is related to the unrest of a people. I theorize that the unrest of a people is basically a factor of two things, cultural flexibility and economic success. As capitalism continues to bind our civilizations, our power becomes decentralized, and we come to recognize our common humanity. In this environment, it becomes increasingly hard for tyrants to motivate vast armies against each other. Instead, they form cults, and the same technology that unites our modern world enables these cults to exist as fragments. In other words, today's terrorist is just yesterday's tyrant without a home country.
One should not miss an important consequence of this. With no home, the motivations of a modern terrorist cannot be economic in nature. Instead they must be cultural, and there is no stronger form of culture than that of religion.
It is no surprise that most terrorist movements originate in the Mid-East, where the term "religious crusade" has a shorthand name, that has now become popular in the West: Jihad. But here's what's bothering me. If terrorists are violently fighting what they see as a religious and cultural war, how can there be any other way to eliminate them, but what amounts to ethnic cleansing?
This confusion I'm having, in general terms, is why my skin crawls every time the President of the United States invokes the name of God in describing his war.