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Is This A Nation At war?   (September 2004)

I return home from the spatial and cultural distance of the People's Republic of China to find my own country in the grips of a surreal complacency. As I scan the headlines--baseball scores, tepid bits of electioneering, and ongoing local topics such as deciding who should pay for the new bridge across the Bay--I wonder: is this a nation at war? Where are the sacrifices that a populace at war should be making? It seems there are none being made, and none being asked for, except of those citizens who have chosen to serve in our military. Regardless of whether you think the war is justified, doesn't it seem more than a little odd, even morally repugnant, that the country lazes along in a false bliss of consumer paradise--lowest interest rates in a generation!--oil prices dropping!--everything on sale this weekend!--when men and women of this nation are fighting and dying in combat?

While visiting the "Rosie the Riveter" memorial display in Richmond, Calif., just north of Berkeley, I came across a news clipping from March, 1944, which offered a stunning portrayal of civilian sacrifice in time of war. The story reported that industrial deaths--some 38,000 in just over two years of war--had exceeded combat deaths. (Battlefield casualties would surge after the June 1944 D-Day invasion of Nazi Europe and the brutal Pacific Theatre battle for Okinawa, eventually exceeding 400,000 by the war's end in 1945.) I had to re-read the story to make sure I hadn't misunderstood the statistics. Almost 40,000 people had died in the civilian industrial effort, and this number exceeded the total casualties from two years of combat? It is astonishing that this fact has been so completely lost to the popular history of that war. Have we become so inured to war's costs since Vietnam that we now accept the surreal facade of peacetime prosperity at home while our soldiers risk their lives in some distant land? Is this a healthy state of mind for a country at war?

I think not. The notion that civilian excesses should continue unchecked during wartime is reprehensible on two levels. It is wrong that all the sacrifices of a war are borne only by volunteers in uniform. It is also wrong for our government to fund the war by borrowing the money from the Chinese and Japanese governments via Treasury bond sales; rather, the government should demand its citizens bear the costs of the war honestly and forthrightly by making the minimal sacrifice of paying the taxes needed to fund a war made in their name, supposedly for their benefit and safety.

But such honesty is not just out of fashion--it is verboten in the fairyland of modern politics, where we speak only of benefits and tax cuts, never of sacrifice or burdens. Those, it seems, we leave to the few citizens who volunteered to hold the tip of the spear, and it is those citizens who are making all the sacrifices. This wrong will eventually haunt the nation--as it should.

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