Image courtesy of CNN and House of Charity. Image courtesy of CNN and House of Charity.

Friday’s Last Word – Pull Pin, Throw Grenade, Run Away: A provocative thought to kick off the weekend…

How much time do we as a society reflect on the damage we inflict on other societies in war?  Any at all? Don’t get me wrong, I’m clearly not a pacifist and certainly believe that the United States generally stands for good in the world.  But often – to do good – we have to do things that are not so good.

Is this societal apathy a function of the size of our military?  That is, does Joe Citizen believe that since society has created extreme specialization in warfighting – he doesn’t bear any responsibility for conflict and war damage?  Author Sebastian Junger took this up recently in the Washington Post,

“The country approved, financed and justified war – and sent the soldiers to fight it. This is important because it returns the moral burden of war to its rightful place: with the entire nation. If a soldier inadvertently kills a civilian in Baghdad, we all helped kill that civilian. If a soldier loses his arm in Afghanistan, we all lost something.”

I think there’s something to this – broad moral burden for war.  I say it in class often: armies don’t fight wars, societies fight wars.  I don’t think yellow ribbons and parades really do all that much – either to connect with America’s armed conflicts – or, equally important, heal truly traumatized veterans.

How do we break this societal apathy?

As I don’t really know the answer to that question (!), I’ll conclude with one interesting suggestion from journalist Jeremy Scahill, in a recent discussion at the Commonwealth Club of California.  The interviewer asks a final question before wrapping up the session: “What is your 60 second idea to change the world?”  Scahill responded,

“It should be the responsibility of every American to make it their business to research the story of one person who has been killed in a U.S. military operation that was an innocent civilian and read their story and know it and try to find as much information about them as they can.  So that when you have these discussions about our policies that there’s a real story that you know that you’ve internalized and you’ve owned as your own…

I think if we all adopt a story from halfway around the world of someone who’s life was either ended or impacted in a tragic way by our policies, then we can’t just be turning a blind eye to the realities of what our foreign policy is doing around the world.”

Consider starting with 4 year old, Shakira (from the image above).


  1. I think that the only way to defeat the apathy is to either engage only in military matters that are quick, decisive, and popular or to reinstitute the draft. None of these ideas are novel, and they both have their drawbacks: the former assumes that we can choose when, how, and with whom we fight and the latter would turn apathy to antipathy very quickly. However, the further our culture recedes from the military (and our culture recedes from the military), the more large the apathy will become. Military service is the purview of "the other," no matter how heroic or revered "the other" is.

  2. COL Andrew Bacevich offered that for Americans, war is a spectator sport. Few ever really experience the carnage first hand. I would offer that since that spectator sport has been "away games" since 1865, the notion that war is something that happens somewhere else to someone else in deeply imbedded in our society. More recently, due to our very small AVF, it is also conducted by someone else. How do you "understand" or "appreciate" the damage inflicted, when you have nothing even remotely similar for a basis of comparison? How does a society take responsibility for what is effectively an abstract?

    Without conscription, 21st Century war impacts an American’s life only if he/she or a close family member chooses to serve. It does not intrude upon the daily activity of the vast majority on US soil. It only intrudes on the daily activity of those in the war zone, and in horrible ways totally unknown to Americans. We in the military choose to fight. A villager in the war zone has no such choice. War is visited upon them like a plague, regardless of their allegiances and available choices.

    "Quick, decisive and popular" will not correct the lack of a sense of responsibility. There has to be skin in the game for responsibility to arise.

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