Fond Memories of Wars Past Distort Debate Over Iraq

Is there a Plan B? No, not a Plan B for Iraq, a place so pregnant with potential surprises that two plans will hardly suffice. Nor is there a Plan B for us, for prosperity, for business, for the economy; there isn’t even a diagnosis of what’s happening to it, and to us.

By the standard used to judge what is or is not a recession-to wit, two straight quarters of no growth-we are not in a recession. Never mind the technicalities. Leave that stuff to the econometricians, so they can pick up their Nobel Prizes-the winning of which will get some impecunious economist out of his or her personal recession, but which will be of little use in lifting us out of whatever brownish-blue financial fungus afflicts us.

The official line is that things are going along well enough, stock market or no stock market. But that doesn’t accord with the shocks arising from repeated layoff announcements; the whispers of dropping co-op apartment prices; the scary knowledge that one’s small personal-retirement safety net has unraveled; the unaffordable, ever-rising costs of health insurance; and the crushing increase of debt, personal and corporate.

Perhaps our Legacy President has war with Iraq in mind for Plan B. Many will welcome it. As a people, we’re disposed to think more fondly of war than those who have lived through it. Others don’t confuse Mars with the god of prosperity. We do. Even after Sept. 11-which we regard as a one-time event-we lack the respect, the dread, the fear that the word war ought to inspire in us. In a blurry way, our national collective memory of war is near being a happy one.

The national thinking on the subject has been fuzzed up by the Hollywood rhetoric of politicians and the spate of movies, television programs and history books glorifying Americans at war in the 20th century, painting a picture of a heroic people, giving their all, sacrificing themselves for freedom. No home untouched by tragedy, no life unscarred by war-but that isn’t what happened, and it doesn’t correspond to the deep memory of the real war experience. Wars have been a pretty good thing for tens of millions of us. You may count on it that if most Americans had sacrificed themselves on the heroic scale the books, movies and speeches would have you believe, the threat of a new war would not be received with the nearly indifferent equanimity currently dominating the public mood. The tepid, emotional level at the prospect of another conflict hints at pleasant memories from past dust-ups. If countries like Japan, France, Germany and Russia are not jumping for joy at the prospect of a new war, their real suffering in the old ones may have something to do with it. There are days when Americans and their politicians talk as though war were a paint-ball game.

Not only do many of us think it’s all glory and no pain, but the notion persists that war is when le bon temps really do rollez . The belief persists among us that war is good for business, good for employment, good for everybody but the doughboys in the trenches (as they called the lads in the infantry back in 1917). In the American wars of the last century, a limited number of people-mostly men-did the sacrificing, and everybody else went to the bank. Since McKinley and the Republicans took the country to war in 1898 against Spain, war has mostly been safe, profitable and glorious. For the men who enlisted or were conscripted and did suffer war, it was, of course, sadly otherwise, but it’s noteworthy that so many people will tell you that the United States suffered more casualties in the Civil War than in all subsequent conflicts combined. In short, in the suffering, pain and death department, the United States came close to getting off scot-free.

The nation boomed in 1914 to ’18; the Second World War did wonders for the civilian standard of living-and don’t be fooled by the stories about meat and butter being rationed. In the years immediately previous to the war, millions could afford neither meat nor butter. The Korean War brought on another happy period at the cash register, and during the Vietnam War the whole country was rolling in bucks-except for the people rolling in mud in the jungles, shooting and getting shot at. The Gulf War was such a cakewalk it hardly registered.

Since pay-as-you-go wars carried on without borrowing would mean that the rich would have to bear their fair share and more, the United States has financed its wars by various schemes that bring on greater or lesser doses of inflation. The inflationary decade of the 1970’s owed much of its problems to the Vietnam conflict, but either people don’t associate inflation with war, or it’s a price they’re willing to pay for their own overall prosperity.

Some groups and interests entertain particularly fond memories of some wars. Not only were World Wars I and II hugely profitable to manufacturing, agricultural and banking interests, but feminists have been known to talk and write about those bloody years as a time when women broke through into occupations they had hitherto been kept out of. Rosie the Riveter, the fictional war worker, remains a kind of heroine to this day. Some African-American groups also look at those wars as having provided their members with economic opportunities. That these advances came at a terrible price for people a long way away seldom enters the discussion.

But will future American wars pay off as well as the past ones? With the smart-bomb television shows put on by the Pentagon during the Gulf War, everyone with access to a computer began to write articles about the new age of precision electronic warfare. The Afghanistan effort, in which high-I.Q. ordnance has been as common as the old-time G.I. infantry man, has convinced the skeptics, but what has gone largely unremarked on is the parallel between the changes in how the United States wages war these days and how American business runs its affairs. It took the Pentagon longer, but now it’s copying the civilian economy’s shift from a labor-intensive world to a capital-intensive one. Washington has learned that even in war, machines are cheaper than people, that automation costs less than handmade. Put another way, the cost, measured in the number of soldiers needed or dollars expended, to deliver a thousand pounds of explosives on the enemy-even one so far away-has been reduced by a large factor.

Like the private sector, the Pentagon has also found out that it’s cheaper to outsource innumerable tasks that an earlier generation thought intrinsic to the life of the armed services. Even food preparation and service is farmed out. Once upon a time, the mundane duties of K.P. (kitchen patrol)-peeling spuds and washing dishes-were as much a part of the soldier’s routine as cleaning his rifle, but few under the age of 50 will know what those two letters once meant.

At the cost in salaries, training, bennies, pensions, etc., American servicepeople are much too expensive to be spending their time washing dishes. That is why there are immigrants, if I may make my point with a degree of odious bluntness. If, as some are predicting, George Bush learns that he will need several hundred thousand troopers to sit on top of the heads of the Iraqis once he has invaded them, will high-cost Americans be used for this kind of low-skill scut work? That might distort the numbers of what may be a low-budget, capital-intensive war. And we don’t even know if it’s possible to get native-born Americans to do that kind of soldiering. In the private sector, the pattern is to get yourself some immigrants to do the dirty work. It remains to be seen if the obnoxiously patriotic Republicans holding sway in Washington can work out a rationalization for paying others to fight for freedom.

The downside of a capital-intensive war with its lower costs is that it can’t give business much of a kick. It’s even possible that this kind of a war is already paid for, with the robots, the drones and the TV-guided ammunition already in place, ready to pulverize the Iraqis into such fine particles that those who breath them will be stricken with asthma attacks. Of course, plans do miscarry, sure things turn out to have been long shots-and despite all, the United States might find itself in one of those old-fashioned, inflation-inducing wars that raise wages and make the home folks wave flags. Let’s call that Plan C.