Barzon: No winners in battles of modern war

Carlton Barzon

There’s no such thing as a “clean” war. No matter what shock-and-awe buzzwords politicians use to sell it to us, no matter how many smart bombs or unmanned drones we churn off the assembly lines and no matter how much money we spend on body armor and early warning systems, someone will still have to step up to do the fighting and the dying. Any military officer worth his or her salt will tell you every war ever fought was decided by the boots on the ground. No laser-guided, nuclear-powered (apply phlebotinum here) super weapon can take and hold ground. Putting people on the ground and in harm’s way is still the only way to win a war, but it’s no longer how Americans desire to see their battles fought.

Thanks to television and a persistent 24-hour media, war has become just another sitcom for us to rate five stars or less. We “boo” when the mission isn’t clear or if “the good guys” do too much collateral damage, but keep watching anyway because there’s nothing better on the idiot box. After a few years of the same tired plot, we just change the channel when everything starts feeling like reruns. Americans hate modern war, but for all the wrong reasons.

The kind of war America still can’t seem to get enough of is World War II, a conflict so universally acknowledged as being morally black and white that video game developers have used it more than any other war as a setting for first-person shooters, according to Electronic Gaming Monthly. The reason these games thrive is because there’s little moral ambiguity about killing Nazis. That’s what the newsreels told our grandparents to believe then, and that’s what we still believe today. Anyone skeptical enough to harbor any doubts over what it cost us only has to take a look at the photos of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Getting a war started today is fairly easy, but winning one is almost impossible. Try as we might, it’s hard to find Nazis to shoot nowadays. The only “bad guys” we have to fight are religious fanatics hiding in caves, and they don’t have any concentration camps or occupied territory for us to liberate. New technological wonders have replaced the traditional vision of war with a “neater,” “tidier” battlefield where our soldiers are invincible “armies of one.” The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. War is still hell, just a different one than our ancestors knew. It’s a hell where your next step could be your undoing, where a single bullet can sever a limb, where one man can kill another half a world away from the safety of an air-conditioned room in Arizona.

Thomas Jefferson once uttered a now-overused quote about a tree that lived off the blood of patriots and tyrants. It’s crude but it illustrates an inescapable fact of life we like to forget: War may sometimes be necessary, but it’s never good.

Medill junior Carlton Barzon can be reached at [email protected]