Learning the costs of war

Though he did so with some lingering defiance, I was glad to read President Donald Trump had decided against keeping Iran’s cultural sites as potential targets, as tensions remained high last week.

But I still had the matter on my mind, when a couple visited me to provide their perspective on the military, war crimes, and other related matters. The gentleman had served in both Korea and Vietnam. His wife had grown up in a military family before becoming part of her own.

I heard stories that hammered home just how sheltered the vast majority of Americans are from truly understanding war — and that is, of course, a very good thing. For example, we are geographically fortunate. The U.S. military goes to war. War rarely comes to our shores or our citizens. We are, then, in the unusual position of having a citizenry that feels as though it can distance itself — in fact, become relatively unfamiliar with, or even look down upon — its military.

In many other countries, the citizenry does not have that luxury. If the government and military go to war, the whole country goes to war. That makes it difficult to identify “enemy combatants” in the cut-and-dried way many of us think is possible. As the woman with whom I was speaking put it, if an enemy invasion occurred right here at home, “I guarantee I would become an enemy combatant.” But, in practical terms, Americans don’t have to make those decision.

Relative geographic isolation, decades of telling ourselves we are the most powerful nation in the world, and an appalling decline in the amount of history — context — being taught to our upcoming generations mean the folks making decisions today have almost no idea what they are dealing with. Certainly no first-hand knowledge.

And so, as one headline put it recently, every new generation falls in love with war all over again. And every new generation thinks it is morally superior to the last in making military decisions.

None of it is simple. None of it is clear-cut.

Iran’s cultural sites do not belong to the Iranian people. They belong to the world. It should, indeed, be a war crime to target them. They are priceless treasures that belong to future generations much more than to our own.

But, when I asked the gentleman who came to visit me whether he believed targeting cultural sites was a war crime, he did not have a yes-or-no answer. He acknowledged that “yes, that comes right up to the line,” but then asked if I had ever heard the stories of snipers who sheltered in the steeples and bell towers of ancient churches during World War II.

Those cultural and historical treasures provided fantastic vantage points from which to take out Allied troops.

So the gentleman’s wife chimed in, “Cultural sites should be protected, yes, AS LONG AS they are not being used to shelter enemy forces.”

Well. That put a hitch in my argument.

I’m glad it did. Even if it didn’t change my mind on everything, it certainly made me think about my own opinions in a different way.

And I was relieved to hear not only that Trump had walked back his willingness to target cultural sites, but later that it appeared as though Iran was standing down.

I try very hard to understand where my own knowledge gaps are, and I am fortunate to have readers like that couple who were willing to share their experiences with me. But that kind of thing is part of my job. It comes to me far more easily than it might to those in other professions.

Try anyway, folks. Seek those who experienced something those of us under 50 simply cannot comprehend. Those who served in World War II will have different perspectives from those who served in Vietnam. Those who volunteered or served at European bases during peace time will have different ideas than those who were drafted or served in jungles during the fiercest combat.

When they are gone, we will have nothing but written histories — taught only to the luckiest of students.

We’ve got to let them help us understand, before it is too late.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com


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