One of the questions that haunts an American patriot has to do with the mathematics of war. At the time of Truman, Nagasaki and Hiroshima were justified in large part on the accounting of human lives saved vs. lives lost, both in raw terms and in terms of American soldiers and Marines vs. Japanese soldiers, Marines, and noncombatants. Back of this whole enterprise is the question: how many _____ lives is one American G. I.’s actually worth? Clearly, the son of an Afghan mother is morally equivalent to the son of an American mother. At the individual level, moral considerations mitigate for a 1:1 equivalence.
But Victor Davis Hanson asks us to consider the cultural dimension and the moral and arithmetic asymmetries that result from it:
Finally and most seriously, I think, there is what I call, for want of a better term, “asymmetry.” Western culture creates citizens who are affluent, leisured, free, and protected. Human nature being what it is, we citizens of the West often want to enjoy our bounty and retreat into private lives—to go home, eat pizza, and watch television. This is nothing new. I would refer you to Petronius’s Satyricon, a banquet scene written around 60 A.D. about affluent Romans who make fun of the soldiers who are up on the Rhine protecting them. This is what Rome had become. And it’s not easy to convince someone who has the good life to fight against someone who doesn’t.
To put this in contemporary terms, what we are asking today is for a young man with a $250,000 education from West Point to climb into an Apache helicopter—after emailing back and forth with his wife and kids about what went on at a PTA meeting back in Bethesda, Maryland—and fly over Anbar province or up to the Hindu Kush and risk being shot down by a young man from a family of 15, none of whom will ever live nearly as well as the poorest citizens of the United States, using a weapon whose design he doesn’t even understand. In a moral sense, the lives of these two young men are of equal value. But in reality, our society values the lives of our young men much more than Afghan societies value the lives of theirs.
Hanson concedes the moral question at the individual level. But those who declare war are not declaring it at that scale. They are declaring it at the societal and cultural scale of sovereign nations, nations whose attitudes toward the lives of their children are embodied and expressed in the political and cultural values that predominate; and where nations are not involved per se (think al Qaeda, for instance, or Hezbollah) the same calculus applies, perhaps even more self-evidently. We Americans, as a whole, value the lives of our boys and girls more than the terrorists value the lives of their boys and girls.
Food for thought.