Erik Larson

Nov 28, 2008

A Human Life

It is possible, today, that someone willing to throw himself in harms way (or worse) to stop an early term abortion, might feel hardly a whisper of moral discomfort over the loss of over 4,000 men and women on the field of battle in Iraq. The emphasis, in the former case, is on “innocent”, as in “an innocent life.” It’s of course true that a fetus is an innocent life. But the thought of men and women shipped off to a foreign land to confront not a grave, imminent danger but rather to execute an elective war decided by politicians, hardly creates a clear distinction between the two cases. Aren’t these soldiers, in context, innocent too?

It’s troubling to me that this concept, this abstraction of a “human life”, with its inherent value, so dominates domestic discussions like abortion, while casualty numbers in foreign wars seem almost actuarial, as if “the human life” in battle is simply a discreet countable entity. Many of these men and women have been eviscerated in combat in ways that we could scarcely watch without vomiting, and can hardly bare to discuss even shielded from graphic details.

Of course, the 4,000 men and women who’ve perished wearing the American uniform in Iraq are heralded using the same language brought forth in all wars: valor, courage, patriot. It is no doubt true. But what animates and gives moral clarity to war is the notion of sacrifice for a worthy cause. Our troubling question today is whether in fact this standard has been met in Iraq. It is not for the soldiers to answer but their leaders.

There is, I think, something very noble about leaders who are willing to face true crisis with resolve. Winston Churchill, during the early days of the German invasion of Europe, when the fall of France was imminent, ordered French military ships destroyed to prevent their later use by Germany against Britons. It took gut-wrenching resolve. He was a great lover of France and a frequent visitor officially and in private, but he understood the stakes of the burgeoning German threat, and as immediate threat so often does, it trumped high-minded diplomacy. Later in Parliament, as if it were possible anyway to misunderstand his opposition to Hitler, he nonetheless left no doubt: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” Gotcha.

And that I want of my leader. Give me WSC. But I do not want an elective war that bleeds away the very nobility and moral urgency of the grave conflicts that make heroes not just of our soldiers, but also of our leaders. America should find its soul again. Because, as we so often profess to believe, there is an inherent dignity to each human life.