War is a form of mass psychosis, during which horrifying acts are transformed into heroic deeds, through the magical moral disinfectant of state sanction.
A nice example of this is provided by an urban legend, which for the last couple of years has circulated on the Internet as a purportedly true story. Here’s the most popular version of it:
“Katie Couric, while interviewing a Marine sniper, asked ‘What do you feel when you shoot a terrorist?’ The Marine shrugged and replied, ‘Recoil’.”
The point is that the liberal, America-hating mainstream media, represented by a stereotypically feminine woman, fail to grasp that manful and masculine warriors performing manly deeds have no time for sentimental hippie nonsense about peace and love.
Note that, if the story were true and an accurate report of the Marine’s mental state, he would be a sociopath.
One of the most terrible things about war is that governments find it useful to transform a certain number of normal young men into the kind of people who feel no emotion when they kill a human being.
Most soldiers don’t become sociopaths, of course. Still, war creates moral monsters just as surely as it generates profits for “defense” contractors, and provides endless material for books, movies and television shows.
As to the latter, when historians look back on the Iraq catastrophe, I suspect they’ll discover a significant factor in this latest outbreak of mass psychosis was a kind of warrior envy, as reflected in recent popular culture.
Books like “The Greatest Generation”, movies like “Saving Private Ryan”, and television series like “Band of Brothers” are, despite some gestures toward moral ambiguity, essentially glorifications of war.
All, of course, are about World War II — the “good” war. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq one could practically smell the intense longing among our political and media elites for their very own “good” war.
“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier,” Samuel Johnson observed three centuries ago. What would bemuse Johnson no end is the contemporary spectacle of men dealing with their warrior envy not by becoming soldiers, but by living out elaborate military fantasies in books, magazines, editorial pages, and the Internet — not to mention in the White House and the halls of Congress.
Indeed, some of the support for the Iraq war came from the belief that war builds character by subjecting the pampered citizens of the modern state to a beneficial dose of suffering in the service of a great cause.
The most famous American exponent of this view was Teddy Roosevelt, who believed in “muscular Christianity” and manly self-sacrifice, and who advocated militaristic imperialism as a kind of bloody outdoor adventure program, for a nation he feared was becoming soft and decadent.
For anyone who considers this view both absurd and dangerous, McCain’s evident affection for it is a cause for great concern.
Consider this quote from a speech McCain gave in 2002: “Theodore Roosevelt is one of my greatest political heroes. The ‘strenuous life’ was T.R.’s definition of Americanism, a celebration of America’s pioneer ethos, the virtues that had won the West and inspired our belief in ourselves as the New Jerusalem, bound by sacred duty to suffer hardship and risk danger to protect the values of our civilization and impart them to humanity. ‘We cannot sit huddled within our borders,’ he warned, ‘and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond’.”
Those are the words of a man who sees war as a noble enterprise: one which builds our collective character, protects us from the moral dangers of an easy life, and gives us a chance to impart our values to the rest of the world. There can be no better reason to vote against him.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)