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Conserving and Destroying

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In my thesaurus, “conserve” and “destroy” are antonyms. Why is it, then, that so any conservatives seem to relish war? I have known conservatives who have joked pleasantly about “nuking the chinks” or flattening Tehran. Jokes are jokes, but some conservatives took an actual delight in the Gulf War; there was some loose talk of bombing, and even nuking, Baghdad. And of course many still take pride in the memory of nuking Hiroshima. We commemorate it on postage stamps.

We can and should make allowances for people who are actually in a war they didn’t want and are willing to take the most extreme measures to save their sons. But I am talking about people who aren’t in a war, who just like the idea of bombing in an almost esthetic sense like art for art’s sake.

Notice that it’s bombing, not combat, that grabs them. Such people enjoy imagining themselves in a position of dropping tremendous explosives on cities without any reciprocal risk of being bombed themselves (which might take the fun out of it).

The terrible bombing of Dresden is also currently being commemorated, but in sorrow, not glee. Even many Americans and Englishmen feel deep regret at not only the inhumanity but the sheer crassness of the destruction of one of Europe’s loveliest cities. What was destroyed was not “Nazism” but tons of thousands of innocent people, and also a city that belonged only incidentally to Hitler; for Dresden really belonged to the entire West, which a more civilized age called Christendom. Dresden is lost to all of us. You can regret that for purely selfish reasons.

In the code of Christendom, or Christian civilization, killing civilians was regarded as incompatible with just warfare. In the modern age it has become policy. Two-thirds of those killed in World War II were civilians. Only Americans, whose homes and cities were totally spared, seem not to grasp what this means.

Southerners used to understand. They remembered the armies of Sheridan and Sherman. The Northern victors have long since awarded Abraham Lincoln a halo, but European observers of the Civil War were shocked at his ordering assaults on civilians. Even the Emancipation Proclamation was widely seen not as a humane liberation of slaves, but as a cynical attempt to incite the murders of slave-owning families. (It left slavery untouched in nonseceding states.)

But every war becomes humane in retrospect. The victors in every war feel compelled to portray themselves not only as powerful but as humanitarian. The Civil War is now primarily remembered as a war to end slavery rather than a war to prevent, and punish, secession though freeing the Confederacy’s slaves was a punitive expropriation. Despite the U.S. government’s campaign of hatred against the Japanese (including the violation of the basic rights of American citizens of Japanese descent), World War II is similarly misremembered as a war against racism.

Even the nuking of Hiroshima is defended as humanitarian. It “shortened the war” and saved countless lives. Well, suppose you could shorten a war and save countless lives by slitting the throat of a single child. A utilitarian philosopher might argue that this would be morally justified. But who could bear to do it? Much easier to roast an entire city from a great height no blood on your hands, no screams in your ears. And think of all the lives you’ve saved!

I wasn’t born yet, but I have the distinct impression that most Americans at the time cheered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as just what those Jap bastards deserved for Pearl Harbor and Bataan. Government propaganda films spoke of “Japs” and “Nips” with “their grinning yellow faces.” It was only much later that decorum decreed that we depict the two blasts as a pair of gigantic mercy killings, saving countless lives of our Japanese friends as well as our own boys.

See how the modern state has warped our sense of right and wrong? We have become such people as would have appalled our ancestors. It’s no wonder that an abortionist can be appointed to high office. The things we should have conserved have already been destroyed.

Copyright 1995, Universal Press Syndicate, Kansas City, Missouri. All rights reserved.

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    Mr. Sobran is a syndicated columnist.