Thursday, August 31, 2006

Citizens Need Educating on Gravity of Terror Threat

Johnathan Gurwitz is a columnist with the San Antonio Express-News. He had an important essay published yesterday in the paper, arguing that Americans are uneducated on the serverity of the terror war, and that there is little evidence of widespread national sacrifice among citizens beyond those who have volunteered for military service. To provide a comparative illustration of the nature of national duty, Gurwitz uses the example of Dr. Reuven Hazan, an Israeli political science professor, traveling in the U.S., who told a colleague he wished he could have done more to contribute to Israel's recent battle against Hezbollah:

"Actually," Hazan said, "I'm anxious to get back. This is the first conflict I've sat out. The government didn't call me up. But all my friends and colleagues — they went."

Israel fought a war in Lebanon for 34 days, and this man doesn't know anyone who didn't serve. The United States has fought one war for nearly five years and another for more than three years. And beyond some select communities, you'd be hard-pressed to find many people who know anyone who has served in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Israel's situation is, of course, unique. As an exceedingly small country in a very dangerous neighborhood, the threats it faces are frequently existential. Universal conscription is as much a matter of defense necessity as it is national ethos. Men serve for three years, women for two. And men like Hazan can be called up until they are 50, women until they are 24.

The decision to respond to Hezbollah's attack and go to war was one that Israelis knew would be felt in every Israeli home. Yet as the fighting ensued, polls showed public support for the war against Hezbollah consistently exceeded 90 percent.

IDF reservists are now holding protests, demanding that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, his defense minister and the IDF chief of staff resign. Not because they oppose the war or dismiss the threat — on the contrary, because the response of the political and military leadership was unequal to the threat. A well-respected, apolitical government watchdog group has launched an emergency campaign to establish an official commission of inquiry into the government's preparation and conduct of the war.

How different from the United States.

Two decades before the cataclysm of the American Civil War, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a philosophical discourse on the role of war and peace in human development.

"War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man. On its own scale, on the virtues it loves, it endures no counterfeit, but shakes the whole society, until every atom falls into the place its specific gravity assigns it."

Unlike the Civil War, unlike Israeli wars, the war on terror does not shake the whole of American society. It shocks on occasion. It shoves its way into the national consciousness when some round number of casualties is reached. But in a nation of nearly 300 million people, the physical, financial and mortal burden of the current conflict is being borne by an exceedingly small number of American families.

There have been many foreign and domestic failures over the past five years. But a brief examination of Israeli society suggests the greatest failure has been the utter inability of our political leadership to convey the sense that we are engaged as a society in a real conflict of historical significance, one that demands sacrifice from more than only the volunteers of its armed forces.

Newsweek published a compelling article on American military families last June, indicating how those who perform military service today are becoming more and more isolated from the rest of American society, and suggesting that the shared sacrifice of Americans during World War II is a distant memory.

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