"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Friday, September 10, 2010

The cost

Andrew Bacevich has stirred a lot of talk lately about the limits of US power, the wars we are in, and what we can do as a nation- talking that goes beyond CT/COIN debates or even "Can Iran Get a Nuke" discussions- but fundamental questions about national interest.  Some of the discussion is spurred by the 9/11 anniversary, which is understandable.  James Fallows linked us to probably the shortest David Foster Wallace essay ever, in which he asks if 9/11 victims should be considered martyrs instead of victims, and that is the price we have to pay for living in a free society.  It had been asked before, of course, but never that I have seen in the martyr terms. 

Pivoting off both of these thoughts a bit, I am going to poke my minor nose into the debate with a question.  This is one for which I have no answer, at all.   It is a very specific, though not entirely far-fetched scenario involving my two favorite places, one which I think puts this fundamental question in very stark terms. 

If you know, very certainly (again, this is hypothetical), that AQAP was going to be able to bring down a plane in downtown Chicago, say crash it down State Street, killing many (thousands?), and knew the only way to stop it would be to invade Yemen, would you?  This invasion might not be as costly as Iraq or Afghanistan, but would certainly run in the tens of billions and lose many soldiers, and there would probably be no clear-cut victory.  I don't mean "let the attack happen" in a Truther sense; this is fiction.  I am also aware there is no alogrithm for "citizens' lives v. dollars spent".  I chose Chicago because I live here, with loved ones, any one of whom (myself included) could be downtown at any given moment.   So these are the things that you have to think about: potential personal loss as measured against what your country can afford; what you personally can endure versus the traumatic shock of another major attack, weighed against the divisions yet another war would bring to our society.  And, perhaps, the life of your cousin spending the day at Macy's against the life of an anonymous soldier, bleeding out in an impossible land.

I don't have any answers, but this is something that, between the Yemen stuff, and my budding mayoral campaign, that I want to explore.   Any thoughts are always welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting hypothetical. All kinds of "greater good" implications. But I think a lot depends on the timeframe involved. My gut reaction is to say, "Of COURSE you attack!" But then you think short vs. long term damage and you have to think BIG picture: damage to humanity. Still questions there, too, really. But even that is an interesting debate.

    But then you think long to LONGER term, and the question gets more interesting. Is it possible that an invaded Yemen eventually becomes a "better" place? Safer, less usable for the disaffected, and more proactive? It is hard to picture that, just as it is hard to say Iraq is better off now than before the war. But if those “better” places were to occur, does that justify the cost? I guess it depends if it was your cousin shopping at Macy’s or in the desert, and how long-term you’re willing to frame your view.