August 30, 2002
Another Pointy-Headed Intellectual

Both The Edge of England's Sword and WarbloggerWatch have linked to an article in Monday's Washington Post by Talbot Brewer, an assistant professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia. Edge is quite right that his unexalted rank should not be held against him, but WBW's approval is ill-deserved. Here is the second sentence quoted by Igor Boog:

Large groups of ''we the people" now are insulated not only from the physical risks of injury or death in war but also from the moral risks that attend any active role in the initiation of war.

What's wrong with this statement? It is the exact opposite of the truth. In World Wars I and II, American civilians were in essentially no danger of death in war as long as they stayed in the U.S. As far as I can determine, the total number of civilians killed by enemy action in World War II in the 48 states that then constituted the union is six. They were killed by forest fires in Oregon started by Japanese balloon bombs that rode the jet stream all the way from Japan. If I recall correctly, the six included a family of four out for a picnic.

Even if we add Alaska and Hawaii, the total is still very low. This site lists 59 civilians killed by stray bombs and bullets at Pearl Harbor, the other 2300+ were sailors and soldiers. Japanese submarines occasionally shelled Hawaii and other targets, though I haven't been able to find any mention of civilian casualties. It's conceivable that the Japanese killed a few Aleutian fishermen when they occupied Attu and Kiska, though they can't have killed many, since the area was very sparsely populated. All in all, it appears that total civilian casualties from enemy action in what are now the 50 states for the entire war were fewer than 100. Of course, the numbers were even lower for World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In short, American civilians have traditionally been in little or no danger if they stayed home during a war.

That is no longer true. Just on September 11th, something like 2800 American civilians were killed where they worked -- along with dozens of military, of course (mostly at the Pentagon, but probably a few more who happened to be flying on one of the four hijacked planes or visiting the World Trade Center). Whether at home or abroad, we are all vulnerable in the war with Islamicist fanatics. This statement I have quoted is so astonishingly, and shamefully, wrongheaded as to call the rest of Prof. Brewer's article into serious question. The Washington Post's editors should not have let it pass uncorrected.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at August 30, 2002 02:30 PM

And what would the editors of the Washington Post have gained by calling that first sentence into question? Nothing more than a few more column-inches to fill...

Posted by: Scott on August 30, 2002 11:32 PM

It's easy to fill op-ed space. This was an editor not doing his job, which is to ask the question: Is this true? Does this make sense? Didn't I hear about some civilians killed last year up in New York . . . ?

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs on August 31, 2002 03:41 AM

Absolutely right. (I had forgotten about the balloon bombs. What a sight that must have been.)

Since you're a grammar-watcher, I'll mention that I think that you meant Aleut fishermen, not Aleutian fishermen. It's like Basque shepherds vs. Basquian shepherds. (Unless you meant fishermen from wherever -- San Francisco, say -- who happened to be fishing in the Aleutians; in which case, never mind.)

Posted by: the old maltese on August 31, 2002 12:17 PM

Actually, I wrote "Aleut" first, then thought that there might just as easily have been 'Anglo' or non-native fishermen living in the area, and changed it to "Aleutian" to make it refer generally to any non-military people of any ethnicity who might have been on or around the islands at the time. Basically, I was too lazy to try to find out whether the islands were inhabited.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on August 31, 2002 12:40 PM

However, the decision makers in America now do seem to be insulated from the possibility that they or their children might have to _participate_ in wars. It may have always been possible for important men to shield their sons from combat roles, but for the first two centuries of American history this was also a good way to ensure those sons didn't have a political future. So in WWII, men like Joe Kennedy Jr, JFK, and GHW Bush served in some of the most dangerous combat roles available, and Joe Jr. died. But from the election of Ronald Reagan (who only played a soldier - I assume not from cowardice, but because the WWII Dept of War saw a need for movies too), combat veterans have no longer had a significant political edge.

Now we have a President who may not even realize the political pressures probably required for him to "serve" as a National Guardsman in Texas and Alabama rather than active duty in Vietnam. We've got two-thirds of Congress with no military experience at all. I am rather concerned when so many of the people making the decisions lack military experience.

Posted by: markm on August 31, 2002 09:49 PM

Re. Balloon bombs. I am not aware of anyone killed by forest fires started by the bombs (though there may have been some)... but the family that was killed by one was killed when (if I recall correctly) the family came upon the bomb unexploded, and the children tinkered with it.

(After a short web search) Yes, I appear to have a mostly functioning memory. See here

Posted by: Sigivald on September 5, 2002 05:17 PM

markm wrote:

"It may have always been possible for important men to shield their sons from combat roles, but for the first two centuries of American history this was also a good way to ensure those sons didn't have a political future."

Actually, few US Presidents (and other Federal politicians) served in the military. Traditionally, only Southerners viewed military service as virtue in politicians. The idea that the President should have at one timed served only originated after WWI and then only weakly. Not till after WWII and the mass draft did it seem odd that a man of a certain age did not serve. In the era 1900-1945, only Teddy Roosevelt served. From 1945-Present, only Bill Clinton did not serve.

With the end of the era of mass armies, military service patterns have reverted to one more akin to that of the 19th century. Going forward, we will see more and more federal politicians without service records.

Practically, no correlation exists between military service and good political decisions about war. Whether a particular politician favors the use of force seems more related to individual temperament than actual experience.

Posted by: Mr Shannon D Love on September 6, 2002 10:13 AM

Is there a site that lists past presidents that did or did not serve in the military? I love to know how many didn't serve. I'll bet most didn't. Thank you, Alan

Posted by: Alan on May 27, 2003 10:15 AM