War as Moral Distraction


Paris. There is an old accusation that leaders like war because war distracts the public from domestic discontents. The fact is that the public likes war just as much as leaders do, for exactly that reason. War allows everyone to escape from their problems -- for a time. It poses a tangible challenge with a clear solution. War can be won. You can't say that about social and economic problems.

War is moral distraction. It provisionally excuses us from the practical preoccupations of domestic affairs but also from the simple humdrum of reality, the boredom of everyday life.

The best book ever written about war by an American, "The Warriors," by the professional philosopher and World War II soldier, J. Glenn Gray, speaks of "the enduring appeals of

battle," the "lightheartedness" that comes from experiencing war, the welcome time when "ego deserts us" and we are no longer "shut up within the walls of self."

People complain of the "CNN complex." Watching war on television is a form of vicarious participation in the great and terrible events that unite people in wartime. It threatens to divide them as well, if the war goes wrong.

American wars since the Civil War have been distant and distanced affairs. The revulsion and horror experienced by the combat soldier, creating so profound a gulf between his experience of war and that of civilians, was in Vietnam breached by television, undermining public support for the war. That gulf in experience will eventually be breached in this war too, to what effect we have yet to see.

The military censorship now imposed on press and television in the gulf will shortly break down. It cannot be maintained against the professional pressures -- and constitutional claims -- of journalism and the publishers and networks, and against the hostility of Congress as well. Congress depends on the press to know what's going on.

The president's State of the Union address praised the country's ability "selflessly [to] confront evil for the sake of good in a land so far away," and identified "the hard work of freedom" with foreign affairs and war. The predictable -- and warranted -- Democratic response was that the U.S. has "a crisis here at home" and should be putting its domestic house in order.

But that is an easy thing to say; it is a harder thing to do. Everyone from Jesse Jackson to George Will agrees that there are desperate problems at home. The trouble is that nobody knows what to do about them. Or to put it more carefully, those who think they know contradict one another, and there is no consensus of public opinion behind a program of reform, nor the political mobilization to carry it out.

No one is presenting a convincing plan to end or even mitigate ghetto poverty, violence, ignorance, and the estrangement of racial minorities and the poor from mainstream America.

The crisis of national and local public infrastructure and housing is all but universally recognized. Little is done about it because voters reject tax increases. They do so in part because of the pernicious dogma of the Reagan years that the invisible hand of the market will provide all that society needs, but also because voters have lost confidence in the competence of government. They don't believe that government will solve public problems even if given money.

The relative decline in American industrial performance and competitiveness is equally well recognized. But doctrinal emphasis in American business schools and the business community on short-term return, the characteristics of the American security markets as they now exist, and of stockholder expectation and behavior, all combine to block change. The confrontational, litigious character of American business and public life also tends to produce stalemate.

Beyond this is the lack of ideas. A liberal Democratic opposition assembly in Virginia last weekend ended in disagreement as party leaders and activists quarreled over support for the gulf war and the same dreary issues of minority entitlements, quotas, feminism, etc., which have divided and paralyzed the Democratic Party since the 1960s, cutting it off from its traditional working- and middle-class electorate.

The "new world order" is much easier to think and talk about because it is only talk. The war thus far is distant and censored. Life in America is reality, and filled with problems. We'll think about that tomorrow. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, told Congress last week that we needn't even think about paying for the war, nor raise taxes. We'll wait and see. It will all be OK.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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