In case you remember Andy Rooney as just an old grouse. ”An Essay on War,” 1971:
“I launched the phrase, ‘The war to end war.’ And that was not the least of my crimes.” — H.G. Wells
The tender-hearted among us may never feel good about it. But a great deal of human history — at least the parts of it that anybody bothered to take down — has been about war, rumors of war, wars avoided and war by other means.
It is so much a part of us and our image of accomplishments and success that even when what we’re about is the exact opposite of spilling one another’s blood and taking over their territory, military expressions and metaphors are employed to convey just how serious we are about doing something.
As the greatest stand-up philosopher of his time, George Carlin, was so good at explaining:
Not that it has always been successful. Our leaders have — often to widespread approval, generally leading to colossal failure — declared the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, the War on Cancer. We’ve had the Cold War, splendid little wars and Military Operations Other Than War — aka Mootwas.
So when leaders at the state and national level seem enamored of the language of war to deal with various problems, it is enough to make anyone who can read pretty darn nervous.
It’s true when Donald Trump makes noises about ”fire and fury” raining down on North Korea, as if to double-dog dare the world’s other nuclear-armed megalomaniac to squeeze off a couple of payloads before he does.
And it is also true, though with less existential panic, when Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and others seem determined to militarize the problem of homelessness, suffering and crime in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood.
The speaker’s call to mobilize the National Guard was walked back, though there are those who still think it might be a good idea. And even without the image of Kent State 1970 looming over us, everyone involved in deciding that enough is enough over there has been focused in recent days on goings-on that have an undeniable military tinge to them.
As the week was ending, reports leaked out of state, county and city officials scrambling to find jail beds — and treatment facilities, which are sometimes the same thing — for the hundreds of people who were about to be swept up in a plan with a military-style, if not overly inventive, code name: “Operation Rio Grande.”
[I once heard Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, a picture of Kansas calm and motherly practicality, express her support for a U.S./U.N. military operation designed to ease a humanitarian crisis in Somalia. Though she wondered why the White House or Pentagon was moved to call it “Operation Restore Hope” and not just ”Operation Somalia.”]
Militarizing a problem can get people to move. There is a clear goal and a definition of success. (The absence of which is what was wrong with Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.) There is a chain of command. Everybody has a job and someone to answer to if that job doesn’t get done.
It is our great shame, here and in other cases, that simple human things we could have done before war became necessary — don’t humiliate the whole of the German nation after World War I, recognize the legitimate nationalistic goals of the Vietnamese people, don’t empower oil-company stooges in Iran and South America — never seemed to be on the table.
The poor would have been spared a lot of pain if Utah had made affordable housing a priority, paid for the level of treatment programs we’ve always needed and accepted the full expansion of Medicaid when it was offered under the Affordable Care Act. But then the powerful would have missed out on the exhilarating feeling of storming the beach of homeless drug addicts.
But remember all the stuff that got done because the effort and expense could be justified, not as some pansy humanitarian good, but as a national security need.
With World War II’s Manhattan Project, we figured out more about nuclear physics in a couple of years on a New Mexico mountaintop than we probably would have learned in decades on an unorganized assortment of university campuses.
We went to the moon to beat the evil Rooshins, and along the way invented the modern technological world. We put federal money into education after Sputnik left us feeling like a nation of dummies. The law was called the National Defense Education Act of 1958.
We built the Interstate highway system because Dwight Eisenhower envied the German’s their Autobahns and their usefulness in moving convoys and heavy weapons over long distances. So he got Congress to pass what was popularly, though not officially, known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956.
We developed medical techniques and treatments in a hurry because we had to. Army Col. Walter Reed figured out that yellow fever was carried by mosquitoes, which was a big enough deal that they named the Army’s main hospital after him. Military docs worked out the modern blood bank system, figured out how to keep people alive after terrible trauma, moved medial services closer to the battlefield, pressed helicopters into service as ambulances and improved artificial limbs.
Nothing anyone has planned to clean up the Rio Grande neighborhood will, or should, work if the homeless are considered the enemy. But if our elected officials need the noble feeling of waging war in order to really accomplish anything, it wouldn’t kill anyone to hand out a few medals.
George Pyle, the Tribune’s editorial page editor, has worked for 40 years in a profession that gives itself an awful lot of awards. firstname.lastname@example.org