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Summer and the Moral Equivalent of War

It’s summertime and the news is breezy. No paper can seem to muster the energy to do more than go through the motions, and who can blame them? The political class is laying low–for good reason–while most of us are either on vacation or looking forward to going there. We all know that not much is going to improve in the short term and a lot could get worse, so why not take a break?

Or better yet, take in a blockbuster cinematic epic of heroic scale, like this:

You didn’t know that a World War II movie was playing in the multiplex, did you? And you were right: good wars are out of fashion at the moment, so I substituted this image of an air tanker dropping fire retardant over one of the 1000 wildfires burning in California earlier this month.

This cinema-quality image could be from a WWII movie. A vulnerable prop plane carries its payload right into the maw of the battle. Great clouds of destruction loom all around but the crew are undaunted; they’ve got a job to do, a war to win. The red chemical streaming from the plane could be streaked with fire or blood, and perhaps they will have to make it home on a wing and a prayer. The plane looks fragile yet dauntless, as if already on its way to becoming a scale model of itself, ready to fly again and again in a child’s imagination.

If such simple scripts are too distant now, the California firefighters still have a role to play:

This image could be from the Vietnam War. The helicopter became the symbol of that tragedy, and once again we see a chopper lowering itself into an inferno. The aircraft is farther away than in the image above, smaller, more likely to disappear in the smoke and crash unseen rather than bank toward the sun or go down in a ball of flame. A craft designed for mobility seems almost mired in time, and instead of heroic action on behalf of a great national effort, this is a picture of being dwarfed by historical forces. But bad war or worse, the crew will do their best to complete their mission.

What I wish for America this July is not that we would get serious and turn our attention back to a world in flames. What I would rather see is a lot more images like this one–that is, images of the government turning its powers for organization and action to attack real problems like fire, floods, depletion of natural resources, bad health care, poor schools, poverty, crime, and more. We spend a billion dollars every three days in Iraq, which would fund a lot of work at home. Firefighters, cops, social workers, construction workers, and many more people take risks for others every day, and they could be doing a lot more good if there were a real national commitment to building a good society, which can only be a society that is good for all.

Jimmy Carter is still excoriated on the right for referring to the moral equivalent of war in a speech on energy policy. In the speech he is quoting a union leader–I can explain that term later to some of our younger readers. The union leader was well read, as he was alluding to William James’ essay by that title. You don’t have to like Carter or buy all of James’ arguments to recognize that we could have all of the good side of war without killing, maiming, or otherwise ruining lives. Call it the aesthetic equivalent of war: let’s get a good story and enjoy the show, one where we don’t have to look away.

Photographs by David McNew/Getty Images.  A slide show of these and other images of firefighting is at The Big Picture.


Summer and the Moral Equivalent of War


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