I just finished reading H.G. Wells’ The World Set Free, an amazingly prophetic book written in 1913, just before the outbreak of WWI. It’s worth revisiting in light of our current dilemma in the Middle East.
In the year 1931, according to Wells’ fantasy, a scientist named Holsten discovers the key to unlocking atomic energy. (Actually the scientist’s name was Fermi and the year was 1932 but close enough.) Then in 1947, the world experiences its first atomic war. (Wrong again, but only by two years. Interestingly, Wells didn’t anticipate the incredible power of nuclear weapons but imagined them as conventional bombs that went off perpetually, like disintegrating radioactive isotopes.)
Faced with nuclear destruction, the leaders of the world declare peace and form a world government based on communal ownership. Aside from Wells’ Bloomsbury-bred fantasies of global socialism, it’s a pretty nice job of prognosticating.
During the 1940s and 1950s things went pretty much as Wells predicted. The dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima ended World War II and initiated a long-term peace in the form of a 45-year stalemate with the Soviets. Both sides were terrified into acting appropriately. We did have a few little wars, but the threat of nuclear weapons kept them from mushrooming into big ones.
Now we are involved in a conflict in Iraq where nearly 3,000 American soldiers have given their lives. The American people are growing tired of the sacrifice. It is altogether fitting and proper that they should do this.
Some people see this as a failure of national fortitude. More than 3,000 U.S. Marines died at Iwo Jima. During the last month of the Pacific War, 775 American soldiers were killed in action and another 2,458 died from accidents and disease even though there were no major battles.
But let’s put things in context. In 1945 America was a nation of lower-middle-class people where boys went to work right out of high school and were willing and eager to join the armed forces to fight for their country. In 2006, we are a nation of upper-middle-class people where teenagers sit playing video games all day in suburban living rooms and have little or no desire to fight in exotic lands. It isn’t universally true but it is important to realize that those who rebel against this sacrifice may be a majority, as the election last week suggested.
The premise put forth by the neoconservatives who have dominated the Bush Administration is that American conventional forces can be projected anywhere and everywhere in the world in order to enforce our hegemony. Sometimes this reaches the level of absurdity. Richard Perle is reported to have exulted, “Who’s next?” when the Americans first took Baghdad. The Weekly Standard was joking about going into Syria. Perle and David Frum, who coined Bush’s term “Axis of Evil,” wrote An End to Evil in which they recommended, among other things, a naval blockade and possible invasion of North Korea.
The question is who is going to fight these wars? The volunteer U.S. Army and National Guard are already stretched paper-thin by Iraq and Afghanistan. Most units are doing their second and third tours. There is a great deal of truth to saying we overreached by going into Iraq before we had stabilized Afghanistan, with the result that things are falling apart in both countries.
“Send in more troops” is the answer, but where are these troops going to come from? Don’t even think about a draft. Charles Rangel is right to push it in his sarcastic manner. The backlash against Republicans would make last week’s election look like a popgun.
FRANKLY, I THINK IT’S TIME WE said goodbye to our World War II dreams. The box office failure of Clint Eastwood’s Flag of Our Fathers seems to indicate most Americans are thinking the same thing. For one, it’s important to remember how we won the War in the Pacific. It wasn’t American valor. It was American technology. American soldiers fought brilliantly, but without the Bomb the war would have lasted another three-to-four years. If it cost 3,000 Marine lives to take Iwo Jima, how many would have died invading the Japanese mainland? The military estimated 100,000 to 200,000.
And don’t forget there was opposition in this country. People were asking why we had to conquer Japan in the first place. With Hitler gone, shouldn’t we just let them retreat to their island and keep their emperor — even though they would probably be planning another war? Without the atomic bomb it’s highly questionable we could have sustained the war effort three or four more years.
Also, with Germany and Japan we were dealing with rogue nations very similar to North Korea that had regressed while the world around them was advancing. With Islam we are facing a whole civilization. We are never going to be able to subdue and occupy these countries the way we did Germany and Japan. There is no “victory” in sight. We could establish a parliamentary democracy in Iraq today and ten years from now it could be overthrown by Islamic Fundamentalists, putting us back where we started.
The analogy with the Soviet Union during the Cold War is much more appropriate. Even though the Communists had a messianic ideology, even though — as Teddy Roosevelt said — the Russians were “not in the van of civilization,” even though Stalin himself was a psychopath, still the Soviets had enough sense to curb their aggressions in the face of a nuclear deterrent.
So I say this. Let’s let Iran have the bomb and the hell with it. They can have nuclear power. They can even have nuclear weapons. But if one of those bombs goes off anywhere in the world, we wipe them off the map.
Of course there is always the fear that a nuclear Iran will go ahead and attack Israel anyway. A suicide bomber here, a suicide nation there, what’s the difference? It’s all part of martyrdom. Russia may have been outside the van of civilization, but Muslims often seem outside the van of humanity.
On the other hand, would a Muslim country bomb Jerusalem, the home of the Dome of the Rock, where Muhammad spent his famous night journey meeting with Abraham, Moses and Jesus before ascending the ladder of light to the throne of Allah? It doesn’t seem likely. Would it be worth leveling the entire Persian plateau in order to take out Tel Aviv? These are the kind of decisions a mature Muslim state will have to make.
Right now we are at a moral disadvantage. We can’t threaten Iran with our nuclear weapons because they are making no complementary threat against us. But if Iran has the bomb, then we have no such prohibitions. Kim Jong-Il has sobered up awfully quickly after exploding his backyard device.
It’s time to put the ball back into our home court — technological superiority. The nuclear stalemate kept the peace for 45 years and eventually led to the Soviet downfall. It’s the little wars — Vietnam, Korea, Iraq — that get us in trouble. Let’s allow Iran into the nuclear club and explain the rules of membership. They’ll catch on fast.