Symbolic victories

There is a group of dada-esque absurdists who call themselves the Church of the Sub-Genius. They are not so much a church as a loose collective who parody the excesses of groupthink, totalitarian religious fervor and blind allegiance. Most of what they have to offer is farcical, but there is one Sub-Genius “principle” that speaks to our decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: “Too much is never enough.”

That’s exactly the paradoxical labyrinth we have built for ourselves. To be sure, it is the finest labyrinth that civilization has ever built. In its least important dimension — financial costs — it has consumed over $3,000,000,000,000 ($3 trillion) of your tax dollars.

That works out to approximately $10,000 for every single U.S. citizen. We never seem to have enough money for roads, bridges, schools, health care, science, criminal justice, child care or adequate nutrition, but we had the money to propagate an inconclusive conflict against people whose opinions and proclivities are little different than before we began.

Yes, bin Laden and Saddam are dead. Many other truly evil people are as well. So too are more than 4,000 U.S. service members and tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis. We should also include the broken, disabled and irreparably damaged service members who will spend the rest of their days in pain and torment — with all the incumbent care and rehabilitation and counseling and medicines that entails.

Looking back on the decade since war began, we are obliged to ask whether all the suffering was worth the cost. There are a number of ways this inestimably complex equation might be approached. Two dimensions have been discussed: immediate financial costs and the human toll. There are other equally valid ways to look at it.

Calculations as multifaceted as these require we have some kind of larger framework to frame the discussion. Utilitarian philosophy provides us with just that. In specific, we should turn to the evaluation philosophers term “universal consequentialism.” This paradigm asserts that a given act’s moral rightness depends on the consequences for all involved — not merely one side or the other.

Given that Islamic extremists ventured halfway around the world to hurt us and we returned the “favor,” this approach seems valid. Thinking about the consequences visited on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s difficult to assert that our war against them fundamentally changed those societies. Did regimes change? Certainly. Did the basic cultural norms, religious beliefs, social structures, economic foundations, educational opportunities… daily life fundamentally change? The answer falls somewhere between “some” and “not really.”

For those among them who didn’t already hate the United States, did we do anything to make them our allies or did we just temporarily dominate them? For those who did already hate us, did we give them reason to hate us less?

Did we “prove” anything other than the fact that we were willing to throw $3 trillion dollars into a deep dark sandy hole? How many converts to the true state religion of republican democracy did we make? Moreover, has any conqueror ever made lasting inroads with these people? When we assay the costs, who did we defeat?

Many times we have held up the example of the Greek general, Pyrrhus of Epirus. On the fields of Magna Graecia he defeated the Roman army. To do so, all he had to forfeit were most of his command staff, his cavalry and a substantial portion of his armies.

Yes, Pyrrhus “won,” but the Roman Empire persisted centuries thereafter. In Iraq and Afghanistan we have fought our own Magna Graecia. We waged the most expensive war in history to prove something the rest of the world already knew: We will not shrink from symbolic victory.

Did September 11 need avenged? Absolutely. But did it really take all this?

Some have suggested that our soldiers have died for nothing. This is incorrect. They died for their country. No matter how flawed the policy, our sons and daughters upheld their sacred obligations.

In the end, there is one only one question: Did these wars make the totality of humankind better?

See “answer” above.