Washington Post columnist George Will has made some great contributions to American letters. I’ve enjoyed reading many of his columns. But it seems he is still lost in an old-fashioned conservatism which is no longer alive. A recent column of his proves my point.

There’s no doubt he makes a great point when he says that Americans do not understand their common history. When visitors to the Gettysburg battlefield remark that it couldn’t have possibly been that brutal because there are no bullet holes in the monuments, it is clear that ignorance of history is just a small symptom of the real disease: There has been a decline in rational thinking.

But Will’s own sentiments are just as discouraging:

Ten years ago, this column asserted that disrespect for the national patrimony of Civil War battlefields should be a hanging offense, and said: “Given that the vast majority of Americans have never heard a shot fired in anger, the imaginative presentation of military history in a new facility here is vital, lest rising generations have no sense of the sacrifices of which they are beneficiaries.”

In other words, ten years ago George Will would execute capital punishment on people just for not respecting an idea. But the meat of his own ideological sin is in the quotation marks that follow that Nazi-like assertion, namely, that Americans owe a debt to the sacrifices of which we “are beneficiaries.” In other words, we should honor the dead for giving us what they gave us. But what was that?

The benefits of the Civil War can be summed up in these points:

  • Freedom for thousands of men, women, and children who had been considered property to someone else prior to the war
  • A unified country that would endure for more than 150 years afterward
  • A collection of national monuments to preserve the memory of the massacres
  • An increase in government intervention, regulation, and oversight of citizen lives
  • The birth of a military-industrial culture that has grown so large and powerful that it might never be brought under control
  • A glorification of war in the national consciousness
  • The near deification of the man who instigated the war
  • An irrational fear of war on our own soil that leads us to insist that all conflicts be fought somewhere else

As you can see, this is a mixed bag of “benefits” and curses. The preservation of the union at all costs has led us to a place where culturally, politically, and socially we no longer respect the rights of other nations. Our irrational fear of war on our own soil causes us to attack other nations when there is no clear need to and without provocation. The fact that most Americans have never “heard a shot fired in anger” simply means that we have no idea of the consequences of war. We somehow believe that we have a right to dominate other cultures for fear that they might pick us with their dangerous and primitive needles. Worse, our fear of a nuclear holocaust and preoccupation with apocalyptic literature makes us see the world in a very cynical dark light. The Iraq War is the latest development in the natural decline of moral judgments that come from a belief in divine right. Somehow, I don’t think George Will is so concerned with that decline, nor are many other media personalities. We are, after all, “the greatest nation on earth” and we must prove it.

I do not deny that we are beneficiaries of good things. Many of those good things were delivered to us by men who sacrificed their lives for a greater cause. But if we are truly to understand history then we must not be so focused on the good benefits that we ignore the downside. We might be better off today in many ways, but if we don’t get control over those who control our military and national policies then the patrimony of our own time will look a lot like that of Ottomans today.

Allen Taylor is an Iraq War veteran and writes the News and Media Blog. He also owns and publishes the Gettysburg Pennsylvania Blog.

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