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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Virtual and real wars....

In an example of a brilliant analysis that was badly timed, back in 2000 Michael Ignatieff published an interesting analysis of the brief Kosovo conflict under the title "Virtual War". Had the events of 9/11 not completely altered the world scene, his assessment of future wars would probably be regarded as prescient.

I am intrigued by Ignatieff as an intellectual figure, especially since reading The Lesser Evil (which was the subject of an earlier blog post here) and even moreso since his name has emerged as a possible future Canadian PM under the Liberal Party banner. And it is a pity that his work on the dangers of "virtual war" is now relegated to the "bargain book bin", because the important lessons he put forward in that pre-9/11 world are in fact quite relevant to the current conduct of the "real war" going on in Iraq.

Ignatieff's major point, to summarize it much too simply, is that from the perspective of the US, the actions of the US and NATO in Serbia and Kosovo in 1999 amounted to a "good war" because it was essentially and effectively "virtual" for those who fought on our side. While the benefits of virtual warfare seem great -- few, if any, of our combatants are put at serious risk while considerable fear and losses are visited upon the enemy (notably the civilian population rather than the actual military forces of the enemy) -- there is a high moral cost to be paid as we lose connection with the real world consequences of war and the unavoidable suffering that war causes.

I bring this up because we seem to entering a period when the real nature of the Iraq war is increasingly intruding on the American consciousness. In recent days the death toll of US Marines killed has been exceptionally high, and the fact that the most recent casualties pushed the total of US military killed to over 1800 added to the sense that it might not be possible to keep our collective sense of "distance" from what we have wrought there.

I suspect we are by nature a people prone to obliviousness, especially when the reality is too hard to fathom. But I think something else is at work as well, for what seems to constantly trump the reality of Iraq is the incessant replaying -- in various contexts at various times -- of the images of the events of 9/11. The reality of collapse of the Twin Towers seems to become more vivid with each showing -- and the anxiety of Americans that the potential for additional 9/11s provide the rationale for feigning indifference about the daily violence in Baghdad and its environs. But the body counts are growing, and news of 14 Marines killed one day, and eight the next, will surely provide the kind of "reality check" that Ignatieff argues is necessary for the health of a world in which virtual wars are possible.

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