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August 15, 2005

Talking Past One Another

Cross-posted at American Daughter

Talking Past One Another
By Harris Sherline

I recently received a phone call from a man in our small community, who wanted to talk with me about an opinion column I had recently written, in which I commented that the two sides to a local public dispute were both right and both wrong and that there was entirely too much hostility involved for an amicable solution to ever be possible. Because the caller thought my remarks were reasonable and even-handed, he wanted to see if he could change my thinking about the war in Iraq, and war in general, by convincing me that war is simply not necessary and that we must somehow get past the belief that the world's problems can ever be solved by killing people, bombing cities, etc.

My caller was polite and made an effort to be non-confrontational, the opposite of what is so often the case when people try to convince you that your attitude about a hot issue is wrong. He seemed determined to convince me that I don't understand how wrong-headed going to war is and, of particular interest to me, was his lead question, which was: had I ever been in a war? When I responded that I had served in Korea, his question shifted to whether or not I had ever killed anyone in combat. When I answered in the negative, explaining however, that I had experienced air attacks and seen people wounded, he quickly dismissed my support for the War On Terrorism as unqualified. In other words, if I never killed anyone in combat, I was not qualified to make a judgment about going to war at all.

Our conversation ranged over most of the usual arguments related to the War On Terrorism that divide Americans today:

  • The terrorists who are attacking us have lived in extreme poverty for a long time, and we are unwilling to recognize that they are not bad people, but merely living in such dire conditions that it breeds hatred. This included such other claims as our being in Iraq solely because of their oil, that George W. misled Americans into supporting the war and the usual litany of other transgressions committed by the administration (the Vice President also came in for his share of blame for this).

  • The atrocities committed by Americans at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib have inflamed the terrorists against us, that we should be above such conduct and set an example for the rest of the world, especially for the followers of Islam, who will eventually come to recognize that we are not their enemy.

  • There is no justification for war, ever.

  • There are no bad people. People only do bad things because they are deprived, abused, downtrodden, and forced to live without hope.
There was more, but I'm sure you get the idea.

No matter how I answered, his response was invariably one of the standard complaints about the war, the administration, Republicans, Rush Limbaugh, etc. After a time, it became abundantly clear that we could continue to talk past one another indefinitely and not agree about anything, ever. So, I ended the conversation with my thanks for his interest in wanting to talk with me and for his courtesy. He was very polite and, I must say, made me think about the issues involved, but I don't believe in the way he had hoped.

Following are some of the thoughts our conversation stimulated about the ongoing dialogue Americans have been engaged in concerning the War On Terrorism:

  • The two sides to our national argument about The War On Terrorism will never agree. They have totally different perceptions of the world, and people.

  • It strikes me that experience in killing people in combat as the sole qualifier for making a decision about going to war is a bit like saying that people are not qualified to have an opinion about the death penalty if they have never personally executed anyone.

  • If my lack of experience in killing people up close and personal disqualifies me from having a valid opinion about going to war, I wonder how much of this type of experience George Washington and the other Founders of our nation had before making the decision to go to war to gain their freedom from England?

  • Only a small percentage of those in the military ever experience direct combat. Most of the armed forces serve in support positions of one sort or another. I assume pilots would not meet my caller's test, or those in the artillery, and those in the host of non-combat positions that are necessary to conduct military missions. And, of those who do experience combat, how many actually kill anyone face to face? Under his definition, very few people would actually qualify to express an opinion about going to war, which was clearly his point.

  • In combat, it is not unusual to kill the enemy without actually seeing them or knowing whether you have killed anyone.

  • I wonder how the Americans who were taken prisoner at Batan, experienced the death march and were tortured by the Japanese during WWII, but may not have killed anyone in direct combat, would feel about not being qualified to have a valid opinion about going to war again if and when they thought it was necessary.

  • My father, who fought in WWI and experienced direct combat in France, was severely wounded and suffered much of his life as a result, but I don't know that he actually killed anyone. I don't think he knew. Does that mean he was not qualified to make a judgment about going to war in WWII?

  • My brother, who was in the Navy during WWII and was involved in 11 major naval engagements in the South Pacific, experienced attacks by Kamikaze pilots and Japanese swimming at night to slip aboard American ships and kill the crews in their sleep, but to my knowledge he did not kill anyone in direct combat. Does that mean he is not qualified to have an opinion about going to war today? Somehow, I think he would strongly disagree.

  • On the subject of "there are no bad people," my reaction was to ask what my caller thought about Hitler (who annihilated six million Jews, a million Gypsies and untold numbers of other people during WWII), Stalin (who killed 20 million of his own people), Pol Pot, serial killers like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, BTK, Charles Manson and others. He did not answer, but it seems to me that those who truly believe there are no bad people must somehow explain why there is so much evil in the world. It can't all be because of poverty and deprivation.

  • There are many kinds of people in this world of ours: some evil, some saintly (such as Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul and others), many just plain good folks, and some not so good. It's just part of the mix of humanity.

  • A recent article made the case that conservatism and liberalism might be genetically based, and I wonder if this may not be true.
My conclusion is that the two sides to the argument about whether we should be fighting the War On Terrorism, or any war for that matter, will never agree about anything. They simply have opposite worldviews and perceptions of people that can never be reconciled and will always talk past one another without ever reaching any agreement or consensus.

Posted by at August 15, 2005 12:37 AM

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