War: What it's Good For


David Gergen likes a good war more than the next guy, but so far he's disappointed by the war on terrorism. The main problem, as he explains in a New York Times op-ed piece, is that Americans are not suffering enough. There's been no draft, no tax increases, no rationing, no central economic planning. "There is no call for common sacrifice from either the White House or Congress," Gergen complains. "While more than 3,000 Americans were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, the rest of us now face little more than inconvenience when we travel."

Gergen–adviser to four presidents, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and one of the nation's dullest political writers–knows a thing or two about inflicting pain on the American people. Naturally, he has some suggestions for sacrifices that they should be forced to make. For example, he wants President Bush to support "universal national service."

The universal part is a bit misleading. Gergen's vision of involuntary servitude would apply only to "eligible young people between 18 and 24"; the government would "ask" them to "spend at least a year in civilian or military service." Gergen worries that the president's USA Freedom Corps, a voluntary program, will "reach only a tiny fraction of the young." He yearns for "the level of participation that Americans would willingly support [for other Americans] if a bold [i.e., compulsory] program were in place."

If you're older than 24, you're probably wondering, "What can I do to help David Gergen feel better about America?" For starters, he wants you to give up the money you would otherwise get to keep under President Bush's tax cuts. He recommends that the "savings" from repealing the tax cuts be spent on "a broad social cause like improving the lives of our children" (presumably because Americans would never spend their own money for that purpose). That way Bush could "make the war about something positive," in much the same way as FDR took advantage of World War II to launch "an audacious economic plan."

Gergen does not make the case that the sacrifices he recommends are necessary. Rather, like other commentators who worry that the burden of fighting terrorism is too easy to bear, Gergen sees suffering in the service of the state as a good thing in itself. It creates "a sense of purpose in our national life," fostering "meaningful and lasting changes in our communities and culture." The great thing about war, in other words, is that it brings Americans together in common worship of Leviathan.