War isn’t what it used to be. Around the world you find countries that are obviously or even formally at war, but trying to minimize the war story while making a show of normal life. As an extreme example, a Reuters story this morning describes a Facebook photo from Syria:
it shows the first lady Asma, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, accompanying her daughter and three sons on their first day back at school.
The schools are barely functioning in a country where basic government services broke down six months ago, so the back-to-school photo has meaning on two levels. At the deeper level, it works as a show of defiance. You can’t force us to acknowledge that the norms of everyday life are breaking down.
Varying degrees of denial are seen in other countries. In my own country of the United States, many of my friends have forgotten that the country continues to be involved in a war, despite the enormous costs and the consequent economic troubles. Casualty reports come in on the news wires, but no longer sink in. It is a subject politicians won’t discuss voluntarily or directly.
It is a far cry from what we saw seven years ago, when war was almost the only thing in the political news. Then, the White House would talk about war on a daily basis. But that brief period was a throwback. Going back a couple of centuries, war was fought with earth-shaking drumbeats and trumpets blaring. Political leaders made extravagant promises about the benefits of war. They declared war based on rumors. By the late 20th century, the trumpets were metaphorical. Political leaders cautioned about the risks of “armed conflict,” no longer officially considered war. Now there are no trumpets at all. Move along, there is nothing to see here.
Perhaps it is a sign that war has lost much of its popular support. Often in political change, rhetoric precedes reality. Possibly that is the case here. If leaders can no longer talk openly about the wars they are conducting, that does at least take away some of the old incentives to go to war.