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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kosovo Not To Die For




When I was 10, my friend Todd and I often played a game that involved setting up several hundred plastic soldiers on the floor of his bedroom and then bombi ng them with our collection of bottle caps. The setup took about two hours; the bombing, about four minutes. The enemy suffered massive, devastating losses. On our side, everyone went home safe and happy. We called this operation "The Coca-Cola Bottling Company vs. The World.''


Our war games were a post-Vietnam-generation classic: They involved maximum force, minimum exposure, zero sacrifice.


Some years later, when I was in college, a 20-year-old student named Mark Waren turned himself into an object of brief but intense national scorn when he appeared at a demonstration against registration for the draft carrying a sign that said, "There Is Nothing Worth Dying For.''


That was in 1980, when such a sentiment could still evoke shock.


The New York Times ran a news story that was actually a tirade by one generation against its children: "What about honor, love, truth, justice?'' the story asked. "Have those concepts lost meaning to Mr. Waren?''


The story went on to ridicule Waren's privileged background as a child of college professors and a graduate of a fancy New York private school. The poor kid was reduced to responding in a letter to The Times that "the sign appeared in the march by accident.''


Well, I don't think the bombs have been falling in Yugoslavia by accident, though I wouldn't put it past U.S. President Bill Clinton to claim that sometime down the road. Our attack on the Serbs is supposed to be a moral stand, a new kind of war in which we are driven as much by humanitarian concern as by strategic imperative.


Yet in the name of morality, we multiplied the suffering of the ethnic Albanians. And to make it all politically palatable, we launched a war in which we would try not to kill civilians. As much as possible, and to the clear detriment of the refugees, we declined to put ourselves in harm's way.


The war in Yugoslavia, like virtually every American use of force since Vietnam, is an expression of our confused morality: We want to think of ourselves as good and right, but we are no longer capable of facing duty and sacrifice. We have lost a sense of civic purpose.


We stock our armed forces with young people by selling them on a family-friendly trade school with a catchy jingle and smiling fresh faces.


Without a draft, without a citizenry that accepts a base level of common obligation, we have a military - and a government - largely disconnected from most of America.


So we shouldn't be surprised if we do not know what is worth dying for. Duty and sacrifice are, to most of us, cinema virtues, a Spielbergian fantasy world, relics of another time.


This has little to do with ideology. I talked to people on the left and the right, asking them what is worth dying for. A lefty historian would die perhaps to protect her property, certainly for her loved ones, even for country or political beliefs.


Dick Gregory, the comedian turned District of Columbia street activist, said he would die "for the cause of freedom, for the cause of right. I used to think like John Wayne, that if you go after my family, I will kill you. But I have come to believe that everything is worth dying for, but nothing's worth killing for.''


Mike Farris, a 47-year-old Loudoun County, Virginia, conservative activist who runs the Home School Legal Defense Association, said he would die to protect his family and stay true to his faith.


"As an American citizen, I believe it's worth dying to protect our country and our freedoms. But it has to be a pretty direct attack on our freedoms, not fighting to protect our source of oil.''


And I asked a few college students, every one of whom said something about parents and children, and not a word about country or liberties.


The answers kept breaking down not by politics, but by generation.


Those who came of age before Vietnam felt comfortable with words such as "sacrifice''and "duty''; those of us who came later did not. We are our video games - Drop the bomb (right down the chimney: Cool!), blow up the faceless enemy, the beat goes on.


"Give me liberty or give me death,'' the patriot Patrick Henry told us, and for the first two American centuries, we believed.


Now, we're not so certain. During the year of Monica, we were so impressed with our maturity. We could compartmentalize, just like the president. His private behavior was reprehensible, but his public work was fine, we said.


But look at that public work now: We go to war to save people from evil, but we drop bombs from far above and run away, risking little.


It is an immaculate Vietnam. There is nothing worth dying for.


Bill Clinton is Mark Waren, and so are we.


Marc Fisher is a columnist for The Washington Post.