Am I willing to sacrifice my son's life for Taiwan?
Thinking about World War III with Stephen Wertheim.
Photo by Pixabay
Just a few weeks before my senior year in high school, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
It quickly became apparent that America would go to war to liberate Kuwait, a prospect that filled my contemporaries with emotions ranging from patriotic fervor to fear. We'd been born at the end of the Vietnam War -- a big conflict, with thousands or even tens of thousands of casualties, had never been fought by the United States in our living memories. Yes, we'd felt some nuclear dread inspired by movies like The Day After during the closing years of the Cold War. Mostly, though, we were inheritors of tiny, temporary battles like Grenada and Panama. Some of us remembered the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, though we were elementary schoolers when it happened. Our real wars were second-hand -- stories told us by our fathers about why they were or weren't in Vietnam, by our grandfathers about World War II. For a few months between Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the start of the American-led war to push the Iraqis out, something big and dangerous and real seemed possible.
My late adolescence was spent in a small, central Kansas town with a thoroughly Mennonite population. The churches were still conducting services in German in the 1950s. The people I was around weren't that far removed from folks who'd fled militarized Europe a couple of generations earlier in order to uphold their pacifist beliefs.
So one Wednesday night, my Mennonte Brethren youth pastor gathered some of us older guys together and gave us some advice about how to declare ourselves conscientious objectors. When it was time to fill out our selective service cards, he told us, write it down on the card -- even though the form didn't actually have a spot to list it.
If memory serves -- and it has been more than 30 years, so I might be wrong -- that's exactly what I did.
I thought about that moment recently while reading Stephen Wertheim's NYT piece about preparing for World War III. Between the war in Europe and the possibility of a conflict with China over Taiwan, the world feels more dangerous for Americans than it has since the end of World War II. There's very little living memory left of the the devastation wrought by that conflagration -- one reason why we're edging back into conflict now, perhaps. And Wertheim wants us to know that such battles wouldn't be like the wars we've become used to in Iraq and Afghanistan, fought by other people and largely ignored until it's time to bring our troops home.
There would be sacrifice.
This summer, the Center for a New American Security held a war game that ended with China detonating a nuclear weapon near Hawaii. “Before they knew it,” both Washington and Beijing “had crossed key red lines, but neither was willing to back down,” the conveners concluded. Especially in a prolonged war, China could mount cyberattacks to disrupt critical American infrastructure. It might shut off the power in a major city, obstruct emergency services or bring down communications systems. A new current of fear and suspicion would course through American society, joining up with the nativism that has reverberated through national politics since Sept. 11.
And the economic costs would be terrible.
Researchers at RAND estimate that a yearlong conflict would slash America’s gross domestic product by 5 to 10 percent. By contrast, the U.S. economy contracted 2.6 percent in 2009, the worst year of the Great Recession. The gas price surge early in the Ukraine war provides only the slightest preview of what a U.S.-China war would generate. For the roughly three-fifths of Americans who currently live paycheck to paycheck, the war would come home in millions of lost jobs, wrecked retirements, high prices and shortages.
Of course, lots of people would die.
In most rounds of a war game recently conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the United States swiftly lost two aircraft carriers, each carrying at least 5,000 people, on top of hundreds of aircraft, according to reports. One participant noted that although each simulation varied, “what almost never changes is it’s a bloody mess and both sides take some terrible losses.”
But it wasn't the forward-looking scenarios that bothered me the most about Wertheim's piece. Instad, it was this.
The deaths of more than 7,000 service members in the post-Sept. 11 wars — and approximately four times as many by suicide — devastated families and communities but were not enough to produce a Vietnam-style backlash.
That's right. More than 30,000 veterans have died by suicide during the last 20 years.
My God. My God.
This got me thinking about my son. He's 14. He's the tallest person in our household right now. He's a sensitive kid. Wears pink pants quite often. He lives with ADHD and can get overwhelmed easily. I don't know who he is going to be when he is 18 or 20 years old. But I want desperately to find out.
Wertheim's piece suddenly raised a question for me that I'd never really considered before, at least in a way that felt viscerally. It's the kind of question we've largely walled off from our collective experience during the all-volunteer era of the armed forces, during the era of invisible wars. It's maybe time we started asking it of ourselves.
Am I so committed to Taiwan's independence from China that I'm willing to have my son die for that cause?
Luckily, that's not a question I have to answer right away. And really, it's not even a question that I can answer: I'm old and broken -- I'll never be called to fight. My son would be the one to make that decision for himself.
But with due respect to the Taiwanese people ... right now, it's difficult for me to imagine a scenario where losing my son to the defense of a nation on the other side of the planet would be worth it.
I believe in public service. I believe in doing things for the community, even at some cost. I don’t think, though, that I could ever justify sacrificing my son. Or his soul.
If I don't believe that, how can I believe it for somebody else's son?
And if we don’t believe it, isn’t the time to say so now? Before events sweep us along?
Well, that's the choice I've made. My son is Taiwanese and is in the reserves.
I understand your pain, but your position is terminally short-sighted and will only result in the sacrifice of even more sons later. Once China occupies Taiwan, it will move on Japan and on Philippines, where we have bases and mutual defense treaties.
Japan knowing that, is already investing in defending Taiwan, because Tokyo understands that defense of Taiwan is defense of Japan.
So the real question is not whether US boys will die, but when. Do you want them to fight with every advantage, or do you want them fighting with Beijing porting its ships and aircraft and missiles in Taiwan? That is the choice we face. A lot fewer boys will die if we can keep Taiwan out Beijing's hands. That is the math we face out here. That is why my son will fight, and why I will let him -- because in the long run it will mean fewer deaths. The sick calculus of war...
You think a pox on everyone and we stay home in America? No problem. After that, Beijing will grab parts of indonesia, Phils, Vietnam, all nations it claims part of, and eventually move on Australia -- China already sniffing around the Solomons because that is the key to Australia. You aren't going to be given the no-war choice, Beijing plans to take that from you. Your only available choice is which war?
It is never wrong to hope for no war.
We are at a historic crossroads now with Russia. If we allow a nation like Russia to over-run a neighbor, commit thousands of war crimes and murder 100,000+ civilians for zero military effect but only for terror, a nation that was no threat and hadn’t done anything wrong, it doesn’t stop there. It will only encourage more. Would we let them overrun Georgia next? Absorb Kazahtstan? How bout Finland? Does it stop with NATO? Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania?
At some point good people have to say, “this far, no further”. There is simply no other good choice. This choice will lead to death, suffering, and hardship. That is true. But we did not lead the way down this path. The only choice is to refuse to follow people like Putin (or bin laden) when they try to lead that direction. Try to stop them short of war, sure. But allowing them to walk away from actions like Ukraine is not stopping them. It only leads to more and worse.
Taiwan has to be the line with China. It’s a vibrant, thriving democracy with a great economy. That must be preserved and protected.