Wars in the modern age are fought to preserve and protect the ability of a nation’s population to pursue its own purposes rather than the purposes of its enemies. The Nazis thought their way of life was endangered by the Jews and the governments they controlled and the Soviets thought their country was threatened by the capitalist world that engulfed it. That is different from previous times when wars were fought to expand territory or capture natural resources. In fact, international law now holds a war of aggression to be illegitimate, while wars of self defense are legitimate. What counts is whether decisions people make as to their vocations or how they are subject to criminal law are matters which their own nation controls. We fought World War II to allow fans to call the umpire blind, though I don’t know that German soccer referees were not subject to similar abuse.
We also fight social wars, which means campaigns to allow people to continue with their ordinary way of life, getting up to go to work and take a vacation in the summer, without the intrusion of disease or crime, much less foreign invasion. That is the case with homeless shelters, which are referred to as programs rather than as wars, though they share with other social wars, such as the War on Poverty or the War on Cancer, the idea that resources will be mobilized so as to confront a problem or a threat to ordinary life that will eventually be overcome. Smallpox was eradicated, as was polio. Homeless shelters allow people to negotiate what is for them the very burdensome task of making it through the day, no other purpose able to supplant that one, while most people can take their households to be the site from which they can negotiate their purposes rather than their sole purpose becoming the maintenance of a household.
It has become a matter of public policy in recent years to provide housing to everyone who needs it, which means that the city government will be held responsible for people who die on the street from the cold. City departments keep track of the number of homeless and of the conditions within the shelters where people are provided with a bed and access to any number of services. Police and welfare workers bother the homeless by encouraging them to go to shelters and providing transportation there for those who are willing to go. That is far different from what occurred not too many years ago--in O’Henry’s time--when a sympathetic policeman might lock up a drunk on some dubious charge so that the drunk could get warm and have a meal. That was bending the system to provide for people for whom the system had not been designed; now, such services are part of the system.
We call these forages into tidying up social life “wars” because that evokes the idea of a profound cause which can end in a victory, even though it can also end in a defeat or a stalemate. The War on Poverty, which meant that poverty was to be abolished because it was a bad thing and it could be abolished, so the proponents of the War on Poverty thought. Poverty was a bad thing because it was a distraction from the course of an ordinary life, which meant and continues to mean the life of someone who is or will be at least of the working class in that a life on at least that social level entails family and job and security rather than a person being buffeted about throughout life by the circumstances of one’s life. A person is “entitled” to go to school, settle into work and marriage, and die only a good many years after that. Poverty, on the other hand, is one long distraction from a regular life, from a life constructed from ambitions sometimes realized and sometimes not realized, ambitions which are for some more gaudy than for others. Not everybody can be President, but everyone can be safe and secure and not have to worry about food and shelter or whether their own children will have a chance at least to make, in this sense, something of their lives.
The life of a peasant under the Old Regime was hamstrung in that there were no chances or thoughts of becoming safe and comfortable, of having great or small adventures, and that is why stories of those times are about aristocrats or the rare non-aristocratic individual who could have adventures, who could go off to London to meet the King. The sense of entitlement has broadened considerably since then, even if the War on Poverty was in fact not very good at improving the health or the test scores of young people from poverty backgrounds. What matters is the impulse: that everyone could lead a respectable life, filled with some individual set of distractions as that may be, such as a period of unemployment or a bad romance. Poverty had become socially unacceptable as a matter of policy, that policy annunciated by both the Republican and the Democratic Roosevelt.
A War on Cancer is a similar kind of war. Cancer enters as a distraction from the ongoing nature of one’s life and may soon come to be the sole preoccupation of what is left of a life, thereby violating Parsons’ model of disease, which is a condition that removes you from life temporarily. Instead, and this is true of more and more diseases as they become chronic rather than terminal, cancer is center stage, the disease state that has become the focus of life. Patients are regarded as warriors who are fighting for their lives when they are far more passive than that, doing their best to endure what they undergo, their only solace some hope of temporary remission. Cancer and polio and Alzheimer’s are particularly devastating because the time of distress can be of considerable duration, transforming a marriage into a caretaker relationship that neither party wanted.
And so a public declaration of a war on one or another such scourge is taken as a just course, a way to remediate distractions that become obsessions and eliminate the normal round of life while the beggar met on the street and the dog feces stepped over in the street can be more easily partitioned off from sustained concentration and so are just distractions in the usual sense of being unpleasant but not of any great moment. Politicians declare these wars on a regular basis because they appeal to the voting public even if there is no particular reason to believe that a breakthrough is on the way or that insufficient funding is what keeps the breakthrough from happening.
Wars in the straightforward denotative sense are attempts to remediate intrusions or interruptions of the life of a nation even if doing what it takes to retain a nation’s autonomy may require considerable adjustments in the way of life of the society, including sending sons and daughters off to die in the effort, though the idea is that there would be even more intrusions in the life of the nation if the enemy won. And, indeed, major wars bring about major changes in a society, win or lose, and so that the society that comes out of the war is no longer the one that went into the effort. Societies that are shocked, as was Nazi Germany, that things were going wrong with their world war, do not know what to do about it but go on with the effort because of the sense of utter doom that is associated with defeat. Joseph Goebbels and his wife killed all of their many children before killing themselves because they did not want to live under whatever would succeed the Third Reich. It is also the case that people fight on, as did the thirteen young men who died in the last defense of Mexico City against the Americans, even though there was never any question that Mexican culture would be altered, only that a relatively unsettled part of the country would be taken away. It is always a surprise to the survivors that their country still exists however much its nature has to be reassessed, as happened when the Generation of ‘98 had to come to terms with the defeat of Spain in the Spanish American War. Life goes on, even if a war is lost, and some wars go on for such a very long time, like the War on Poverty, that people despair that they can ever be won. The working class, all these years after Marx declared war in their name, still awaits liberation from its alienation and its immiseration.