Bryan Caplan  

Dying in Vain

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I've been reading presidential debate transcripts to get some op-ed ideas. Here's my nomination for the most bizarre discussion. It starts off with Mike Gravel saying the obvious:

QUESTION: ... My question is for Mike Gravel. In one of the previous debates you said something along the lines of the entire deaths of Vietnam died in vain.

How do you expect to win in a country where probably a pretty large chunk of the people voting disagree with that statement and might very well be offended by it?...

GRAVEL: ... John, it's a set up question. Our soldiers died in Vietnam in vain. You can now, John, go to Hanoi and get a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cone. That's what you can do. And now we have most favored nation trade.

What did all these people die for? What are they dying for right now in Iraq every single day? Let me tell you: There's only one thing worse than a soldier dying in vain; it's more soldiers dying in vain.

What does it mean to "die in vain"? At absolute minimum, if a bunch of people died, and you got the same outcome as you would have gotten if they had stayed home, they "died in vain," right?

Economists might want to make an average/marginal distinction here. But if the marginal AND the average effect of deaths is zero, then men died in vain. Period. But of course, very few politicians (especially the ones with a chance of winning) want to admit this ugly truth. Some dance around it; others just deny the obvious:

COOPER: Senator Obama, are the soldiers dying in Iraq in vain?

OBAMA: Our soldiers have done everything that's been asked of them. They deposed Saddam Hussein.

They have carried out extraordinarily difficult missions with great courage and great bravery.

[...]

When I am president of the United States, when I send our troops into battle, I am going to be absolutely sure that it is based on sound intelligence, and I'm going to tell the truth to the American people, as well as the families who are being asked to sacrifice.

COOPER: To the question of, did the troops -- are the troops dying in vain, though: Yes or no?

OBAMA: I never think that troops, like those who are coming out of The Citadel, who do their mission for their country, are dying in vain...

COOPER: Senator Edwards, are the troops -- did the troops in Vietnam die in vain?

EDWARDS: I don't think any of our troops die in vain when they go and do the duty that's been given to them by the commander in chief. No, I don't think they died in vain.

The funny thing is that this is the candidates are trying to win votes in Democratic primaries, so their audience's commitment to nationalist dogma is well below average.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Lord writes:

And you suppose it wouldn't be used against them in the general election?

Paul Zrimsek writes:

For most of us, it's not about the definition of "in vain". It's about Gravel's cretinous suggestion that your definition is satisfied because Baskin-Robbins is there now.

8 writes:

Apparently Vietnam was fought to put Baskin-Robins in Hanoi. And here I thought the U.S. was fighting international Communism.

TDL writes:

I believe the argument is that communism would have fallen whether or not we fought in Vietnam. If that is the case, then the 58,000 that died there fought a war for no reason.

Regards,
TDL

Unit writes:

The problem is here:
"...and you got the same outcome as you would have gotten if they had stayed home". How will you ever compare a known event with an event that hasn't happened in reality, but only happened in theory.

Let's make the question harder: Did the US soldier of WWII die in vain?

Brad Hutchings writes:

Bryan, the problem with this is that basically everyone your and my age and older was touched in some way by the Viet Nam War. My Mom lost her favorite cousin, my parents saw some good friends return very screwed up, and my Dad fulfilled his deferment in support operations in Thailand for a year. So it certainly shaped my childhood and is a painful scab to pick for quite a few people who were alive at the time.

Another problem here is the correlation between the loud draft evaders and protesters of the time and people who turned out to be complete pricks. Read David Horowitz for lovely accounts of Tom Hayden. More close to home for me, I had a high school teacher who proudly proclaimed that he skipped the war by going to Canada. After I graduated, he got nailing for extracurricular activity with a female student. Coincidence? I've shed most of my conservative leanings, and I can't bring myself to not see correlation there.

So calling Viet Nam War deaths in vein is a very loaded signal. There are a lot of other despicable things you can fairly call out about the Viet Nam War. Call out the draft, McNamara, LBJ, etc. They are a lot more specific and more applicable to current and future situations. And they're not so loaded.

Kimmitt writes:

The problem is that the folks who own the Traditional Media's commitment to propagating nationalist dogma is near-total.

Dezakin writes:

The problem with this sort of statement is its very similar to asking if those who volanteered are fools, and those who were drafted served no noble purpose in life.

This isn't something you can give a candid answer to in politics, even if the volanteers were fools and the draftees were useless fodder. You can't speak ill of the dead.

I suppose the dead cant dally with their high school students either.

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