Politicians Should Say, and Mean,”War Is Terrible”

Two weeks ago in an interview, the libertarian party candidate for President, Gary Johnson, was asked what he would do about Aleppo. Perhaps he did not hear the question well in the context, perhaps his mind went blank, but the question caught him off guard so much he asked, “What is Aleppo?” in response.

Given he is running for President of the United States and that Aleppo has been in the news as a center point of humanitarian crises in the Syrian civil war, Johnson was lambasted in the media for his lack of awareness of foreign policy. Certainly Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would have known what Aleppo is and answered the question.

But Johnson’s gaffe hints at a bigger problem in American politics, a problem that encompasses all three candidates for President.

In a column in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan suggests that politicians’ attitudes toward war in general is alarming. “They have their heads all screwed up about war,” she writes. “They approach the subject cooly, as a political and geopolitical matter, and . . . they see it through prisms of personal political need and ideological gain.” Johnson, then, may be pitifully uninterested, but in Noonan’s view the broader trend is for every politician to view war as a talking point, a required subject for advancing their cause or building political credibility.

Noonan’s concern is that such an indifferent point of view misses the great truth of war: that “war is terrible.” Noonan affirms her point by telling the story of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy in Aleppo, Syria, who was pulled from the rubble of his bombed out home. By the time she describes a video of his rescue, where he “brings his left hand up to his head and touches around for the wound” and then “puts his hand down on his legs, as if not to call attention to his wounds,” any reader with a heart knows she is right: “You should hate war.”

Noonan’s theory of war as terrible is extremely useful in highlighting for us how politics are calculated and ultimately impersonal. She tells us how she asked a candidate for President if he hated war, and “He got the dart-eyed look politicians get when they sense a trick question.” It wasn’t a trick question, but any statement issuing from a candidate’s mouth is released only after considering how it will affect poll numbers—even Donald Trump’s seemingly say-what-I-want slips of the tongue aim to generate particular popular responses. Somehow, then, the nature of geopolitical conflicts has added so many layers for politicians to sift through that they’ve lost track of how to answer that simple question. They’ve exposed their calculations and missed the only right answer about war, that it is terrible.

Yet by focusing on the genuineness and humane feeling of a politician’s response, Noonan’s political test leaves us susceptible to the next talented politician. As Barton Swaim has pointed out, “Successful politicians are people who know how to make us think well of them without our realizing that that’s what they’re doing; they know how to make us admire and trust them.” In Swaim’s view, the most effective politicians have an almost instinctual knowledge of what people want them to say or do, which means that as soon as a few politicians understand how to project this humane response Noonan wants to hear, we are likely to trust them.

I agree with Noonan that “before the election is over it would be good if someone said [war is terrible].” It would certainly beat not knowing what Aleppo is. But wouldn’t it be best if the person who finally said it, actually meant it?