Cowards, every single one of us?

Early in the 20th century, the West’s intellectual elites rushed to fight the Spanish civil war. The same could be said of World War II. It’s hard to imagine the same today. What happened?

Russ Roberts asks this question of Christopher Hitchens in a recent podcast. Hitchens is discussing his book Why Orwell Matters. (Orwell himself famously fought, and wrote about, the Spanish Civil War. I have Homage to Catalonia on my Kindle right now.)

Hitchens, distracted by his own words, didn’t really answer Roberts’ question. (He’s not a terrific listener.) It got me thinking, though: why doesn’t  this generation’s intellectuals fight this generation’s wars?

Cowards, every single one of us?

Possibly, but I see a few other explanations.

The economist in me says it could be comparative advantage at work. Technology has played an increasingly important role in war. A sensible government would direct its best educated patriots to engineering and intelligence.

The armed forces also face more competition for idealistic talent. We’ve seen 10,000% growth in the number of international NGOs in the last 60 years. Those who want to fight injustice have many more options.

There is also the perception, probably real, that the army is no longer a friendly place for intellectuals. A consequence of competition and comparative advantage?

Three generations have also witnessed the examples of Gandhi and Dr. King, and the gospel of non-violent action. As we were driving and listening to the podcast, Jeannie sees her favorite bumper sticker: peace also takes courage.

But the answer that appeals most to me: today’s battles are not drawn along intellectual lines, but religious ones. The Spanish Civil War was the left’s stand against fascism and the subjugation of the European working class, and the way the West would be run. There is a battle for hearts and minds, but not within our own society.

Thoughts from readers?