Something I rather enjoyed about watching Captain America on Sunday afternoon is that for a war movie (which is what it is, more than a comic book movie), it offered an unusually comprehensive view of mobilization for total war. You get the soldiers, of course, whose willingness to risk their lives for their country and their fellow troops is crucial. But the movie also makes clear that the notion that “wars are fought with weapons but won by men” is little more than a motivational slogan. One of the main things that soldiers do is try to prevent the Nazis from developing war-winning super-weapons. Meanwhile, the Allies are working on super-weapons of their own. You see in the film that in order to fight and win a war, you need to be able to finance a war. And this is a multi-dimensional process. On the one hand you have patriotic exhortations to lend money to the government at sub-market rates. On the other hand, even as fighting men volunteer to risk their lives, scientists Howard Stark and Abraham Erskine are doing their own wartime service rather than focusing their energies on finding erectile dysfunction treatments.
It’s interesting to look at this in contrast to our current wars. Obviously on the soldiering front, you’ve still got the spirit of patriotism and sacrifice. We financially compensate our soldiers, obviously, but we also celebrate them. And with good reason. Even high-level officers who aren’t putting their lives on the line are clearly underpaid relative to managers of comparably sized organizations in the business world. But beyond that, it’s not a total war. The war is financed by market-rate borrowing, and if you want scientists to work on defense related projects, you need to pay them enough to make it worth their while to focus ont hat rather than other projects.
This is because you just couldn’t mobilize society around the idea of the war in Afghanistan the way you could mobilize people around the idea of fight against Hitler. But this itself should be telling us something. We motivate soldiers in part with rhetoric that emphasizes the idea that they’re serving to “defend freedom.” But if we as a society really believed that — the way we quite clearly did believe it in the 1940s — we would see it spill over into other sectors.