Order in the Family

Not our politicians but our public servants have called us to a higher standard

War is hell on social justice. The four American wars of the past century derailed broad movements of reform: progressivism died in the hate-the-Hun mobilization of World War I; the New Deal ended with World War II; Harry Truman had to abandon his domestic liberalism to win conservative support for the Korean War; and Lyndon Johnson saw his Great Society disappear with Vietnam. War has cost Americans more than battle casualties: it has cost us a fairer society. If we really are in a new world war today, at least reform won't be one of its victims this time. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon derailed a debate over whether to cut the capital-gains tax—not, say, a debate over a more equitable sharing of the burdens and benefits of globalization.

The upwelling of national solidarity manifest in the wake of the attack makes this heart hope that greater social decency will be not one of the war's victims but, perhaps, one of its results. This is the British model of social progress through war. The British people, not the British army, were Hitler's targets; it took three years before the number of British soldiers killed exceeded the number of women and children killed at home. Enduring German air attack for five years (43,000 civilians were killed during the blitz of 1940-1941 alone), Britons struck a new social metric, one reflected in wartime plans for egalitarian postwar institutions. "It is crucial," George Orwell wrote as he saw his countrymen emerge from the ordeal of war, "to break the grip of the monied class on the whole. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny"—or else the country would remain "a family with the wrong members in charge." Aneurin Bevan, the Labour politician, wrote, "There will have to be a great recasting of values. The conception that those who produce ... are inferior and must accept a lower status than the speculator must go." The welfare state, a British coinage, was to be the postwar answer to the warfare state. "Never Again" was the slogan of the rejuvenated Labour Party that swept the Tory warrior Winston Churchill out of office at the meridian of his triumph, in the midst of the Potsdam Conference with Truman and Stalin.

Orwell's and Bevan's words could have been written about the America of the 1990s—a family with the wrong members in charge, a society in which the speculator ranked higher than the fireman. This disaster has upended, however briefly, that order. As it happens, Jack Welch published his megabucks book Jack: Straight From the Gut the day of the attack. Here is a man who has bragged of firing something approaching 100,000 people and has won the regard of the business press for it. What kind of society makes a man like that a hero? The firemen picking their way through the rubble at the World Trade Center stand for something better, nobler. They incarnate the ethic of solidarity and mutual aid that so many Americans have responded to and lived out since the attack. Not our politicians but our public servants have called us to a higher standard. Perhaps a "recasting of values" is already under way.