Politics & Policy

Miserable Failure

The war is an unwinnable exercise in imperialistic hubris

In 1971 President Richard M. Nixon prevailed upon Congress to pass the National Cancer Act, effectively declaring war on a leading cause of death in the U.S. The goal of the National Cancer Act was to discover a cure by the year 1981, a notion that today seems almost as naïve and dated as the disco outfits we were all still wearing back then. In his declaration of war on cancer Nixon pledged that, “The same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease.”

Thirty-five years and untold billions in research spending later Nixon’s war has yielded precious little progress in defeating–or even containing–the Big C. It’s time to cut our losses and pull the plug on this unwinnable exercise in imperialistic hubris. It’s time to face the fact that the war on cancer is over, and that cancer has won.

For a quick refresher on what could have been dubbed Operation We Caught It Just In Time, here are the facts on the ground. First, the age-adjusted incidence of death from cancer has not improved by any statistical significance since war was declared in 1971. In 1971 the five-year survival rate for U.S. cancer victims was 12 percent. Today that figure has barely improved, to a paltry 15 percent. In 1971 about 335,000 Americans died of cancer; this year some 564,830 Americans will succumb. In 1975, 19.2 percent of all U.S. deaths were from cancer. In 2002, 22.8 percent of all U.S. deaths were from cancer. We’re making progress all right–but in the wrong direction. But that’s not the whole story, delusional cancer war hawks will insist, because cancer rates have dropped by almost one percent a year since 1991! Did somebody say “Mission Accomplished”?

How will history account for such a miserable failure of a war? Many would argue that we never should have gone to war with cancer in the first place. The very idea that American medical science could control a process as elemental as malignant cellular proliferation is emblematic of a type of hubris only Americans are capable of. Surely the notion that we could impose American values such as “benign” and “non-metastasizing” on living tissues will be remembered as pure, jingoistic folly.

But even conceding the necessity of this war on cancer is no excuse for the way in which it has been waged. Does anyone still deny that America embarked on this so-called war without a well-defined plan for achieving victory? To say nothing of an exit strategy. The mistakes and failures we’ve made along the way surely number in the thousands. One even gets the impression, at times, that the clinical research supposedly aimed at finding a cure is being done on a virtual trial and error basis.

Moreover, how exactly does one wage war on a disease? Or was the war analogy merely a cynical rhetorical device designed to trick red state dullards into supporting Nixon’s nefarious scheme to enrich his cronies in the medical-industrial complex? Pro-war voices are hard-pressed to even define victory in a war on cancer. Does “winning” mean no more malignancies, ever? What about skin cancer? When can we start smoking again, for Pete’s sake? The cancer-war hawks fall predictably silent when confronted with these uncomfortable realities. This war has been waged with an almost willful ignorance of the nature of the enemy we face. Remember laetrile, the miracle cancer cure extracted from apricot pits? Remember oatmeal’s putative preventative properties? The so-called cancer “vaccine”? All came to nothing.

Then there’s the unilateral aspect of the current struggle. Instead of enlisting the aid of trusted allies such as France and Germany to form a coalition of like-minded powers to fight this disease, we arbitrarily declared war on cancer like the arrogant superpower we are. Not even the United Nations was consulted, much less asked for its permission. No wonder the whole world hates us.

The main argument against waging war on cancer, of course, is that it’s just too difficult. Sure, it would be nice to live in a world without cancer–or rainy days, for that matter–but it just doesn’t seem plausible. As University of Chicago oncologist Dr. Mark Ratain said recently, “We’re going to have a truce with cancer. Neither side is going to win it [the war]. ” National Cancer Institute director Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach has set a goal of eliminating the “suffering and death from cancer” by the year 2015. In other words, it sounds like the great American war machine is going to have to settle for peace with honor once again. Or to paraphrase a once-prominent physician from Vermont, the idea that the United States is going to win the war on cancer is just plain wrong.

Lastly, this endless war on cancer has been a distraction from the real enemy: heart disease. Heart attacks kill more Americans than cancer, yet there’s been no talk of a “war” on heart disease. Meanwhile the dead and the maimed in our war on cancer continue to pile up, but they’re rarely mentioned anymore because the corporate-controlled media has moved onto the next story about dieting, K-Fed, or pretty white girls who go missing on Spring Break. Meanwhile, untold billions have been frittered away on this un-winnable cancer war, money that could have been spent beefing up security at our ports, on our borders, or wherever Rep. Cynthia McKinney might attempt to enter a federal building next.

Wake up, America. It’s time to admit defeat, apologize to the world, and seek a diplomatic solution to our differences with cancer. Only then will we have the resources, the manpower, and the national will to tackle the truly noble causes that we face. Like, for example, declaring a long-overdue war against childhood obesity.

Ned Rice is a staff writer on the CBS talk show The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Rice is also an NRO contributor.


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