Wednesday, October 19. 2005
One thing I meant to write yesterday in the comment on Tim Dickenson's "War Over Peace" essay was that the war over peace -- that is, the assault against the very idea of peace -- cranked up almost immediately on Sept. 11, 2001. And this was done by liberals as well as conservatives, even by people I knew and generally considered dependable allies. At the time I remember cautioning people that they shouldn't be hard on pacifists because sooner or later we were going to need them. The worst of this is probably over, but still we read people attacking the antiwar movement in their frustration and disappointment over the vile fruits of war. Gary Kamiya's, in his Salon review of George Packer's The Assassin's Gate, writes:
Packer has many blind spots here, but the most telling is that he thinks this is only about Iraq -- that both prowar and antiwar forces are performing some kind of equations based on Iraqi suffering caused vs. prevented by a US intervention. This ignores the obvious need to factor in Iraqi responses to US invasion and occupation -- you can argue that the anti-US resistance didn't have to make matters worse, but that's a bit like arguing that a rape victim would be better off relaxing and enjoying it. But even more central is the fact that this is an American war -- it's about us, how we view the world, and how we treat others. It shouldn't have taken a lot of introspection to recognize that we are unfit to judge matters of life and death in Iraq, or that trying to do so would compromise us further. Not that war judges -- it's far to indiscriminate for that. To characterize war as evil is to simplify unconscionably. War is far worse than evil -- it not only intends harm, it generates destruction beyond our intentions, it invites retribution. Those who opt for war play god, becoming the ultimate blasphemers. The truly naive are the ones who don't see this -- more invidious still are the ones who see it in general but think they can make it work. You don't have to be an inveterate America-hater to recognize that we're not good judges of what's best for others. Indeed, our cult of self-interest confounds our own domestic affairs so frequently that it's a shame to inflict it on anyone else.
Kamiya picks at Packer's position while trying to preserve his own illusions about what war's good for:
Actually, I chopped that last sentence off while he was ahead: war is failure. As for war sometimes being necessary, the further back you go in time the fewer peaceable options you find, and the stronger martial traditions become. But in the past fifty years no nation has built its economy on plunder, and few have engaged in any sort of war, even by proxy. (That this has gone unnoticed by most in the US says much about how exceptionally belligerent we have become.) Meanwhile, we've built a standard of living, unprecedented in human history, that depends on peace. (True for the US as well: we haven't suffered a war on our own turf for more than a century, and built our economic dominance during WWII when much of Europe and Asia were destroyed.) The fad idea that war can be humanitarian is only held by the overarmed, and only maintained by ignoring much evidence to the contrary.
Kamiya's examples aren't very convincing. The interventions in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan came after prolonged hostilities -- in the latter case, over 25 years of active external promotion of local warring factions, much sponsored by the US and USSR in their global tryst, whereas Yugoslavia bears similar scars somewhat more obliquely. And both nations limp along with crippled economies and continued strife, so much so that it's hard to see just where the benefits from being on the wrong end of US bombing runs are. As for Hitler and/or Saddam Hussein, the less said the better. The real question here isn't how evil the enemy is, but what can be done about it. The US was in a relatively good position at the start of WWII -- attacked by Japan, whose allies Germany and Italy were already engaged in a war to conquer most or all of Europe, we provided a unique combination of innocence and clout to end those wars in rather quick fashion. But even there the long-term psychic damage was considerable, with our triumph egging us into the long "cold war" that followed, that set the stage for further tragic wars (including Yugoslavia and Afghanistan). Conversely, in Iraq we have no such innocence, and not enough clout to quell even a small scale uprising. The result has been a war that compounds itself into further wars, with no real prospect of a resolution.
Most people have some trigger point where they resolve to fight back. For isolationist America in 1941 that point was tripped by Pearl Harbor. Anyone who calls that "the good war" has a pretty selective memory, but the conclusion of that war presented us with two optional paths. One was to build a fair-minded international framework of laws and institutions to prevent further wars from happening. The other was to use America's tremendous economic and political power to police an international Pax Americana. Both paths were approached, but with typical faith in self-interest, the Pax Americana approach prevailed. Post WWII struggles pitted capitalism vs. communism, imperialism vs. national liberation, and ultimately rich vs. poor. As this progressed, the US became hopelessly corrupt, ultimately succumbing to George W. Bush, the very face of corruption. Along the way, those international laws and institutions either fell under America's thumb or were rendered dysfunctional. The result is that we don't have what it takes to prevent the failure of war -- a result so dire that liberals like Packer, and sometimes Kamiya, have turned to the US war machine for hope. That they've become disenchanted is hardly surprising. They'd be monsters otherwise.
Maybe someone should have stood up to Saddam Hussein long before the US did. But to do so you first need to build a framework that can do so without making matters worse. The US alone cannot do so, and given its history since WWII the US has become so punch drunk it should not even try. The US cannot escape the self-interests of its rulers, and the world cannot forget the dirty deals the US made along the way. Anyone who seriously wants to grapple with the many wrongs around the world needs to hold his fire and rebuild first. And that system needs to develop positive results, to help achieve a fairer world, not just to punish wrongdoers. That will be hard. But the easy temptation to sick the US war machine on people you dislike doesn't work at all. The US may once have been a beacon of freedom and progress for the world, but increasingly we are seen as arrogant, self-righteous, malevolent agents of exploitation and dominance. Before we can right ourselves we must first stop wronging others. And that means we have to swear off war.
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