is thoroughly examined - and I think equally debunked - in this Washington Post piece by Henry Allen, who was an editor and reporter at the paper for 39 years, and who won a 2000 Pulitzer for Commentary.
He writes in the context of those attempting to justify intervention in Syria on various grounds, none of which are the security of the nation.
He writes from the experience of having been in Chu Lai, in Vietnam, in 1966, where there was disappointment, as he begins:
Where were the smiles, the flowers? We’d expected, in a modest way, to be greeted as liberators.Shortly thereafter he notes :
How disappointing. The war was young then, and so were we, but not so young that we hadn’t seen newsreel footage of the cheers from the giddy urchins of Naples, the French doing their tiptoe waves.As I read those words, I wonder how much such images continued to influence policy makers. I remember these words from then VP Cheney on Meet the Press as we prepared to invade Iraq:
Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.Of course we were not, any more than were the Americans in Chu Lai in 1966, as Allen discovered. He also writes
The good war, the virtuous war. We believe in it. We have to believe in it or we wouldn’t be Americans.He quotes John Updike, a brief quote which ends with this sentence:
Beneath her patient bombers, paradise is possible.And if people do believe that, as former Naval Aviator John McCain seems to, then his joke about "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" as grotesque as the expression is seem almost comprehensible.
Or perhaps as Allen puts it,
The United States doesn’t fight for land, resources, hatred, revenge, tribute, religious conversion — the usual stuff. Along with the occasional barrel of oil, we fight for virtue.Please keep reading.
The last line from Allen is a set-up: he immediately gives a list of things that demonstrate that such does not work out, and I will urge you to read his column rather than my recapitulating that list.
He also notes that
We talk about our warmaking as if it were a therapeutic science -and then goes on to illustrate that as well: think of "surgical strikes" as just one exemplar.
After discussion his post-war education, in which he was taught - as was I a bit after him -
that humankind, especially Americans, hate war and love peace.He provides the examples used to try convince of that, starting with the UN (which when I was young was not the boogeyman of black helicopters violating our sovereignty but an institution whose presence in NYC made us proud and also hopeful that we might not have to again go to war).
The problem here is that humankind doesn’t hate war, it loves war.Specifically, in the United States
And yet Americans still believe in the idea of the good and virtuous war. It scratches our Calvinist itch; it proves our election to blessedness.note - the hot link above, like all hotlinks in blockquotes, appears in Allen's column
The last two paragraphs of this piece are why I think we should all read it carefully. Remember, this is from someone who saw our efforts in Vietnam and subsequent efforts in the government close up over a long career.
The penultimate paragraph reads:
The latest target of opportunity for our patient bombers is Syria. The purity of our motives is unassailable. We would fire our missiles only to punish sin, this time in the form of poison gas. No land grab, no oil, not even an attempt to install democracy.Somehow the idea that the way to "punish sin" is to fire off missiles that will kill people who had nothing to do with it is more than grotesque. Perhaps it is because I have never been drawn to the Calvinist viewpoint.
I could justify using air power in Libya to stop an imminent slaughter in Benghazi. That is not misguided punishment after the fact, a punishment that does little to deter, and can cost more lives than the original "sin."
For his final paragraph, Allen turns to the ideas of an earlier thinker:
Oscar Wilde said: “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” He didn’t foresee a United States that would regard war as virtuous.I have never seen war as virtuous. It is one reason I have had trouble with the promoting of World War II as the "Good War." I might not blanche at the idea that it became a necessary war.
But war is never good.
Here several thoughts come to mind, all of which I have referenced here in the past.
The first is an American flag officer who said that when we have to go to war it is indication that our military has already failed in its prime purpose, which is to deter war.
The second is the American officer in Vietnam who explained that in order to save the village we had to destroy it.
Most relevant to me are the words of an Eastern Orthodox Monastic whose writings had a profound influence on me, not merely because of the decade plus I spent in the Orthodox Church, but because one expression in particular has stuck with me ever since.
During World War II he was on Mount Athos, the peninsula that is a thousand year old monastic republic in Northern Greece. He lived in a cave, and served as spiritual father to dozens of monks in two monasteries. He wrote that he heard rumors of the war, and prayed that the less evil side might win.
That has stuck with me.
War may be necessary, it may be unavoidable, but it always is involved with evil, even if the evil may be less than the alternative.
Yes, I know that to persuade people to die and nations to take up the burden of even the unavoidable and necessary conflicts it is necessary to convince - we want to believe that we are doing good, that the other side is horrible, that somehow they represent an evil we must crush or extirpate. In the process we tend to dehumanize. It is not unusual to offer false scenarios about their atrocities: anyone remember the young lady testifying about the supposed atrocities in Kuwait City who later turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador, who had not been there, and the stories (which in fairness were originally corroborated by some NGOs) turned out to be false. The Brits offered similar lies about the Germans during the Great War, to the point that people therefore originally were not inclined to believe the tales about the Holocaust - little boy who cried wolf syndrome, perhaps.
I have not yet made up my mind on Syria. I really think intervention now may be too late to be effective, and I am not sure that we can "punish" short of killing or capturing and putting on trial those responsible - if in fact we are sure who they are.
That is not why I posted this piece.
I found the points Allen makes worth considering.
So I have shared his words, and offered some of my own.
Do with this whatever you will.