21 August 2008

I Have Neither Heart Nor Head

I'm reading James Carroll's Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War right now, and I am struck by two things.

First, I am shamed and humbled by the dates on his pieces. Back in the spring of 2003, I was conflicted. Maybe we were preventing WMD attacks, on us and on others. Getting rid of Saddam certainly sounded like a good idea, too. On balance, I was deeply uneasy and came down against the war, but didn't feel strongly enough to write, march, or shout about it. (The single protest I attended had maybe six people waving signs and chanting; I felt silly.)

Carroll, on the other hand, is positively prescient in these essays. The weak case for WMDs, the moral bankruptcy of bombing a country flat in order to install democracy, the war profiteers straining for a chance at the trough -- it's all there, and written, for the most part, before the Current Occupant climbed out of the Hoover and stood under "Mission Accomplished".

Secondly, I realize how completely I reverse that epigram so often misattributed to Churchill ("If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative when you're 50, you have no brain"). I was pretty conservative when I was a teenager, still was so -- or at least credulous when it came to America's role in the world -- as a young adult, and now wax more and more "liberal" as I age. Liberal, that is, in the sense that I believe that even in the utter absence of a larger moral context, our selfish interests could not be worse served than by militarism, jingoism, simplistic thinking, and bombing the crap out of people. At the bottom, it's a tyrant's mindset, really: People will fall in line if you threaten them sufficiently. So, USA #1! We can kick ass and take names! If you fight back, we can fight back harder! And harder! Until you quit!

Except that they don't. Not since 1945, and even then we had a significant part of the world allied with us.

You'd think we'd have learned something in Vietnam. Of course, like Weimar Germany, America has a subculture that believes we could and should have won in 'Nam; the problem was that we were too soft, that we placed too many restraints on our military, that we just didn't hit the North Vietnamese (and all the South Vietnamese fighting as Viet Cong) hard enough.

The thought that (a) much of Vietnam looked like a moonscape when we left, with somewhere between 4.5 and 6 million estimated dead, and (b) they were patriots enough, proud enough, and tough enough to keep fighting regardless of how many we killed...somehow this escapes their notice. We wouldn't quit, if someone invaded us, regardless of how competent their army or terrible their weapons -- what gives us a monopoly on tenacity? Leave aside the moral dimension for a minute; what makes these nincompoops think that force even works? History's dungheap is strewn with those who ruled by the threat of armed conflict, while the oldest surviving governments today are all democratic and, historically, abide by the rule of law: Iceland, England, America.

To the extent we abrogate that tradition, we risk joining Saddam, Ceau┼čescu, Stalin, Hitler, Tojo, Musharraf, and the rest of their sorry company.

We're better than that. Let's start acting like it.