Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Courage to Make Others Suffer

On the eve of war in Washington, journalists and others gathered at a cocktail party at the home of Philip Taubman, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times. . . . Judy Miller was one of several Times reporters there, and she seemed excited. Another journalist present asked if she was planning to head over to Iraq to cover the invasion. Miller, according to the other guest, could barely contain herself. "Are you kidding?" she asked. "I've been waiting for this war for ten years. I wouldn't miss it for the world!"

Hubris, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn (via Jon Schwarz).
“I must say, I’m a little envious,” Bush said. “If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.”

“It must be exciting for you . . . in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks,” Bush said.

– A 2008 videoconference between Bush and U.S. military and civilian personnel.
In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic.

Richard Cohen, looking back on the Iraq War in 2006.

There's a breed of pedigreed dolt endemic to Washington, D.C. They determine their opinions socially, not empirically; what "everybody knows" trumps facts any old day. Their notion of tough, hard-nosed realism invariably entails that other people should suffer, from the blithe imperialism that cheers on unnecessary wars to the 'sensible centrism' that insists that unnecessary cuts to the social safety net are absolutely imperative. (The occasional safely contrarian view offers some novelty and the gloss of independence without truly challenging the establishment framework.) They remain cheerfully cloistered from the effects of their pronouncements about what the less privileged should be doing (and should be having done to them).

Among this crowd, going to war – or rather, sending others to war – is not a matter of careful deliberation; it is a matter of fashion.

Supporting and opposing war are not automatically respectable and equally valid positions; requiring a high threshold for war is the position of basic sanity, akin to a doctor making sure that amputating a limb is actually necessary before proceeding. A truly unavoidable conflict can be argued for with evidence and reason. If instead a war advocate lies, or constantly shifts rationales, or routinely exaggerates and fear-mongers, or slanders the patriotism of skeptics, or seems eager for war… it's cause for grave concern. Human beings will die in a war; death cannot be undone. Inevitably, not only supposed villains will suffer. Someone who can't be bothered even to pretend to treat war with the appropriate weight should not be trusted.

With a new presidential election cycle starting, we've seen many politicians, pundits and supposed journalists make revisionist claims about how the Iraq War started. It's crucial to remember that it wasn't an honest mistake nor was the case for war honestly made. Fighting against memory hole efforts are Digby, Paul Krugman (one and two), James Fallows, Josh Marshall, Greg Sargent, driftglass (one, two and three), Steve Benen, David Corn, Duncan Black, Matt Taibbi, the Columbia Journalism Review and The Daily Show, Balloon Juice, and I'm sure many more I've missed. (It's worth noting that the revisionism started almost immediately, and generally went unchallenged.)

Some war advocates had reservations; far more were largely uncritical of the Bush administration's case for war. There was a disturbing (if sadly unsurprising) trend of treating war skeptics as unpatriotic or even traitors. The key problem with belligerently cheerleading war (at its worst, gleeful bullying), wasn't that such people were socially obnoxious, although they were – it's that they helped create a climate where authority wasn't questioned, and skepticism was pilloried. They increased the chances of an unnecessary war. They increased the chances of unnecessary death and destruction. Avoiding those consequences – requiring a high threshold for armed conflict – is the entire point of war skepticism. It's not a game. Likewise, the reason to point out that the Iraq War was sold dishonestly, and that war advocates were wrong (or dishonest), is not for social bragging rights, but to prevent unnecessary wars in the future.

All of this should be completely obvious, but among the political class, it isn't. Far too many war advocates then and now treat such decisions as an issue of status and face, an abstract, intellectual game or "a low-stakes cocktail party argument" (to borrow a phrase from Jamelle Bouie). A few former war advocates have learned something profound, but for most of them, a true self-accounting would be too painful (and deep reflection has never been their nature anyway). Cloistered dolts rarely suffer for their careless decisions. And for many advocates, whether delusional or coldly clear-eyed, war was and is profitable. In Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, the instigator often suffers the effects of his own hubris, and it can lead to reflection, redemption, or at least recognition – for the audience if not the character. In politics and warmongering, hubris characteristically entails that someone else pay the costs.

(For more, see a 2013 post, "The Dogs of War.")


Anonymous said...

Saw your post over on Digby. I am perpetually amazed at this syndrome. It's as if these people have read nothing. Have learned nothing.

After all the brutal books that have been written about the most brutal of all wars, World War I, that our DC dolts could utter these obscenities is beyond reason, and beyond forgiveness. I'd force them all to read Leon Wolff's "In Flanders' Fields" at least twice and then ask them if they really want war.

I suppose it is the ordained role of the Villager class to act this way. That doesn't make it any more acceptable to civilized people.

Batocchio said...

Anonymous, I'm with you -- I wish World War I was better studied and remembered. (I haven't read Wolff's book yet, although I've read a fair amount of other WWI material.) Thanks for the rec and for stopping by.