February 27, 2006

On Responsibility: The Comedy Continues

Yesterday, I offered some excerpts from Robert Graves's World War I memoir, Good-bye to All That, focusing on the "Little Mother" propaganda story in particular. That episode starkly reveals the insanity of the "mythic war" mentality in a manner so extreme that it continues to reverberate almost a century later.

In reading the Graves book, I was especially struck by this passage at the conclusion of Paul Fussell's introduction:
Graves's reliance on broad comedy to make very serious points about life and death seems to anticipate and illustrate Friedrich Durrenmatt's post-Second World War conviction that "comedy alone is suitable for us." The reason? "Tragedy presupposes guilt, despair, moderation, lucidity, vision, a sense of responsibility," none of which we have got:

"In the Punch and Judy show of our century ... there are no more guilty and also, no responsible men. It is always, 'We couldn't help it' and 'We didn't really want that to happen.' And indeed, things happen without anyone in particular being responsible for them. Everything is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the sweep of events. We are all collectively guilty, collectively bogged down in the sins of our fathers and of our forefathers ... That is our misfortune, but not our guilt ... Comedy alone is suitable for us."
I mentioned this perspective in my post earlier today about Guantanamo, and the meaning of certain policies that the Bush administration has pursued since immediately after 9/11. I used the painfully familiar example of the "well-meaning," ordinary German who insisted, after all the horrors of the Nazi regime: "But who could have known it would come to that?"

This particular frame of mind has been raised to a high (or low) art by the Bush administration, and by many of its supporters and those who defend our foreign policy in particular. The following may seem like a paradox, but in fact it is only two sides of the same coin -- or two different ways of achieving the same goal. On the one hand, Bush and his numerous allies throughout our culture proclaim the foundational virtue of independence, self-reliance and individualism -- that with sufficient "will," we can accomplish anything. We are self-determining beings: we are what we choose to be. On the other hand, with regard to broad questions of foreign policy -- and with regard to narrower questions such as the use of torture or warrantless spying -- they announce: "We have no choice about what we do. We must do these things, if we wish to save our country, and civilization itself."

But note the aim which both approaches serve: they want to be able to do whatever they wish -- and they never want to be held accountable for any of it.

Herewith, a few examples. In analyzing Charles Krauthammer's sickening defense of torture as a legitimate and required part of our conduct in the "War on Terror," a defense that has been widely praised by many hawks, I wrote:
This is the same justification that every cowardly, bloodthirsty murderer has always used: "You have left me no choice but to be a monster. Because I am helpless to resist what I know to be evil, I am still moral. I still uphold the values of civilization."

A word that is stronger and more damning that "evil" is needed to convey the nature of this kind of argument. Krauthammer seeks to make us all monsters, and to make us all accept that we must be monsters: "We must all be prepared to torture." And even worse: we are "morally compelled" to be monsters.

The confession is undeniable. Be absolutely sure to grasp what it is: Krauthammer thus confesses that he is already a monster, but he does not want you to condemn him for it. To the contrary, he wants you to become a monster too, to accept that you were "compelled" do so in the name of morality itself, all so that you will fear judgment in the same manner, and for the same reason.

Thus, these monsters seek to reduce every one of us to their level -- to make all of us sadistic brutes, who inflict pain for the sake of pain, and who continue to maintain that they are "morally compelled" to do so, that they are upholding civilization in so acting, and that they had no choice in the matter.

But it is all a lie. It is the single worst lie any human being can ever tell. We always have a choice. The choice is what makes us human. That is where the essence of our humanity lies -- and where the possibility for true nobility of action and spirit resides.

It is also where the capacity for evil lies. Krauthammer and those who believe as he does have told us in unmistakable terms that they are already monsters. They deny it, but the truth is that they have chosen to be monsters.
(The entries in my series, On Torture, are described here.) Irving Kristol utilizes the same perspective, and applies it to all of United States foreign policy over a period of many decades. In discussing the policy prescriptions Kristol offers in his neoconservative manifesto, I said:
The lie contained at the heart of this paragraph is probably the worst and most shameful in the entire article (and the article contains a number of stupendous lies, so this is no mean achievement). To term our involvement in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War "bad luck" is an intellectual crime for which capital punishment would be too good, and too swift. In this context, "bad luck" has only one possible meaning: that we had no choice but to become involved in these conflicts, that the conflicts were "forced" on us against our will, and that we were merely passive observers in world affairs who became embroiled in one conflict after another, in an unceasing train of war, altogether against our better judgment.

This is a vicious and reprehensible rewriting of history. If I thought Kristol were capable of experiencing the emotion, I would say he ought to be ashamed of himself. Every single one of those wars was one that the United States deliberately and intentionally chose to become involved in after a long period of deliberation. I will be offering some excerpts from Barbara Tuchman's masterful history of the Vietnam War (in her book, The March of Folly) in the near future -- but I would have thought everyone knew that our involvement in Vietnam was the result of an intentional and very deliberate process of decision-making over a very long period of time. It was utterly mistaken and based on what ought to have been obviously dubious premises at almost every single step, but it was hardly a course of action foisted on us when we were simply minding our own business. And the same is true with regard to every other war in Kristol's list.

But Kristol's intellectual legerdemain accomplishes one objective, and it is a significant one: it absolves us of all responsibility for our past decisions in the foreign policy sphere. In effect, Kristol's analysis entirely negates the element of moral judgment when it comes to issues of war and peace, at least so far as the conduct of the United States is concerned. Wars, endless bombing raids, huge troop deployments, massive domestic taxation, a military draft (during the long period we had one), endless foreign entanglements, and large-scale death -- it's all just "bad luck." It just happened. It's not enough that Kristol engages in intellectual suicide before our eyes: he also wishes to prevent anyone else from engaging in critical analysis of historical events, in an attempt to ascertain if there just might be any lessons to be learned from such a study. And Kristol thus hopes that this intellectual paralysis will continue in the present, and into the future. Why, we can't question the means or methods by which we are now fighting the war on terror. It just happened. It's just our "bad luck." Whatever we do now or in the future, there are no judgments to be made about any of it.
And in a later part of my continuing discussion of the Iran "crisis," I quoted Barbara Tuchman on the identical point, from her analysis of the Vietnam disaster:
Persistence in error is the problem. Practitioners of government continue down the wrong road as if in thrall to some Merlin with magic power to direct their steps. There are Merlins in early literature to explain human aberration, but freedom of choice does exist--unless we accept the Freudian unconscious as the new Merlin. Rulers will justify a bad or wrong decision on the ground, as a historian and partisan wrote of John F. Kennedy, that "He had no choice," but no matter how equal two alternatives may appear, there is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter-productive course if the policy-maker has the moral courage to exercise it. He is not a fated creature blown by the whims of Homeric gods. Yet to recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government.

For a chief of state, admitting error is almost out of the question. The American misfortune in the Vietnam period was to have had Presidents who lacked the self-confidence for the grand withdrawal. We come back again to Burke: "Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom, and a great Empire and little minds go ill together." The test comes in recognizing when persistence in error has become self-damaging.
As we have seen before, and as we now witness again with regard to Bush, his allies and the horrors which continue to unfold before us every day, the message is clear: they are to be held responsible for none of it. They have no choice. They had to invade and occupy Iraq, they have to torture people and they have to use torture systematically if we are to win, they have to imprison people without ever charging them and perhaps forever, and they have to spy illegally, even on Americans, if we are to be "safe." They have to do all this, and much, much more -- and not only are we prohibited from judging them negatively, no judgments of any kind are even possible. If there is no element of choice, there can be no moral responsibility whatsoever.

And it is all a lie, from beginning to end. As Tuchman correctly notes, and as we all know if we are honest, in matters such as these, "there is always freedom of choice." They did not and do not have to take any of these actions. They are responsible for all of it.

Never forget it -- and never let them forget it. Never.