March 24, 2008

The Lies in Your Head (II): "We Will Almost All Die...If We Continue to Practise War"

I examined Ralph Peters' especially bloodthirsty and disturbing approach to foreign policy and war some months ago (with badly needed comic relief thrown in, courtesy of Peters himself). In his latest column, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the ongoing genocidal war crime committed by the United States, Peters offers the standard defenses and rationalizations:
ON the fifth anniversary of our campaign to remove Saddam Hussein's monstrous regime from power, it's hard not to despair - not because of the situation in Iraq, which has improved remarkably, but because so few American politicians in either party appear to have drawn the right lessons from our experience.

For the record, I still believe that deposing Saddam was justified and useful. He was a Hitler, and he was our enemy. But I'm still reeling from the snotty incompetence with which the Bush administration acted. Above all, I'm ashamed that I trusted President Bush and his circle to have a plan for the day after Baghdad fell.


The situation in Iraq is improving, as I've seen with my own eyes. Despite our cavalcade of errors, there's hope (no audacity required) for a reasonable outcome: an Iraq that treats its citizens decently and that neither harbors terrorists nor menaces its neighbors.

We'll need to sustain a longer commitment than would have been the case had the administration's know-it-alls not regarded our best generals as fools back in 2003. The administration's disgraceful treatment of then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki was paradigmatic of its arrogance.

Meanwhile, those who held power over our military and misused it so disgracefully will never suffer as our military casualties and their families will for the rest of their lives. At most, those privileged men will experience disappointing sales of their self-serving memoirs. Cowards sent heroes to die.

I cannot help repeating the heartbreaking truth that it didn't have to be this hard, this bloody, or this expensive. This is what happens when war is made by amateurs. Has anyone in Washington learned that lesson?
Thus, as I discussed last week, the only "lessons" learned by our ruling class and by most of the commentariat are these:
Behold the wisdom of the ruling class, now increased by benefit of the deaths of more than a million innocent people: the next time the United States wages a war of aggression, the next time the United States violates the Nuremberg Principles, the next time the United States installs a brutally cruel colonial occupation force -- do it efficiently.

Manage future wars of conquest and future occupations competently. Commit your crimes -- and your murders -- with skill and expertise.

In this way, the ruling class is now prepared to do it all again -- against Iran, or Syria, possibly China in five or ten years. It will not matter that another nation will not have attacked us, or even had the capability of doing so. All that will be of consequence is that the United States manages its future crimes expertly and efficiently.

Commit your crimes against humanity -- but do it neatly, and without unnecessary fuss and bother. Don't leave guts and pieces of brain splattered across the pavement, or over the sand. Be sure to clean up all the blood stains.
As to why Peters is so disastrously, unforgivably wrong concerning his assessment of "progress" and "improvement," see the essay from earlier today, "The Lies in Your Head, More Powerful than All Facts."

In the midst of this otherwise largely typical exercise in Iraq apologetics, I was considerably astonished to read two paragraphs by Peters that speak some important truths -- with one criminally notable exception:
The problem for the left wasn't really what was done, but who did it. And hatred of Bush actually empowered him - the administration had no incentive to reach out to those who wouldn't reach back, so it just did as it pleased. Today's "antiwar" left also contains plenty of politicians who backed interventions in the Balkans and Somalia, who would be glad to send American troops to Darfur today and who voted for war in Iraq.

Both parties are quick to employ our military. It's the only foreign-policy tool we have that works. Neither party is a peace party - each just wants to pick its own wars. The hypocrisy in Washington is as astonishing as the dishonesty about security needs.
"Dominion Over the World" deals with the history of the U.S.'s bipartisan policy directed toward American global hegemony in considerable detail. (That series will have three or four further installments, which I hope to get to within the next month.) As far as that policy's fully bipartisan nature -- that "Both parties are quick to employ our military," and that "Neither party is a peace party" -- see Parts III and VI, in particular. With regard to the interventions in Balkans, see the second half of Part I, and a still earlier essay, "Liberal Hypocrisy in the Name of 'Humanitarianism.'" (I pass over Peters' statement concerning "the dishonesty about security needs" without comment. On that subject, Peters' views and mine are as opposite as night and day, as numerous essays here attest.)

But take the full measure of Peters' monstrous lie: "[War is] the only foreign-policy tool we have that works." To speak of war as a "tool" that works is criminal in the extreme. On very, very rare occasions -- perhaps one time in a thousand -- war may be absolutely unavoidable and necessary. Almost every war in the modern era, and in all the eras before, could have been avoided, if governments were not led by individuals intent on power, motivated by greed and other detestable factors, and utterly heedless of the individual human lives that are destroyed, maimed and scarred forever. War kills and destroys on a scale that is nearly always entirely unforgivable; modern war kills and destroys on a scale that is both terrifying and unforgivable.

Gwynne Dyer, War: the Lethal Custom, from the Introduction:
[S]ince the scientific and organizational abilities that make nuclear weapons and other as-yet-undeveloped weapons of mass destruction possible cannot be unlearned, the human race has to figure out a way of running our affairs that dispenses with war altogether. The starting point must be to see the institution of war as a whole and to understand how it works.

For most of history, war has been a more or less functional institution, providing benefits for the societies that were good at it, although the cost in money, in lives, and in suffering was always significant. Only in the past century have large numbers of people begun to question the basic assumption of civilized societies that war is inevitable and often useful, as two mutually reinforcing trends have gained strength.

One is moral: for all the atrocities of the twentieth century (or perhaps because of them), it was a time when people began to imagine that war -- that is, killing foreigners for political reasons -- might be simply wrong. The same explosion of new technologies that has made modern war so destructive has also made the whole world instantly and continuously visible. To see our "enemies" on television is not necessarily to love them, but it gets very hard to deny that they are human beings like ourselves. Even if morality is no more than the rules we make up for ourselves as we go along, one of those rules has usually been that killing people is wrong.

The other factor is severely practical: we will almost all die, and our civilization with us, if we continue to practise war. The deadline has been postponed but it has not been cancelled, and a civilization with the prospect of a major nuclear war in its future does not need moral incentives to reconsider the value of the institution of war. It must change or perish.

This does not mean, of course, that we will change or that we will survive. The universe does not give guarantees. But change is certainly possible, provided that we understand the nature of the institution we are trying to change and are willing to accept the consequences of changing it.
And for those people, especially those liberals, who still cling to the "necessity" of war for "humanitarian" purposes, I recommend Jean Bricmont's Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War. If I believed in such programs, I would make that small but indispensable book required reading for everyone who writes on political affairs, and for everyone who works or hopes to work in government. I would require that they read it repeatedly, until they demonstrate they have fully understood its arguments.

I give you this one excerpt, from pp. 65-67:
The basic idea of this school of thought [humanitarian intervention] is simple enough: since democracy and human rights are much more respected in the West than elsewhere, it is our right and even our duty to do whatever we can to see to it that these rights are extended to the rest of humanity. Moreover, that obligation takes priority, since human rights come first; they are even the precondition for development.

The success of that ideology in transforming the Western left has been remarkable. ... [N]umerous left intellectuals consider it their mission to criticize Western governments for their excessive caution and timidity. To hear their complaints, one might gather that the main problem in the world today is the failure of the West to intervene in enough places (Chechnya, Tibet, Kurdistan, Sudan) and with enough force to promote and export its genuine values, democracy and human rights.

In the moderate version of this ideology, we are only called upon to protest, by demonstrations or letter writing, against human rights violations committed in other places. The tougher versions demand economic and diplomatic sanctions or even, if necessary, that the West have recourse to military intervention.

The main thing wrong with the "tough" version, the one calling for military intervention, stems from the ambiguity of the "we" in statements such as "We should intervene in order to..." The "we" does not usually refer to a particular group to which the person making such recommendations belongs, as would have been the case, for example, with the volunteers who joined the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, but to armed forces powerful enough to intervene effectively, in particular those of the United States. During the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, a certain number of Western intellectuals fancied themselves following in the Spanish footsteps of Malraux, Orwell, and Hemingway. But, unlike their predecessors, they largely remained at home or ensconced in the same hotel, rather than entering the fray, while the International Brigades and the Spanish Republican Army were replaced by the U.S. Air Force. Now, nothing in United States policy indicates the slightest sincere concern for human rights and democracy. Assigning it the prime task of defending these values is strange indeed. Moreover, to call on an army to wage a war for human rights implies a naive vision of what armies are and do, as well as a magical belief in the myth of short, clean, "surgical" wars. The example of Iraq shows that it is possible to know when a war starts but not when it will end, and it is totally utopian to expect an army that is under constant attack from guerrilla forces not to have recourse to torture in order to obtain information. The French used it massively in Algeria. The Americans used it in Vietnam and again in Iraq. Yet both the French and American torturers were citizens of "democratic countries, respectful of human rights" -- yes, but when they were at home, and in periods of relative social peace.
I will leave you with the following note of hope, the quotation that opens Gwynne Dyer's last chapter, "The End of War."
The good news for humans is that it looks like peaceful conditions, once established, can be maintained. And if baboons can do it, why not us? -- Frans de Waal, Yerkes Primate Center, Emory University