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Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Problem of the Glorification of War

There's a fair amount of internet discussion (you can begin here) of William Kristol's hymn to the virtues of war ("Pro Patria") and of the Secretary of Education in the UK (Michael Grove) arguing that the "left" has spread a series of myths about the First World War ("Michael Grove blasts Blackadder for spreading 'left-wing myths' on war").  The problem is to disentangle the glorification of war in general from the question of whether any particular war is necessary.  Kristol in particular seems to be preaching the glorification of war in general, whereas Grove's position is somewhat less clear.

The glorification of war as a general political position is, to me, morally abhorrent.  What is the rationale for asking people to view "war" as a noble adventure, as spiritually uplifting?  Is it because of a belief that one cannot truly love one's country without being willing to fight any war, with any excuse?  That seems to me the implication of what Kristol is saying.  I can see no morally acceptable justification for a belief in the virtue of "war" in general.

But specific wars may have--and only may have--justification.  I would start with the default position that war is not an acceptable policy, and require justification before changing my mind.

Looking at the 20th century, I can see reasonable arguments, for example, that World War I was a result of German aggression, Austrian stupidity, and Tsarist Russia being Tsarist Russia--the world would have been a better place had it never happened.  But once Germany invaded Poland, Belgium, and France, what were France and England to do?  Acquiesce?  Or resist? 

World War II comes as close as I think it's possible for any war can come to being a "just war," once again on the side of Germany's (and Italy's) enemies.

Korea for me is more difficult, and I vacillate.

Viet Nam, on the other hand, was just wrong.  The U.S. got involved as one colonial power replacing another (France), and the result was the devastation of Viet Nam, the collapse of a reasonably stable society in Cambodia, and turmoil in Laos.  Way to go.  And both the bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the subsequent decades-long embargoes never made sense--and almost led to a very, very nasty confrontation between the U.S. and the USSR.

Most of the small-scale military actions by the U.S. in the 20th century, from the Philippines to El Salvador, Nicaragua to Grenada have always seemed to me to be errors of judgment, with predictable awful consequences.

My response to the first U.S.-led intervention in Iraq was "Oh, god, here we go again."  But at least GHWB had the sense to pursue a limited objective and to stop once it was achieved.  The facts (a) that Iraq clearly was the aggressor and (b) that Kuwait requested help in defending itself seem, however, important here, and does (c) that the U.S. put together a clearly international coalition.

Both the second Iraq war and the Afghanistan intervention were neither justified nor pursued wisely, with the consequence that neither country has any political stability after more than a decade.

The various Arab-Israel military actions have also struck me as having had no particular hope of an outcome that was good for anyone, and, after more than 60 years, they continue in one form or another, with consequent destructive effects on civil society in all the countries involved.

Ultimately, I would side with Edwin Starr:  "War.  What is it good for?  Absolutely nothing."   But sometimes, and rarely, it may be unavoidable.  Then our task is to minimize the evils that result, not to glorify it.


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