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May 14, 2007

Too Good?

In today's New York Post, columnist Ralph Peters tells us "Why Iraq's so Hard." He's not referring to the  soil or the underlying rock of Mesopotamia -- he means why despite "[sending] the world's best military" and "[spending] an enormous amount of money," we're going to wind up "[losing] to savages or [pulling] off a messy compromise success."

His answer: we're too nice. Or to be more precise, too moral. "We prefer to sidestep reality in favor of comfy fantasies that negotiations will persuade blood-drunk murderers to all just get along."

To be fair, Peters makes a good point when he says that we don't have enough troops in Iraq and that "with the last-ditch troop surge in Baghdad, we're half-heartedly trying an approach we should have applied with everything we had in 2003." Of course, those who made that point before the invasion lost their careers for their trouble.

But Peters doesn't stop there. His complaint isn't about the lack of troops, per se, but with our lack of "ruthlessness." As he puts it, "fighting ruthlessly may not please the safe-at-home moralists, but it's losing that's immoral." Thus,

Above all, we have to maintain a strength of will equal to that of our opponents. War demands consistency, and we're the most fickle great power in history. We must focus on defeating our enemies, brushing aside all other considerations.

By "considerations" he means things like public opinion and reaction to matters like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and torture. He sets aside the "ticking bomb scenario" and asks the reader "if torturing a known terrorist would save the life of the person you love most in the world, would you approve it?" For Peters, there's only one answer.

If your answer is "no," you're not a moral paragon. You're an abomination. And please make your position clear to your husband or wife, mother or father, son or daughter. Just tell 'em, "Sorry, honey, but I'd rather see you dead than mistreat a terrorist. It's a moral issue with me."

This is what I call the "Kitty Dukakis gambit" after the attempt to pry then-Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis from his opposition to capital punishment by asking what he would do if his wife were "brutally" raped and murdered.

For Peters, people who insist that we cannot do evil that good may ensue are "abominations." Because, let's be real: the scenario he posits is infinitely less likely (at least for someone living in the USA) than the one presented to Governor Dukakis, and Peters must know that. (Besides, the family members of murder victims sometimes oppose the execution of the murderer. Are they "abominations?") The "question" is a wedge, not a morally serious argument.

There's a lot of intermediate steps between what Peters calls "the strategic errors of the administration" and what I just call "the Fiasco," and the "ruthlessness" Peters relishes. As he noted, more troops and better intelligence would have helped.

What's more, the "ruthlessness" he advocates would conflict with one of the approximately 613 (mostly post-hoc) stated reasons for the war in Iraq: to change the political culture of the Middle East and, thus, deprive Jihadists of potential recruits. This of necessity required the winning of the proverbial "hearts and minds" of the people. Waging war without limits probably wouldn't help.

When you add the volumes of mistakes made in both the decision to go to war and the prosecution of the conflict, to attribute our predicament to our unwillingness to be ruthless in what, after all, is a war against something less than an existential threat is grotesque -- almost as grotesque as the war itself.

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Comments

Byron Wooten

As a Southerner, William Tecumseh Sherman is one of those people I love to hate.

You know Billy Sherman, he's the guy who burned Atlanta and salted the crops in his "March to the Sea" during The War of Northern Aggression (also known as The War Between the States or Civil War). He also coined the phrase, "War is hell."

Sherman believed in the "hard war" doctrine against his enemy. He understood that it was not enough to defeat the enemies ability to make war, you must defeat the enemies will to fight. Ralph Peters must have read Sherman's book on war.

War is an ugly, bloody business. However, we in the West choose to fight wars today in such a fashion as to make them neither ugly nor bloody. In so doing we don’t destroy the enemy’s ability or will to fight. In fact we do just the opposite, we embolden the enemy; we give them hope that victory is possible if not probable.

We have fought the war in Iraq and Afghanistan just this way, afraid to kill the enemy and destroy his will to fight. At one point the Secretary of Defense would not allow U.S. troops to use tanks in cities for fear that we might traumatize the citizens. About two years ago we had Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia surrounded in a mosque and accompanying graveyard and let them go.

If President Harry Truman had fought WW II this way we would have fought the Japanese from island to island and village to village for years beyond 1945. It was estimated that hundreds of thousands of additional U.S. soldiers, marines and sailors would have died and possibly millions of Japanese. Instead Truman fought the “hard war” and dropped the atomic bombs.

Because we have not fought the “hard war” in Iraq thousands, maybe tens of thousands, more Iraqis have probably died. Hundreds, if not thousands, of additional U.S. troops have probably died. And the war continues to sludge on with no end in sight and the American people losing their will to fight.

There is a lot of room between Sherman’s scorched earth policy and Truman’s a-bomb. But if we continue to dodge the “hard war” we will be face with more war.

(William T. Sherman’s statement to the Mayor and councilmen of Atlanta when they asked for mercy: http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/sherman/sherman-to-burn-atlanta.html)

Byron Wooten

My link to Sherman's statement to the Mayor and councilmen of Atlanta does not work, so here is his statement:

HEADQUARTERS MILITARY DIVISION of the MISSISSIPPI in the FIELD
Atlanta, Georgia,
James M. Calhoun, Mayor,
E.E. Rawson and S.C. Wells, representing City Council of Atlanta.

Gentleman: I have your letter of the 11th, in the nature of a petition to revoke my orders removing all the inhabitants from Atlanta. I have read it carefully, and give full credit to your statements of distress that will be occasioned, and yet shall not revoke my orders, because they were not designed to meet the humanities of the cause, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest. We must have peace, not only at Atlanta, but in all America. To secure this, we must stop the war that now desolates our once happy and favored country. To stop war, we must defeat the rebel armies which are arrayed against the laws and Constitution that all must respect and obey. To defeat those armies, we must prepare the way to reach them in their recesses, provided with the arms and instruments which enable us to accomplish our purpose. Now, I know the vindictive nature of our enemy, that we may have many years of military operations from this quarter; and, therefore, deem it wise and prudent to prepare in time. The use of Atlanta for warlike purposes in inconsistent with its character as a home for families. There will be no manufacturers, commerce, or agriculture here, for the maintenance of families, and sooner or later want will compel the inhabitants to go. Why not go now, when all the arrangements are completed for the transfer, instead of waiting till the plunging shot of contending armies will renew the scenes of the past month? Of course, I do not apprehend any such things at this moment, but you do not suppose this army will be here until the war is over. I cannot discuss this subject with you fairly, because I cannot impart to you what we propose to do, but I assert that our military plans make it necessary for the inhabitants to go away, and I can only renew my offer of services to make their exodus in any direction as easy and comfortable as possible.

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling. This feeling assumes various shapes, but always comes back to that of Union. Once admit the Union, once more acknowledge the authority of the national Government, and, instead of devoting your houses and streets and roads to the dread uses of war, I and this army become at once your protectors and supporters, shielding you from danger, let it come from what quarter it may. I know that a few individuals cannot resist a torrent of error and passion, such as swept the South into rebellion, but you can point out, so that we may know those who desire a government, and those who insist on war and its desolation.

You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.

We don't want your Negroes, or your horses, or your lands, or any thing you have, but we do want and will have a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and if it involved the destruction of your improvements, we cannot help it.

You have heretofore read public sentiment in your newspapers, that live by falsehood and excitement; and the quicker you seek for truth in other quarters, the better. I repeat then that, bu the original compact of government, the United States had certain rights in Georgia, which have never been relinquished and never will be; that the South began the war by seizing forts, arsenals, mints, custom-houses, etc., etc., long before Mr. Lincoln was installed, and before the South had one jot or title of provocation. I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, hundreds and thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi, we fed thousands and thousands of the families of rebel soldiers left on our hands, and whom we could not see starve. Now that war comes to you, you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes, and under the Government of their inheritance. But these comparisons are idle. I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect an early success.

But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for any thing. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.

Now you must go, and take with you the old and feeble, feed and nurse them, and build for them, in more quiet places, proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down, and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes in Atlanta. Yours in haste,

W.T. Sherman, Major-General commanding

Roberto Rivera

Sherman fought an unjust war. Truman's decision to drop the bomb was, again, unjust. Wars must be fought for just reasons (jus ad bellum) and by just means (jus in bello). Sure, "taking off the gloves" and fighting "hard wars" is easier, or, at least less complicated. And, in the case of wars against against an existential threat, such as the former Soviet Union or the Third Reich, the impulse is understandable. Not justifiable, mind you (the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo were war crimes and had we lost, as Curtis LeMay acknowledged, he expected to be charged with such for the latter) but understandable.

But, overblown rhetoric -- not from you, Byron, to be sure -- notwithstanding, we face no such threat in Iraq. I, as you can probably guess, don't believe that the invasion of Iraq was justified as a matter of national security, much less as a just war. To now lament our failure to wage total war against Iraqi civilians, which is what would Peters' "ruthlessness" would amount to, is to lament our failure to compound one already substantial moral error with an even bigger one.

Sherman was right about one thing: war is hell, which is why the decision to wage it should be taken only as a last resort. Or, as someone whom I suspect is closer to your heart, Robert E. Lee said: "It is well that war is so terrible -- lest we should grow too fond of it."

Jason Taylor

Robert, I hope you don't mean by existential that only a war fought to prevent the political extinction of the Republic can be just. Because that would imply that the Republic is important enough to fight for but it's citizens aren't. Terrorists certainly are an existential threat to individual citizens, and a government that does not protect it's citizens is not doing it's duty. That is not a point of pro-iraq or anti. It is a point that saying only "existential threats" are worth fighting for comes out in strict logic as an insult to human dignity.

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