Inconvenient truths from Henry Allen:
The United States doesn’t fight for land, resources, hatred, revenge, tribute, religious conversion — the usual stuff. Along with the occasional barrel of oil, we fight for virtue.
Never mind that it doesn’t work out — the Gulf of Tonkin lies, Agent Orange, waterboarding, nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the pointless horrors of Abu Ghraib, a fighter plane wiping out an Afghan wedding party, our explanation of civilian deaths as an abstraction: “collateral damage.”
Just so. We talk about our warmaking as if it were a therapeutic science — surgical strikes, precision bombing, graduated responses, a homeopathic treatment that uses war to cure us of war. “Like cures like,” as the homeopathic slogan has it; “the war to end all wars” as Woodrow Wilson is believed to have said of World War I. We send out our patient bombers in the manner of piling on blankets to break a child’s fever. We launch our missiles and say: “We’re doing it for your own good.”
After World War II, I was taught in school that humankind, especially Americans, hate war and love peace. The United Nations rose on New York’s East River, a foundry beating swords into plowshares. We renamed the Department of War as the Department of Defense. We had Atoms for Peace, CARE packages, UNICEF boxes at Halloween and the Berlin Airlift instead of a war against the Soviet Union.
The problem here is that humankind doesn’t hate war, it loves war. That’s why it fights so many of them. The New England Indians were so devoted to fighting each other that they couldn’t unite to drive the European settlers into the sea in King Philip’s War.
What better explains all of recorded history with its atrocity, conquest, pillage and extermination? Our love of war is the problem. War is an addiction, maybe a disease, the chronic autoimmune disease of humanity. It erupts, it subsides, but it’s always there, waiting to cripple and kill us. The best we can do is hope to keep it in remission.
And yet Americans still believe in the idea of the good and virtuous war. It scratches our Calvinist itch; it proves our election to blessedness.
Thus God is on our side. Strangely enough, though, we keep losing. Since World War II, we have failed to win any land war that lasted more than a week: Korea (a stalemate), Vietnam, little ones like Lebanon and Somalia, bigger ones like Iraq and Afghanistan. Ah, but these were all intended to be good wars, saving people from themselves.
The latest target of opportunity for our patient bombers is Syria. The purity of our motives is unassailable. We would fire our missiles only to punish sin, this time in the form of poison gas. No land grab, no oil, not even an attempt to install democracy.
Oscar Wilde said: “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” He didn’t foresee a United States that would regard war as virtuous.
What a dangerous idea it is.
You don’t have to be a pacifist to squirm at this observation. I suppose it is partially to our credit, if we fight for virtue rather than more mundane interests, and yet could it be an even worse motive? Since perfect goodness is unattainable on earth, is this a formula for never-ending warfare? Might a war over some traditional cause, such as a territorial dispute, be more moral than a war over an ideal? At least the territorial dispute would have a finite goal and everyone would know when it was over.
Most anti-war writing ascribes sinister hidden motives to our going to war–it’s the fault of big corporations! it’s all about oil!–but what if our motives are what they are advertised? If so, is it a commendable idealism or a flawed legalism that keeps getting us into so much trouble?
Another problem is the classic dilemma of means vs. ends. Our ends are noble, but warfare is intrinsically brutal. So the ends are made to justify the means. That is a formula for guilt and cynicism, which have characterized the aftermath of virtually all of our wars.
Defensive wars would escape Mr. Allen’s criticism. But does he have a point? Or is our habit of fighting wars for moral principles a good thing in ways that he is missing?