August 2007

The second pro-war article from City Journal is an angry piece titled The Peace Racket. Primarily a rant against peace studies in academia (one of the supreme bugbears for the militarist right), it is led off by this singular howler, which sets the tone for the rest of the article, and is indeed an apt summation of the propoganda peddled- and for all I know, genuinely believed- by the militarist right:

Call it the Peace Racket.

We need to make two points about this [peace] movement at the outset. First, it’s opposed to every value that the West stands for—liberty, free markets, individualism—and it despises America, the supreme symbol and defender of those values. Second, we’re talking not about a bunch of naive Quakers but about a movement of savvy, ambitious professionals that is already comfortably ensconced at the United Nations, in the European Union, and in many nongovernmental organizations.

Oh my. The Commies are back, citizen, and they’ve infiltrated every level of power! All these people who pretend to be outraged over American militarism and imperialism- they want to take your Big Macs and send you to the gulag, which will be run by bloodthirsty Muslim fanatics no doubt. How do you recognize these vile beasts, these Reds masquerading as peace-makers? They say nasty things about our Lord and Saviour, the United States of America. They protest the wars of our holy and sovereign State! They suggest that things aren’t as simple as rightist propoganda makes it out to be- they suggest listening to and understanding other cultures, as opposed to bombing them and thus liberating them. In short, they are wretched subversives, each and everyone, and while we can’t lock them up- that would cause some problems in public relations- we should do our best to combat them with all available means. We should also hold steady, keep the course, fifty years on, and all that.

But doesn’t the author have a point- aren’t many of the peace activists on the left lovers of totalitarianism? I don’t doubt it- the majority of leftists have been in bed with statist authoritarianism for years. Of course, even proving that all opponents of American militarism were secret Commies wouldn’t be an automatic invalidation of their claims- but propoganda is rarely concerned with the niceties of logical argument. Still, let us propose for a minute that all leftist peace activists are secret totalitarians, just waiting for their chance to launch a new Cultural Revolution. There are still- wonder of wonders- non-authoritarian, non-leftist even, opponents of American- and otherwise- imperialism and militarism and so forth. There are people who actually, genuinely believe that “war is the health of the State,” and that the State is very often the true and most powerful enemy of such things as free markets, liberty, and individualism. There are “peaceniks” who value peace and non-interventionism, not because they hate liberty, but because they love it, and see through the thin propoganda of war-mongering rightists (and leftists).

Speaking of which, the following is an excerpt from an article exemplifying the logic of this libertarian branch of the “Peace Racket”- logic one very much hopes many more on the right (and left!) will come to embrace:

 Thus, libertarians who embrace the U.S. foreign policy that has held our nation in its grip for so long have one of the most important decisions of their lives confronting them. By hewing to two contradictory philosophies — one of freedom and one that destroys freedom — circumstances have now placed them in a moral and philosophical quandary. Will they continue hewing to a pro-empire, pro-intervention foreign policy, thereby giving up all hope of a free society at home? Or will they choose to maintain their commitment to libertarianism here in America, which means rejecting an imperial, interventionist foreign policy? Or will they simply act as if no choice at all now confronts them?

Empire or Freedom?

Via Arts & Letters, two articles on City Journal came to my attention, both- one explicitly, one somewhat less so- extolling the virtues of war against the naysaying of ignorant and probably subversive peaceniks. I shall deal with one below, and, Lord willing, examine the other later this week.

First, Victor David Hanson describes in Why Study War? the lack of knowledge about things military amongst college students- and most other Americans for that matter. He spends a considerably amount of time detailing a percieved lack of attention in academia to war: as proof he offers the dearth of military historians in contemporary academia. Herein lies my first quibble. Being a college student, and a student of history at that, I have spent a little time in and around academia listening to peopel talk about history and reading book after book about history. My particular area of interest is things medieval: which means a great deal of war, and a great deal of religion. My library- which includes some quite contemporary titles amongst the older dustier ones- has plenty of volumes overflowing with gore and battle. My classes- albiet so far mostly at a small private, more-conservative-than-many college- have had a great bit of battle and bloodshed, and I have spent many enjoyable hours discussing long-gone military campaings with both my professors and fellow students.

Perhaps my experience is the exception; perhaps modern academia really has insulated itself from the real world of combat and warfare. However, I doubt whether this is Mr Hanson’s true concern- rather, as he reveals further into his article, it isn’t that academia ignores warfare, but it doesn’t talk about it correctly. He complains of the focus by historians on silly things like Japanese internment camps, refugee issues, and gender and race roles in war. Such things distract from the real business of military history, which should, as we gather later in the article, be concerned merely with winning wars for the right side, and encouraging the citizens of the republic in their support of war. If historians keep up the business of looking deeper into war and its consequences they will probably only discourage the war-planners. Moving into the heart of the article- where Mr Hanson lays forth what we would be learning from military history, were we to study it- we are treated to the following gem:

Affluent Western societies have often proved reluctant to use force to prevent greater future violence. “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things,” observed the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. “The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.”

No examples of these affluent societies are given- perhaps we are meant to think of those degenerate Swiss in their mountain hideouts eating chocolate and eschewing taking up the White Man’s Burden? One is hard pressed to think of modern Western nations who have ever expressed a great deal of genuine reservation towards massive displays of force against their neighbors, their own people, and the rest of the world.

Hanson continues with the tired attempt at linking the current occupation of Iraq to World War II- the good war, don’t you know- and mouthing off platitudes about appeasement and such. It would seem that the only lessons we are to draw from the study of military history are militaristic ones, that we must go steady on, fight for our noble cause, and never ever give into appeasement. That there may be other lessons to draw from the study of human conflict does not show up on the campaign map. Yet I could think of a few, drawing upon conflicts and sources I do not think Mr Hanson could have any trouble with. From the story of Xenophon and his Ten Thousand- one of my favorites- we should have easily drawn the lesson that regime change in Mesopotamia isn’t as easy as the war salesmen make it, and one should always, always have a good exit strategy. Failing that, you’d best pray the gods you have a Xenophon or two on hand. Dusty old Thucydides could have told us a great deal about democracies that play at empire, and how real wars are much more ambiguous than good guys versus bad guys (sometimes so ambiguous one gets a headache trying to keep all the alliances and turn abouts straight). Herodotus, besides illuminating us on how Egyptian cats immolate themselves on occasion, has a great deal to say about pre-emptive wars of conquest, and how scrappy seemingly dissunited and even downright obscurantist peoples can be in the face of invasion and occupation. I could continue, up to the most recent conflicts. One should learn from Thucydides at the very beginning that war is hardly the moralistic force Mr Hanson seems to think of it- the reality is far messier and less romantic. One may also learn that the best course for the average citizen in dealing with war is to look carefully into the mass of propoganda and claims and fervor that accompanies any war, and try to discern the truth behind the conflict.

Mr Hanson does pen one line of exceeding veracity:

Some men will always prefer war to peace; and other men, we who have learned from the past, have a moral obligation to stop them.

Indeed. And since, as history teaches us, those amongst us who prefer war usually cloak their violence in appeals to freedom, nation-state, religion, pride, democracy, destiny, and heaven knows what else, it is our duty to see through the fog of war they weave, and stop them, if possible, before the bullets start flying. History hardly teaches us utter pacificism- but it isn’t really pacificism the war-mongerers- right and left, by the way- have issue with, as it’s hardly a major force in the world. Their issue is with people who’d rather not stage bloody revolutions, or subdue the natives, or spread democracy- or communism or whatever- at the point of the gun (for, as should be evident from the simplest perusal of their propoganda through the past hundred plus years, rightists and leftists diverge but little in their worship of the gun barrel). A proper study of history and its all too numerous wars teaches us the horror of war, and hence the advisability, from merely a pragmatic point, of eschewing all but defensive war. History also teaches us that one rarely needs to incite people to the defense of their homelands; it is rather more difficult to convince the average person that it is in his interest to fight and conquer an unknown people five thousand miles away, for what and for whom he never really knows.  

Mr. Tanimoto, fearful for his family and church, at first ran toward them by the shortest route, along Koi Highway. He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of the pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patters- of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos. Many, although injured themselves, supported relatives who were worse off. Almost had their heads bowed, looked straight ahead, were silent, and showed no expression whatever.

John Hersey, Hiroshima

On debunking the justifications for the use of the atomic bomb: Remembering Hiroshima, via

Today is, unfortunately, not merely occasion for remembering the callous destruction of a city and its people in the recent past; it should also be occasion to stiffen our resolve against present-day leaders who would just as readily employ the same brutal weapons again.

A decade or so before his death, Leo Tolstoy completed a novella (published posthumously however) derived in part from his experiences in the Russian military during Russia’s drive to conquer the various predominately Muslim tribesmen of the North Caucasus region. Titled Hadji Murad (available here for free if you don’t mind reading long on-line texts) after its protagonist, the story is tightly crafted and reflective of a mature novelist- for despite its brevity, Tolstoy manages to construct, a la War and Peace, a number of stories within the overall narrative, with several developed characters whose lives all, in some way or another, intersect with that of Hadji Murad. Hadji Murad himself is a Chechen warrior whose varying fortunes and clashes lead him to fight other Caucasus factions, then the Russian invaders, before aligning himself tenuously with the Russians in an ultimately tragic bid to save his family from a powerful Chechen imam.

While Tolstoy is careful to offer little interpretative commentary within the story, his sympathies quite clearly lie with Hadji Murad first, then the Chechen people, and finally the conscripted Russian soldiers sent into the war. The closest he comes to outright moral proclamation within the narrative itself lies in his subtle and not-so-subtle digs at Russian- and by extension, Western- society are quite evident as he describes the moral habits- or lack thereof- of various levels of Russian society, culminating in a deliciously scathing portrayal of Czar Nicholas:

Although the plan of a gradual advance into the enemy’s territory by means of felling forests and destroying the food supplies was Ermolov’s and Velyaminov’s plan, and was quite contrary to Nicholas’s own plan of seizing Shamil’s place of residence and destroying that nest of robbers — which was the plan on which the dargo expedition in 1845 (that cost so many lives) had been undertaken — Nicholas nevertheless attributed to himself also the plan of a slow advance and a systematic felling of forests and devastation of the country. It would seem that to believe the plan of a slow movement by felling forests and destroying food supplies to have been his own would have necessitated hiding the fact that he had insisted on quite contrary operations in 1845.

But he did not hide it and was proud of the plan of the 1845 expedition as well as of the plan of a slow advance — though the two were obviously contrary to one another. Continual brazen flattery from everybody round him in the teeth of obvious facts had brought him to such a state that he no longer saw his own inconsistencies or measured his actions and words by reality, logic, or even simple common sense; but was quite convinced that all his orders, however senseless, unjust, and mutually contradictory they might be, became reasonable, just, and mutually accordant simply because he gave them.

Tolstoy’s depiction of Islamic society is generally sympathetic and carries very little “Orientalistic” baggage; there is a sense of determinism throughout, but this is perhaps as much for Tolstoy an aspect of history in general as it is a mirror of “Oriental fatalism.” One of the strengths of the book lies in its depection of Chechnya and the war there as being complex, consisting of all sorts of cross-currents, as subject to change as the people making them up- an element that in some ways struggles with the theme of tragic determination. While it’s rather cliche to speak of contemporary relevance, it’s also hard not to notice it: the present conflicts raging in various parts of the Islamic world- including Chechnya- are multi-faceted, tragic affairs. Hadji Murad presents, on one level, a “clash” of East and West: but Tolstoy is far to insightful to imagine even a morally neutral clash of civilisations. Instead, he presents clashes within civilisations, across cultural lines, alongside bonds formed across cultures, as in the friendship formed between Murad and a Russian soldier, Butler:

With the arrival of Hadji Murad and his close acquaintance with him and his murids, Butler was even more captivated by the poetry of the peculiar, vigorous life led by the mountaineers. He got himself a jacket, cherkeska and leggings, and he felt he was a mountaineer too, living the same life as these people.

The narrative structure of the novel itself reflects the complexity of reality in the Caucasus: people, groups, and conflicts all collide, collude, and collide again. Certainly, Tolstoy rejects the Russian imperial project, but he does not pretend the Chechens are immaculate, quietist victims of imperialism, or even noble militant resistors of an unjust war against them. Instead a wide range of motives, tactics, and ideologies inhere in the various peoples making up the cast of Muslim characters. Yet despite a recognition of complexity, Hadji Murad emerges as a hero- a tragic (in the proper sense of the word) and flawed hero, but still a hero, struggling against fate in a convoluted world. And Tolstoy’s stance towards war is equally evident, as in this scene that comes in an interluding vignette describing the Russian campaign of “pacification”:

Sado and his family had left the aoul on the approach of the Russian detachment, and when he returned he found his saklya in ruins — the roof fallen in, the door and the posts supporting the penthouse burned, and the interior filthy. His son, the handsome bright-eyed boy who had gazed with such ecstasy at Hadji Murad, was brought dead to the mosque on a horse covered with a barka; he had been stabbed in the back with a bayonet. The dignified woman who had served Hadji Murad when he was at the house now stood over her son’s body, her smock torn in front, her withered old breasts exposed, her hair down, and she dug her hails into her face till it bled, and wailed incessantly.

Sado, taking a pick-axe and spade, had gone with his relatives to dig a grave for his son. The old grandfather sat by the wall of the ruined saklya cutting a stick and gazing stolidly in front of him. He had only just returned from the apiary. The two stacks of hay there had been burnt, the apricot and cherry trees he had planted and reared were broken and scorched, and worse still all the beehives and bees had been burnt. The wailing of the women and the little children, who cried with their mothers, mingled with the lowing of the hungry cattle for whom there was no food. The bigger children, instead of playing, followed their elders with frightened eyes. The fountain was polluted, evidently on purpose, so that the water could not be used. The mosque was polluted in the same way, and the Mullah and his assistants were cleaning it out.

Poor Mr Obama, having been assailed by Madame Clinton recently and accused of being “soft” or something on terrorism or rogue states or whatever, wants the world to know he is just as ready and willing to carry out destructive military policies as anyone else running around Washington:

Obama warns over Pakistan strike

In his speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, Mr Obama said General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, must do more to end terrorist operations in his country.

If not, Pakistan would risk a troop invasion and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars of US aid during an Obama presidency, the candidate said.

Silly Musharraf- why can’t he just press a button and kick all those nasty Al-Qaeda people out- I mean, look at how quickly the US expelled them from Iraq! But since he clearly doesn’t want to anything construtctive, a new war (a new war would be fun, and an opportunity for new choices and new leaders and just general newness, which Mr Obama knows a great deal about) is probably in order. Of course, an invasion of Pakistan would go far better than the invasion of Iraq, because there aren’t that many people in Pakistan, right? And they don’t have any of those Shia people there, surely? Well, at any rate, they DO have WMD’s, and we should probably do something about that. And those madrasas- we should close them and teach them to love and drive eco-friendly vehicles.