Tuesday, March 3, 2020
The other way to lose a war
Rod Dreher on the U.S. deal with the Taliban to withdraw, at long last, from Afghanistan. He writes: “The Taliban whipped… the United States… We simply could not prevail. The richest and most powerful nation in the world could not beat these SOBs.” Well, that’s obviously not true in the usual sense of words like “whipped” and “beat.” Suppose you effortlessly beat me to a bloody pulp and I fall to the ground, desperately panting for air and barely conscious. You put your boot on my neck and demand that I cry “Uncle.” I refuse, despite your repeated kicks to the gut, and after fifteen minutes or so of this you get bored and walk away. It would be quite absurd if, wiping the blood off my face and pulling myself up to my wobbling knees, I proudly exclaim: “Did you see how I whipped that guy?”
But of course, I know what Dreher means, and he’s not wrong. One way to lose a war is militarily. The U.S. did not lose the war in Afghanistan in that sense. Indeed, it’s very hard for the U.S. to lose wars in that sense. The other way to lose a war, however, is to define “victory” in so ambitious – and ultimately non-military – a way that military success becomes irrelevant. If you establish before our fistfight begins that you will only count yourself to have defeated me if you get me to say the word “Uncle,” then as long as I refuse to do that, you will have lost, no matter how badly you beat me up and indeed even if you kill me.
The trouble with the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that “victory” was widely conceived of on the World War II model – unconditional surrender followed by the radical reconstruction of the enemy’s social, political, and economic orders along the victor’s preferred lines. Elizabeth Anscombe famously argued (in her essay “Mr. Truman’s Degree”) that that was not a reasonable standard even in the case of World War II. It was certainly not a reasonable standard in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Those should have been conceived of from the start as punitive strikes rather than Wilsonian crusades. Replacing the wicked leaders of these countries was justifiable in principle, but the goal should have been “something less bad” rather than an approximation of American capitalist liberal democracy.
Some critics like to chalk up prolonged American engagement in places like Afghanistan and Iraq to warmongering or realpolitik or some other sinister motivation. In my opinion, that is the reverse of the truth. The fault of those who advocate such engagement isn’t worldly cynicism, but otherworldly idealism.
Here we might draw a comparison with the problem Anscombe was addressing. She rightly condemned as intrinsically evil the World War II policy of massacring civilian populations so as to compel enemy governments to capitulate. But she also laid the blame for this policy at the feet of an attitude that is also evil, but is widely regarded as good: pacifism. The pacifist foolishly condemns all killing as such, and therefore all war as unjust. This is an error, and a grave one because it is utterly impracticable, and trying to implement it would lead to the widespread oppression and killing of the innocent.
When pacifism is widely admired, however, those who nevertheless reject it as impracticable conclude that doing what is good is impracticable and that it is practically unavoidable to do evil. That is to say, they conclude that all killing is wrong but that we nevertheless have to do this sort of wrong in order to resist oppressors and killers. And then the sky is the limit. Such people will go on to conclude that if killing enormous numbers of innocent people is necessary in order to realize some aim they judge to be good (such as securing the unconditional surrender of the enemy) then this is what should be done. Hence Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, etc.
In Anscombe’s view, then, pacifism thereby leads to more rather than less killing of the innocent. It is held up as a noble ideal when in fact it is simply a grave moral error that has obscene unintended consequences. The correct attitude is to recognize the natural law principle that it is only the intentional killing of the innocent, rather than all killing as such, that is morally wrong, and then to formulate principles to guide us in determining the conditions under which the killing of evildoers is called for, the means by which this might legitimately be done, the circumstances when risk of unintended civilian deaths can be justified by double effect, and so forth. That is what traditional just war theory does.
Now, what I want to suggest is that there is an analogous error in too much modern American thinking about matters of war. The idea seems to be that war is such an obscenity that only a grandiose end can justify it. On this view, merely repelling an aggressor or deterring his future evildoing is not good enough. The endgame must always involve tyrants being overthrown, oppression banished, happy voters standing in queue, children dancing in the streets, etc. Hence, when we see that some particular war is indeed necessary, the tendency is to try to turn it into a World War II style liberation and reconstruction.
Part of the problem with this is that realizing a grandiose end tends to require far more killing than is necessary for a more limited aim – and the more unrealistic and therefore unattainable the grandiose end is, the more ultimately pointless is the killing. Another problem is that even a crushing military victory comes to seem ultimately like a defeat as long as the grandiose end remains unrealized. Hence military engagement becomes interminable. “If we leave before the job is done [i.e. the enemy’s country looks more like an American-style democracy and market economy] it will all have been for nothing!”
The pacifist would outlaw all war, whereas the Wilsonian would pursue “war to end all wars.” The first is utopian about means, the second is utopian about ends. And both only end up making wars more common and longer and bloodier than they need to be.