Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Looking forward to Change (wearily) in 2008

The CIA agent character in Charlie Wilson's War tells the story of the Zen Master and the little boy who got a horse for his birthday (I paraphrase).
"Isn't it great?" the townspeople asked the Zen Master. "That this boy was so blessed to receive such a great gift?"

"We'll see," said the Zen Master.

A few years later the boy fell off the horse and was seriously injured.

"Isn't it terrible?" the townspeople asked the Zen Master. "That they gave this young boy a horse and now he is crippled for life?"

"We'll see," said the Zen Master.

A few years later war broke out in the region and all the young men of the nation were sent off to fight.

"Isn't it great?" the townspeople asked the Zen Master. "That this boy fell off his horse and now can't be conscripted to go off to die?

"We'll see," said the Zen Master.
I'm too much of a cynic to be able to do this without qualifying it, but too little of a cynic to stop myself altogether. The year 2008 will, hopefully, finally bring the sort of change many of us have so seriously longed for since 2003 (OK, so, for some since 2000). There are, of course, no guarantees that change will be for the better, but I seriously hope it brings a restoration of the core reasons I've been proud to be an American all these years.

Andrew Sullivan posted a letter from a young reader who explained what he/she saw as a generational gap of central philosophies about liberalism vs. conservatism and why that explained widespread support among younger people for Obama. The idea that bothered me so much that I had a dream about it was:
For example, on the invasion of Iraq, I still hear many Boomers talk about Peace v. War (as if you either supported one or the other). But I hear almost no younger people talking that way. We don't really approach the question from a grand ideological point of view ('is war good or bad?') but from a more conservative, pragmatic point of view ('is this war going to work, or not?'). Obama spoke for us when he said, very early on, that he didn't oppose all war, but he did oppose "a dumb war". Obama was moving the debate into a new era, in which people who support some wars don't have to support all wars, and people who oppose some wars don't have to oppose all wars.
I can understand where absolutism is unattractive and do find it encouraging that the younger generation is moving away from it. I do have to wonder, however, where the line gets drawn here. Take, for example, torture. Is the more conservative pragmatic point of view on torture "is this torture going to work, or not?"

Also, without a crystal ball, it's often impossible to know whether a war is "dumb" or not. I don't disagree that the Iraq war was dumb (I marched against it early and often), but if the dominoes of Democracy were falling across the Middle East today, no one would give any credence to those who warned it was dumb, so there remains a moral imperative to approach war from the point of view that it must be engaged only as last resort. It's not enough to boil the discussion down to whether or not it will "work." It remains crucial to also ask whether it's moral. Because in every war innocent people will die.

I find the last sentence of that paragraph seriously lacking in usefulness: "Obama was moving the debate into a new era, in which people who support some wars don't have to support all wars, and people who oppose some wars don't have to oppose all wars." I don't know anyone who supports all wars. If Obama meant his view to be read this way (as opposed to how I interpreted it [i.e., sometimes, regrettably, you must wage war]) he's unqualified to be President. I shudder to think of a widespread attitude that doesn't regret each and every war on some level.

I'll go out on a limb here and state I feel it's every human's obligation to hate war. In fact, I suspect the young reader, as well as Sullivan (and Obama too, if indeed that's how we're meant to interpret his comment), can only be so ambivalent about "war" in general because they've never fought in one. As Eisenhower noted, "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity." If there's a generational difference in those who oppose war for war's sake, I suspect that's because the older generation actually fought in wars.

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16 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about the first Gulf War? Nothing was learned from that by "young people" who fought in it?
I think by saying, "people who support all wars", Sullivan is alluding to people that might simply chose the war option SOONER than others.

1/01/2008 11:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

At the end of November I was at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma talking to guys who had just been redeployed from Iraq. One of them was of the opinion that the surge is working, and this is someone who was part of the surge. The idea that someone would only be ambivalent about war because he had never fought in one has at least one data point against it. I found myself explaining to him that my problem with the war lies entirely with the civilian leadership. When he goes in, I want him to destroy his appointed targets and return safely. And I mean that. He's pretty enthusiastic about that outcome too.

"Dumb" is not a bad measure of the morality of a given conflict. People dying for no recognizable purpose, as is currently happening in Iraq, is worse than people dying for a mission that might save more lives later on.

Gandhi, by the way, said that fighting a violent war is better than accepting injustice.

1/02/2008 01:16:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What about the first Gulf War? Nothing was learned from that by "young people" who fought in it?

I would assume something was. The only anecdotes I have from that war are from relatives who fought in it, none of whom are anxious to repeat their experience.

One of them was of the opinion that the surge is working, and this is someone who was part of the surge. The idea that someone would only be ambivalent about war because he had never fought in one has at least one data point against it.

I'm not sure whether that's supposed to mean he's ambivalent about or not, though. You'd need to provide information about whether he feels that's the only question of relevance here. And for the record, the question of whether the surge is working has two parts: 1) is it ebbing the violence (which it seems to be, but that would merely confirm the advice Bush ignored early on that this mission needed more troops than Rumsfeld wanted to send) and 2) whether that ebb in violence would lead to the changes Bush outlined as the reason for the surge in the first place, namely to create enough calm that benchmarks (centering on an Iraqi political settlement) could be achieved and we could eventually leave. If the second part of that is not realized, the first part is merely a break in the violence and not evidence that the surge "worked" at all actually.

"Dumb" is not a bad measure of the morality of a given conflict. People dying for no recognizable purpose, as is currently happening in Iraq, is worse than people dying for a mission that might save more lives later on.

There are other ways to define "dumb" (and the young reader seems to be focused on the definition that relates to whether or not "it will work", leaving out any assessment of right or wrong, making your conclusion separate from his and not supportive of that point). Again, though, I'll note that how dumb a war may be is only determined after the fact. If a thriving democracy was changing the Middle East from the inside today, well, even a cynic like myself would be a little less sure I was right that it was always dumb. Sullivan's total 180 on the war is another example of this. He was sure it was the right thing to do, based on pre-war rationales and only came around to criticizing it because of how poorly it was conducted, which no one could have predicted. So I don't see how determining whether a war is "dumb" or not is practical enough for this criteria to be helpful in any context but hindsight, leaving some other criteria essential to help us determine morality.

1/02/2008 08:13:00 AM  
Blogger prettylady said...

If Obama meant his view to be read this way (as opposed to how I interpreted it [i.e., sometimes, regrettably, you must wage war]) he's unqualified to be President.

Good heavens, Edward. You are obviously of the post-post-WWII generation.

Obama simplifies his message on the stump because simple, repetitive messages are remembered. Any graffiti artist knows this. If you want Obama's detailed thoughts on any issue, read his books, or go to http://www.barackobama.com/issues/.

At any rate, Edward, sometimes we must, regrettably, wage war; when our homeland is invaded, for example. And I am not talking about a single terrorist attack, I am talking about the Huns surging over the countryside, or the Japanese bombing our ports. Sometimes we must wage war when Adolf Hitler is exterminating Jews and aggressively invading, oh, Poland and France, in violation of recently signed treaties, for example.

Sometimes I think that all Americans, particularly those on the left, sincerely believe that the white Anglo Saxon Protestant male straight wealthy hegemony is inviolable; that this tiny group dispassionately chooses whether to 'wage war' or not, and that World Peace would be the inevitable result if they did not. This is an exceptionally racist and sexist attitude, because it presupposes that the belligerence, potency and initiative of non-white persons is negligible.

1/02/2008 09:44:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Good Heavens, Pretty Lady. As I interpreted Obama's remark the same way you did, it seems the person in need of reading his detailed thoughts is the Sullivan reader, no?

I'm guessing that you might be an Obama fan (as am I [although I'm leaning toward Edwards...but an Edwards-Obama ticket is something I'd love to see]) and misintepreted my assertion that he'd be unqualified to be president if the Sullivan reader's interpretation of the statement was how he (Obama) truly felt (i.e., that it's not important to consider morality in deciding whether to go to war, only whether one will win). Either way, my bad for assuming certain things were understood here.

As for your list of reasons we should go to war, I totally agree. Here I'm confused as to why you would assume otherwise.

I'm not sure who/what your last paragraph is directed at, but it seems unduly defensive for the context. Perhaps if you elaborated a bit, I'd get what you're driving at there.

1/02/2008 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Coming from the other side of the great boomer divide, I don’t think Andrew Sullivan is correctly characterizing the boomer generation, as it exists today, not in 1968. The boomer generation was seeped in three major wars, WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam. Combined, these three wars resulted in a very high death toll for American soldiers, a death toll that fortunately the war in Iraq cannot come close in approaching.[1] I would suggest that such an experience makes it easier to approach to political questions like war and frame them in grand ideological terms.

Or we could just charge it off to the folly of youth.

Today, the aging activist from the boomer generation may still frame political questions in grand ideological terms, but I would suggest that the vast majority of this generation has been chastened by the historical events of the last forty years and takes a more pragmatic view towards these questions. I do not think this is unique to the generation, but more just the normal result of the experience of life beating down youthful enthusiasm.

Every generation gets their own chance to screw things up, the thirty something’s are getting theirs.

No war is good. (idealism 101) War is an admission of the failure to negotiate a solution. Unfortunately, sometimes individuals or political groups make solutions impossible to negotiate and force is one method of coercion. (pragmatism 101)

Given that we might find cases, causes or conditions which might lead us to war, we need to be suspect, very suspect, on the how and why such a war needs to be conducted.

To frame the issue of the war in grand ideological terms is the result of advertising and the technological media revolution. Advertising sells you something you don’t want, don’t need and can’t afford by making you think it is necessary, comforting, or sexy. War is none of the above.

There is no nice war. War is by definition, brutal.

There is no cheap war. War is always more expensive in men, materials and money than the political leaders will suggest.

Suppose there was an accident and a few buildings fell down and killed a couple of thousand people (including some of my friends) Suppose I gave you one half trillion dollars, how would you spend it? To do the most good for the most people over the long haul? Or, for revenge?

[1] WWII, Korea and Vietnam resulted in approximately 425,000 US military deaths, plus…

1/02/2008 10:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

to George:

Boomers were seeped (maybe you mean steeped?) in WW11 & Korea? Exactly what birth year span are you considering to be the boomer years?

Also, if there was an "accident" causing a few buildings to fall down, who would you wreak your revenge on? Sure, sometimes shit happens, but how is comparing the 9/11 attacks to an accident helpful?

anon2000

1/02/2008 10:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed, you are awfully sensitive and defensive lately. what's going on with you?

1/02/2008 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I too was surprised to see you describe 9/11 as an "accident," George. Or is that not what you meant?

Ed, you are awfully sensitive and defensive lately. what's going on with you?

Anon, if you have a particular statement you'd like me to explain, by all means point it out and ask. I can't address your generalization though, as I don't recognize it.

1/02/2008 11:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

This soldier's feelings about war were not ambivalent - he's for it. We trained him for that, successfully. He's also a 22-year-old ass-kicker and I got the sense that he's smart enough to develop a more nuanced outlook over time. I hope I planted a seed in his brain - he had bought into the idea that the media were fueling opposition to the war and that people didn't want to see him, meaning him personally, succeed in his mission. It was nice to have the opportunity to explain that that was not the case. It was not nice to consider that we're uselessly expending American lives in Iraq and that his life could end up among the uselessly expended.

Sure, "dumb," "won't work," and "wrong" might not intersect, but I'm not sure why one would make the distinction. We might as well include "illegal," "poorly executed," and "based on fantasy" on that list. These all have to be taken into consideration when we talk about the morality of the conflict. It isn't necessarily true that we could only be certain about these things after the fact. This war is illegal according to the Constitution. Had it gone before Congress, the war might have developed a clear mission, which it has never had. This, to my mind, is its primary moral failing. We should walk away from it tonight right after dinner.

Your points about the surge are well-taken but the whole surge idea was ridiculous in the first place. This conflict is the result of mission creep from our attack on Afghanistan, which was a decent idea, to the prevention of Saddam's imminent acquisition of WMD's (which would have been a tolerable idea had it been true, and declared by Congress), to the execution of Saddam (not the worst idea, but extra-legal in the extreme), to the establishment of a unified democratic Iraq (an obviously stupid idea), to a safe Bagdhad, for which the surge appears to be making some progress, but at this point, so what? Bush fired the general who predicted correctly that democracy in Iraq, which is not the job of America in the first place, would have required a quarter million troops on the ground. The opportunity for doing lasting good there has long passed.

1/02/2008 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

This soldier's feelings about war were not ambivalent - he's for it. We trained him for that, successfully.

I think there is an important distinction to be made between being "for" fulfilling one's duty with honor and pride and being "for war," per se. I have known plenty of servicemen and women who would be very happy to serve their country and never see combat. They are not cowards, nor were they trained unsuccessfully. They simply have the intelligence to know that war should be the very last resort to any political situation because it's brutal, futile and stupid. In other words, because they paid attention in history class. That doesn't mean they won't fight with everything they've got should the nation need them to, but it does mean they will keep in mind that their mission is to end the war as quickly as possible. Not to fight it for fighting's sake.

1/02/2008 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

anon,
yeah I meant steeped.

I agree the boomer years are considered post WWII, generally starting in 1946 or so. However, WWII was a real mans war, they really killed a lot of people, blew things up, nuked cities, and just generally made a mess out of the world. If you were born at the leading edge of the boomer generation, you lived these fears and memories out.

No, I am not comparing the 911 attacks to an accident. I have a very personal relationship with the events of 911. I am suggesting that one unconsidered possibility which exists is to not respond as expected. Ultimately what matters is the longer term results from the US response, both for this country and for the world. War is a poor solution.

It should be clear now, that 911 was not a nation state act of war but that the US responded to it as if it was. Was Iraq really involved in 911 to the degree that we were told, or was making war on Iraq George Bush seeking revenge for the attack on his father?

I condemn George Bush, Dick Chaney and Donald Rumsfield for mishandling the Iraq war. After sock and paw, victory was in their grasp but they failed to seize the moment because it would have meant, a hundred or so, more deaths of US soldiers. Hubris.

1/02/2008 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

From the first comment, anon said: What about the first Gulf War? Nothing was learned from that by "young people" who fought in it?

Absolutely, nothing. It was Colin Powell who voiced the requirements for victory in the first Gulf War, overwhelming superiority. He was ignored by Rumsfield in the second, and here we are, surging. God that sounds sexy, maybe we can make it into a fragrance.

1/02/2008 11:42:00 AM  
Blogger DICK said...

I am certain as "young reader explained..." that there is a generational difference between conservative ism / liberalism. It has been said that each generation feels they invented sex. Each generation also feels they have invented liberalism...or the concept of "Good" war...or the concept of "can't we all just get along." I guess that's normal.

1/02/2008 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

I'm not sure who/what your last paragraph is directed at

Confidentially, dear Edward, I read the occasional radical feminist blog, for fun and entertainment. The attitude of 'white male can do no right, everybody else can do no wrong' is quite staggeringly and atrociously prevalent in these circles.

I, for one, believe that Blaming the Patriarchy is one of the most disempowering acts a person can commit. One may view the Patriarchy with a jaundiced eye, but disavowing that one has any personal power at all in the face of it is self-defeating, not to mention abhorrently passive-aggressive.

And indeed, I am an enormous fan of Mr. Obama, and consider him to be one of the more obviously principled and moral candidates in the race.

1/02/2008 12:44:00 PM  
Blogger Susan Constanse said...

It seems to that only time will be able to peel back the layers of subterfuge, obfuscation and misdirection that surrounds any war while it is happening. There is a very brief overview on some of the pressures that Japan experienced over a sixty-five year period that led to their attack on Pearl Harbor -

http://filebox.vt.edu/users/jearnol2/MeijiRestoration/imperial_japan.htm

I think that, as many have said, war is not something that you enter into lightly. I also think that, even with the information glut that we have at our disposal, it is almost impossible to discern when a war is justified.

My pragmatic sense tells me that war is always a losing proposition. Even if you win the war, you never recoup your expenditures. Pragmatically speaking, the only justifiable war is a defensive one.

1/02/2008 09:38:00 PM  

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