Thursday, October 27, 2005

An Answer

From a debate in another place.

I don’t expect you to accept this answer, but it is nonetheless an honest one. You ask why war is a possible path to social change, and I’ll tell you why, in some situations, I think it is — though it always is a tragedy.

If you look at it historically, going to war seems like going down a rat hole. You go in one place, and no matter what you intend, you always come out somewhere else.

A quibble with the Mother Country over a petty tax of three pence a pound on tea becomes the birth of a nation. A boundary dispute with Mexico over a few square miles of Texas scrub becomes a land-grab of a third of a continent and keeps the valuable port of San Francisco from defaulting to British hands. A dispute with Germany over unrestricted submarine warfare and spies in Mexico becomes “making the world safe for democracy.”

But in each case, the goals got bigger, and broader. Sometimes it was military necessity that forced the American leaders to take the higher ground — Lincoln and Wilson. Nonetheless, once they were driven up to it, they made a stand for it, imperfectly.

It’s also true that the shock of a war can unleash pent up forces in a society. As it has in Iraq, and, in ripples, across the Islamic world. Some of them very destructive, but some of them potentially great.

To shift metaphors, going to war is like the break shot that opens a pool game. You can't entirely foresee the outcome, but some vectors are predictable.

This also, incidentally, is one reason I care very little why George W. Bush went to war. I am sure his mix of motives was different than mine, and included some unsavory elements. But once the battles begin, it’s out of his hands, too. He’s as much forced by circumstances as any of the rest of us. And if it drives him out of selfish isolationism and towards nation-building and democracy promotion, I say great!

What seems, after the fact, to be the great justification for a war turns out to be something that did not figure among the stated reasons for starting it. Study World War II today and you’ll get a big unit on the Holocaust. How odd, then, to discover it played no part in the justification for the war at the time. Lincoln freed the slaves. But the American Civil War began as an constitutional chess match and an attempt to enforce U.S. authority in certain forts and arsenals, and to collect the tariff in Southern ports. Lincoln publicly disavowed any intention to free a single slave.

Now of course, all these ultimate outcomes were in the minds of somebody somewhere at the time the wars began. There are some crafty pool players out there. Many abolitionists, even among the pacifist Quakers, let Lincoln go on with his rhetoric about not wanting to free blacks and intending to protect slavery where it existed. They understood — and I have read their letters — that once the tug of war began, the only way out for the administration was to end slavery and subvert the South by stealing its labor force.

Certainly, too, the more radical American revolutionaries were angling for independence from the first bullet. But to draw the bulk of the country they needed to hold John Dickinson and the other moderates on the platform by making a general appeal to the rights of British citizens (as most Americans still felt themselves to be).

It’s an awful risk, and a terrible price to pay, whether it turns out well or not. It ought to be a tool of last resort, a crappy choice among crappier alternatives. You can argue whether the U.N. options had been exhausted with reference to Iraq in 2003 (though, for me, that was decided when the French rejected an American compromise proposal before Saddam did, and has been bolstered by subsequent oil-for-food revelations).

You may call that a hideous sort of optimism. For me, I’ll agree with Churchill; yes, I am an optimist, "it does not seem to be much use being anything else.”

UPDATE: And here's the response it got:

Typical pro-war reponse. You never have a figure as to how many are dead, it’s always just “not that many.” This study says 100,000. If its several tens of thousands instead, then that’s still an atrocity.
We could have threatened to reduce our oil imports from them unless Saddam changed his ways. We could have demanded that human rights inspectors be given access. We could have sent food and medicine to help prevent unnecessary deaths. We could have raised it as an issue at all, but we didn’t.
Get real? Stop acting like people aren’t getting tortured and killed right now, and then tell me to get real. And especially stop talking about people getting fed to tigers.

I've ended the conversation on that note.

UPDATE: See additional information in comments.