Perpetual War and Moral Cost: Notes in Response to Dan Drezner

August 26, 2010

So when I came back to this blogging thing I told myself I was going to try to talk about things like literature, culture, and society, and instead I’m rattling off consecutive posts about war and language and torture.  (Which is basically the same thing that happened when I first began.)  But Drezner got all thought-provoking and wants to hear what twenty-somethings think about intervention:

“As I think about it, here are the Millennials’ foundational foreign policy experiences:

1)  An early childhood of peace and prosperity — a.k.a., the Nineties;

2)  The September 11th attacks;

3)  Two Very Long Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq;

4)  One Financial Panic/Great Recession;

5)  The ascent of China under the shadow of U.S. hegemony.

From these experiences, I would have to conclude that this generation should be anti-interventionist to the point of isolationism.”

Since I qualify, and since I think this might help make further sense of why I’ve spent the last 48 hours complaining about the rhetoric of a WSJ op-ed and Commentary blog post, I’ll take a stab at it before moving on to talk about “culture” (whatever that is).

First, though, I have to take issue with the sequence/narrative Drezner is offering.  It’s not quite so simple as (1) interrupted by (2) resulting in (3) followed by/resulting in (take your pick, I suppose) (4) and (5).  (China, in fact, I don’t think is a major consideration for many people my age—at most, it is a subsidiary of economic concerns, distant thoughts about debt and what things will be like when we are our parents’ age.)

(1) “An early childhood of peace and prosperity – a.k.a., the Nineties” did not exist in quite this formulation.  Yes, there was something of “peace and prosperity,” but it wasn’t outright peace, and it wasn’t outright war.  One of my earliest memories if of Peter Jennings announcing, I believe, the end of the Gulf War as we were sitting at the dinner table.  (I asked why we were fighting, and my father told me it was because the bad guys had gone into Kuwait to steal their money and food.  I was three.)  But it was a childhood not of “peace and prosperity,” but of prosperity and more or less successful humanitarian intervention.  I knew the Gulf War, and the Balkans, and saw Clinton take an active role in the Israel-Palestine peace process—and, in the way it was seen by those around me, come within a half-inch of success.  (I didn’t know from Somalia until Black Hawk Down was released.)

(2) “The September 11th attack” – yes, this broke, dispelled, shattered, the relative (albeit semi-militarized) calm of (1).

(3) “Two Very Long Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq”

How are we to understand this not as a misadventure in itself, but in relation to those early foreign policy lessons from (1)?  I opposed the Iraq War, but was a believer in what, for better or worse, we’ll call the Clinton foreign policy.  Iraq and Afghanistan undermined two important premises of both the Clinton and Bush-43 foreign policies: that “winning” can be easily measured, and that the populace of the intervened country want us there, and to win.  (The latter has been shown to not necessarily be the case—certainly some, perhaps many, do want us in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a vocal and sometimes violent segment do not.  How many times did we hear about this in the Balkans?)

But there was a third premise underlying the limited intervention of the 1990s: the feeling of an obligation to intervene, and to win—because, in short, we were The Good Guys.  Iraq and Afghanistan can’t disprove a sense of moral obligation to do something—even if they can indicate that full-on invasion is not the answer.  Let’s go back, briefly, to 2003, even with the hindsight of 2010: does an opposition to invading Iraq also require that one believe we should abandon enforcing no-fly zones, or risk incoherence?  I don’t think we can say this is a clear yes.

And this, perhaps, might explain the number of commenters on Drezner’s post saying that the lesson is not to be anti-intervention, but to be in favor of “smart intervention”—which I take to be something like the Clinton policy, perhaps more cautious.  It might also explain the number of my friends who have adamantly opposed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet have expressed a desire to see American military intervention of some sort in response to Darfur.  The key words in this scenario are generally “air support” without any commitment of American ground troops—that’s what the UN is for.  I’ll admit—at one point, thinking of how we essentially deposed Milosevic using only the Air Force, this was my line of thought.

But why is it no longer my line of thought?  It is not related especially to (4) The Great Recession, because even if you view this as a result of Iraq/Afghanistan/our broader foreign policy, I don’t think it necessitates that you oppose “smart intervention.” Seeing the entanglement of our economic/fiscal future with long-term, large-scale occupations, I think precisely that is what people will tend to oppose—perhaps a wider range of intervention, but judging from my non-scientific friend and peer group, I doubt it.

What has turned me into, in some degree, an anti-interventionist, is the realization of the moral cost of war, especially prolonged war (or war-like states).  And, frankly, the moral cost is lost in schemas like that which Drezner has offered.  But while we could go around in circles in perpetuity on the economic and geopolitical cost-benefit analysis of “Clinton-esque” and “Bush-43” interventionisms, we either are or are not going to agree that war—especially prolonged war—poses a danger to (take your pick) the human soul, psyche, and/or moral core.  (Don’t they teach The Things They Carried to high schoolers and college kids, like, everywhere now?  Are people completely missing the point of Tim O’Brien’s entire literary career?  That it’s an exploration of the implications of war for the ability to be human?)  And denying that there is a moral toll of war—on society as well as on soldiers—is to forget how terrible war is, and to learn to love it too much.

For me, it has been the revelation of the corruption of this Forever War: torture, hollowing of language, subversion of core rights—those are the three key elements for me, in descending order of importance.  Torture is a moral rot distinct from all others.  For the Austrian/French intellectual Jean Amery, whose essay on torture should be required reading by anyone who wants to discuss, let alone debate, the subject, “torture is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.”

When arguments are offered defending torture as an essential part of the war effort, when torture and the broader war effort are corrupting our language, and when, over the course of The Forever War, we see a steady increase in the support of torture—until most of the nation, apparently, supports it—the only response I can muster is to say it is too much.  If The Forever War feeds not just moral rot, but this breed of moral rot, then it is time to quit.  One day, I will have children, and I fear for their growing up in a nation that practices and accepts torture more than in a world where Iran has a nuclear weapon.

The revelation of torture and the vehemence of its supporters is the revelation that the United States is not inherently good, but is good only by choice.  We can choose to be bad, to make the world a worse place, and perpetual war leads us in that direction.  Humanitarian intervention may at times be justified, may at times be necessary, but as a course of policy, the “smart intervention” of the 1990s only paved the way for The Forever War of the 2010s and beyond.  I don’t know whether this makes me “anti-interventionist to the point of isolationism.”  I can only hope that my opposition to intervention would crumble in the face of an Auschwitz—it would be my moral failure were it not to.  But even a just war will not leave the soul untouched, and responding with military force to every humanitarian crisis we as a nation witness will change us at our core.  It already has.

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One Response to “Perpetual War and Moral Cost: Notes in Response to Dan Drezner”


  1. […] I wrote six months ago, but won’t better here: For me, it has been the revelation of the corruption of this Forever War: […]


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