Friday, March 21, 2008

Learning from the past

Today, Glenn Greenwald is talking about an issue that's sure to keep cropping up. People will keep saying "quit playing the blame game; let's think about how we should be going forward in Iraq, and stop worrying about how we got there!"

Well, it's not like we can't do both, you know. If you get punched in the nose by someone, you can tilt your head back and pinch your nostrils shut, and still say "that person over there punched me in the nose!" (Sure, you'll sound funny saying it with a bloody, pinched-shut nose, but you can do it.)

But more importantly, this isn't a situation where people have said "Okay, I was wrong, here, here, here, and here. I've learned my lesson, I should have done ABC instead of XYZ." A great many of the war's cheerleaders, and nearly all of those in power, are still keeping their fingers crossed, hoping they can point to something they are able to call a victory. They are hoping that they can claim they were right all along, in spite of their numerous failures.

You can't "forget about the past and focus only on the future" until the lessons of the past are learned.

Glenn also links to a really great essay by Andrew Sullivan. This is the kind of thing people need to say. If anyone wants to complain about his prior support to the war, now he can say "I've already admitted to my mistakes; can we focus on the future, please?"

It also contains an idea that I think has been most missing from both pro- and anti-war statements:
And [Saddam Hussein] was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and that unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn't really engaged in anything much but self-righteousness. I saw war's unknowable consequences far too glibly.

Glenn complains that Sullivan has a utilitarian view of warfare - it's okay to fight when the good done outweighs the harm. But in the end, that's how we make all moral decisions. The danger is when we aren't properly weighing the good and the harm.

All too often, people think of warfare as something that one must accept, as if it were a force of nature. "Sure, people will die; people die in a war, it's a shame that it happens," they'll say, and I wish I was engaging in caricature to say that many dismissed the deaths of actual human beings so callously.

They decide it's okay if people die if they're soldiers of the enemy. Maybe soldiers don't really count. Maybe they don't feel pain, maybe they don't leave behind grieving parents, spouses, children, etc.. They decide it's okay if people die so long as we try to minimize the loss of life. Because, wouldn't that matter to you, if you were being killed by a military force? Knowing that they tried to minimize casualties, but, hell, you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs?

In the end, we have to weigh our moral choices by the consequences of a failure to act, versus the consequences of our other potential actions. And if the cost of failing to act is higher, we should act. But we have to remember that the killing of other people is a huge cost, a huge consequence of our actions. Sure, it's easy to blow it off, it's easy to ignore it, if the people who are dying are far away. That is the failure of many who weigh the costs of war. They look at the costs to us, to our people, to our country. They forget the essential humanity of the other side.

And in the end, where does that leave us? In an amoral state, where the only "rule" is that might makes right.

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