Michael Hirsh has a generally good peice in Newsweek about the series of strategic, tactical, and ethical stupidites that have constituted American involvement in Iraq. The piece allows me to make a quick point which I intended to pursue in the context of Michael Walzer's recent just-war analysis of Israel-Lebanon in The New Republic, but was too inarticulate and tired to make. Hirsh, in describing the nightly raids on Iraqi civilians by American soldiers, carried out on poor intelligence, crudely, and needlessly, in order to exemplify the failure of American commanders to correctly win the hearts and minds of civilians, a strategic error, writes:
"Like [Thomas] Ricks, The Washington Post's first-rate Pentagon correspondent, I don't really fault the soldiers on the ground for the mistakes made. These young men and women were in a hellish situation, and as warriors they performed superbly."
It seems that the general liberal critique of the Iraq war, often made not just in the name of attacking Bush, but in defense of a bold secular humanist tradition of reason and moral clarity, presents "war" or "just war" as a goal almost accomplished, but disastrously missed. These descriptions of our current conflicts in the Middle East seem to suggest that the empirical war = "war" + unfortunate aberrations, where "war" is the just war that we all want our boys and girls over there to fight. This talk, which seems to be the most level-headed around, is only a cruel and foolish form of utopianism.
If I had a large audience, and charisma that I lack, I would dedicate myself to convincing folks, any folks really, that perhaps war is the aberration itself. That we keep trying to fight this just war, and we get all these bad side effects. These side effects are nothing other than the expression of war itself. Only an absolutely unreformed idealist could argue otherwise. Where are the empirical contours of the non-aberrant war? In major newsmagazines and books mostly.
But back to the soldiers. What I really wanted to say, and this is a thing that one doesn't feel that comfortable saying, is that the heart of the problem, the heart of our continuing infatuation with the pursuit of proper war, is the sort of statement I quoted above.
If the 20th century has not taught us that following orders is a purely individual choice, and in order to maintain the very integrity of any concept of the human, we must insist that one chooses to follow orders, and is thus culpable, I don't know what further civilizational failure will teach us.
I am writing from a comfortable apartment on a nice Dell laptop. I studiously avoid violence out of fear. I certainly do not have the courage of those who fight. But I am not ready to accord their courage an uncritical positive evaluation.
In what brutal pax romana do we live in that the idea of warriors performing superbly is a replacement for moral judgement? What kind of vaunted church-state separation is there if at the heart of our concept of state is that at anytime its abstract authority wishes it may absolve men and women of any and all crimes. This is crucial. All the rhetoric of the past 5 years about rogue states and terrorists is essential to the continuation of any sort of just war ideation. Because we believe, along with Hirsh et al. that as long as the invisible "state" bestowed as it is with a sort of amoral goodness, orders war, then its human subjects no longer act in a moral context. The soldiers' sins become mistakes, misfirings of the war machine. But this amoral field can only be allowed to certain invisible forces, and thus we invent "state" versus "non-state" putatively freeing our citizens who choose to fight of the grotesque moral baggage their allegience entails.
But of course the freedom only accrues to the amorality of the state. The soldiers will be haunted by their actions. They, or most, will have to reckon with their brutality. But by then they will have returned into the interior of true freedom, which does not offer a license to kill, but only the pain of regret and the weight of self-appraisal.
There may come a time, and it will mostly likely not be at the behest of either political party, that people come to realize that supporting the troops during a war is a fatuous exercise, because the war is waged as much against the guilty as the innocent, and that rather than supporting "troops" you must support the humans that they actually are. The only way to do this is to disarm them and keep them home.