The War Against Reason

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The War Against Reason

by Ari Armstrong, April 3, 2003

Malcolm Gladwell wrote for the March 10 New Yorker, "What is clear in hindsight is rarely clear before the fact. It's an obvious point, but one that nonetheless bears repeating, particularly when we're in the midst of assigning blame for the surprise attack of September 11th." What Gladwell calls "creeping determinism" -- the tendency to find patterns in retrospect that are not obvious beforehand --is another name for the old-fashioned wisdom, "Hindsight is 20-20."

Of course, this insight applies to all kinds of analysis (Gladwell describes a wide range of cases), including predictions for how the war in Iraq is turning out. When the war goes smoothly, it is because the generals in command are seasoned experts who know how to face adversity. When the war seems to stall, it is because the American military strategy "failed."

As I write, American soldiers are fighting their way toward Baghdad. I worry for them. I fear the number of American casualties will multiply. But I'm not sure anyone has a good idea of how quickly the war will be won. Weathermen can predict the weather better than I can, but they're still not very good at it. War is less predictable than the weather, precisely because it involves human beings.

Of course, President Bush and his administration had an incentive to overstate the ease of war before the fact, and the difficulty of war after it started. Before hand, people are more readily persuaded to join a cause that seems relatively easy. But after the U.S. committed to action, its leaders had the incentive to talk about a long and difficult struggle. If the war is long and difficult, the leaders will say they told us so. If the war is over soon, well then we can bask in the glory of our brilliant military strategists who exceeded our expectations.

Meanwhile, as American soldiers and their allies fight the blood-and-mud battles in Iraq, we on the home front have little to do other than think about it, worry about it, and debate each other about it. Battle is confusing (as the instances of "friendly fire" demonstrate), but at least the goal is clear: kill or capture all the Iraqis who fight for Saddam Hussein and secure the region. Here at home, not even the goals are clear.

That, of course, does not keep people from turning what could be a reasonable debate into a holy war between the angels and the demons. Which are which, of course, depends on which side of the debate you're on.

This brings me to my original purpose: to respond to two articles published by the Rocky Mountain News in recent days, one by local Mike Rosen (March 28) and one by Rod Dreher of National Review (March 29).

Dreher's article, reprinted from National Review's web page, appears under a deceptive headline: "Casualties of a divisive war: High emotions over Iraq are fracturing friendships on home front." What we might expect to find is a balanced discussion of how both sides of the debate sometimes let their rhetoric get out of control and how people might patch up their relationships.

Instead, we find a one-sided smear campaign against the critics of war.

I hope the News paid Dreher for reprinting his article, because he could obviously use the money to buy a body-length mirror. While Dreher says "most anti-war people" are "lost in a fever swamp of emotionalism," his counter is nothing but a shameful ad-hominem attack. He claims opponents of the war are anti-American and anti-Semitic -- a charge I'm sure comes as a surprise to my Jewish friends who criticize the war.

Dreher does, of course, point to some instances of detestable behavior by those who disfavor the war. For instance, he quotes "a young woman" who said of an opponent of the war, "[S]he asserted that our government was just as bad as Saddam's." That fits pretty well within the rubric of "anti-Americanism."

But what of Dreher's charges of anti-Semitism? Though he invokes this charge several times, he doesn't bother to offer even a single instance of it. Now, to be sure, it's clear that some people who oppose the war are overtly anti-Semitic. But Dreher is not talking about those who want to see Israel destroyed and the Jews there murdered.

Instead, Dreher is slandering "rightists going off about imperialism, Israel and Jewish conspiracies" and "conservative anti-war friends" who "have given their good hearts and fine minds over to anti-Semitic conspiracy-mongering." But here Dreher is merely following the slanderous remarks of fellow National Reviewer David Frum. Frum's charges have been answered by Pat Buchanan, Justin Raimondo, and Lew Rockwell, among others.

Don't conservatives like Dreher and Frum recall how often conservatives have wrongly been accused of racism?

What some conservatives and libertarians (like Buchanan and Raimondo) have argued is that a war with Iraq helps the state of Israel rather than the United States, and that it's not the job of the U.S. government to defend the citizens of other nations. (This is roughly the foreign policy favored by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, though of course the American revolutionaries got some help from the now-maligned French.) Now, it's an empirical question whether the war protects the United States. It is a judgment call whether the U.S. should use it's military to assist other nations (and, if so, which ones). But those who argue the U.S. military should not defend Nation X are not thereby shown to be bigoted against the residents of Nation X, whether than nation is Israel or Nigeria or whatever.

Of course, one does not have to buy into Buchanan's argument, that neoconservatives are putting the interests of the state of Israel above the interests of the United States, in order to oppose the war. (I consider Buchanan's argument basically irrelevant.) And Will Thomas of The Objectivist Center argues protecting Israel is in the interests of United States. (Interestingly, while many Objectivists join the neocons of National Review in advocating war with Iraq, the two groups despise each other.)

So obviously the people Dreher is targeting with charges of anti-Semitism are not in fact anti-Semitic -- Dreher is simply poisoning the well. But some people who oppose the war are racists. Dreher considers a number of horror stories about people who oppose the war. But does he consider even a single horror story about people who favor the war? Of course not. Do such stories exist? Obviously.

True, some people who oppose the war do so because they have a basically Marxist, anti-American outlook. But "some" does not mean "all." The Old Right and libertarian critics of war propose a different set of arguments. And if "some" opponents of the war are anti-American, don't "some" advocates of the war also revile core American values? Specifically, some people who support the war also call for censorship of the press, arresting and imprisoning people without due process, and infringing religious freedom. (Indeed, "some" people who support the war have committed acts of violence against peaceable Americans.)

If "some" opponents of the war are racist, aren't "some" advocates of war also racist? Even on popular radio I've heard bigoted remarks about people of Middle Eastern decent.

Surely we would do well to admit that on both sides of practically any large-scale debate we are bound to find badly motivated people. Unfortunately, Dreher uses the behavior of a few as a pretext to cast aspersions on the reasonable critics of war. In doing so, he becomes what he claims to detest.

Dreher also conflates concerns about "imperialism" with "Jewish conspiracies." Obviously, the two are not remotely related. And it's easy to become concerned about the possibility of American imperialism when William Kristol and Robert Kagan write favorably of "benevolent global hegemony." Sounds a lot like imperialism to me. However, the fact that "some" advocates of war also favor imperialism, does not imply that all do, or that the argument is central to the justification (or reasonable critique) of the war in Iraq.

Dreher concludes by quoting Myron Magnet of the Manhattan Institute: "As we go in and win the war, God willing, and begin to remake Iraq in a way that makes it a freer society, an awful lot of people who have no idea what they're saying now will find themselves saying something completely opposite, and will have no idea they've contradicted themselves."

Or, as we've already established, "creeping determinism" will set in. But this will prove true no matter what happens. And, if the effort to "remake Iraq" goes as well as we hope it will, the many advocates of war who have no idea what they're saying now will find themselves repeating the same mindless platitudes, and will have no idea they're still fundamentally clueless. (See Critical Review, Volume 12, Number 4.) The proper reply to Dreher and Magnet is, "So what?"

Dreher suggests war is justified because Saddam Hussein is evil: "Nobody can defend Saddam Hussein. This may explain why, when confronted by evidence of Saddam's evil, some of the most vocal partisans of the anti-war side try to change the subject to the alleged wickedness of corporations, the Jews and all manner of occultic conspiracy." Well, Dreher has one up on me. I have never heard the criticism that war is wrong because it is associated with the occult.

But Dreher thus ignores the real arguments both for and against the war. I'll briefly outline the basic positions now.

The Case for War:

1. The current leaders of Iraq are sympathetic with terrorists and they may help terrorists attack the United States.

2. War with Iraq will lead to a stable, pro-Western stronghold in the Middle East. This will foster stability, economic progress, and human rights advances throughout the Middle East.

3. The Iraqi people are being oppressed, and the U.S. has the chance to free them (hence "Operation Iraqi Freedom").

4. War with Iraq is a realistic military goal. It's not likely to boil over into other nations, and the army in Iraq was already weak.

5. While the costs of war are high, the benefits are worth the costs.

6. We may consider all these reasons together as justifying war in Iraq.

The Case Against War:

1. Iraq's leaders, while brutal men, do not pose a direct threat to the United States. Thus, the U.S. is launching a preemptive strike. Measures other than war, such as continued weapons inspections, would have also succeeded in reducing the risk. Rather than deter terrorists, war is likely to encourage more terrorist activity.

2. While it's pretty clear the U.S. will win the war, the goal of "remaking Iraq" is far more difficult. Indeed, the effort will escalate tensions between the U.S. and other nations in the Middle East.

3. It is not the job of the U.S. government to rescue oppressed people throughout the world. Instead, it is the job of the U.S. government to foster freedom at home and be a beacon of liberty to the world. "Free trade with all, foreign entanglements with none."

4. War with Iraq could indeed lead to subsequent wars with other Middle Eastern nations, and possibly wars between other nations (or ethnic groups within nations).

5. "War is the health of the state." It weakens economic and civil liberties at home. These costs add to the already heavy burdens of inevitable casualties and the risk of setting off long-term, multi-national conflicts.

6. The burden of proof lies with the advocates of war, and war can be justified only when a high standard of proof is met.

Obviously there are a lot of tangential issues, but I think that's really the crux of the matter. Several of the points listed involve intricate empirical questions. Thus, even people with expert knowledge about the region are bound to disagree on some of the issues. This brings us back to the matter of hindsight. Simply the fact that it's impossible to predict just how war will turn out is perhaps the best reason against military interventionism.

But the war has already started! Isn't this debate now moot? No, it isn't. Advocates of the war should pay special attention to the arguments against war, especially now that war's begun. War is for keeps. If those advocating war pay attention to the arguments against it, perhaps they'll be able to head off some of the bad consequences. Perhaps they'll pay special attention to the difficulties in transforming a culture, and approach the task with humility. Perhaps PATRIOT II will never materialize, and Congress will repeal the worst provisions of the PATRIOT Act. Perhaps they'll prevent this war from morphing into imperialism. But so long as the advocates of war demonize their opponents, they will learn nothing from them.

* * * * *

Mike Rosen rightly refers to Michael Moore's "documentary" as "a scurrilous collection of distortions, dishonest editing and outright lies..." Unfortunately, he doesn't offer any reasons or citations to back up the claim.

But Rosen's column, "Moore's mindless malice," is really about another issue entirely. He writes:

You've heard the cliche: "I don't support Bush or the war with Iraq, but I support the troops." This is lip service and unadulterated nonsense. It's a cop-out. The more hysterical voices of the anti-Bush/anti-war movement have branded our president as the world's foremost terrorist. If they honestly believe that this nation's cause is evil, then rational consistency would dictate that they also believe those who are willingly fighting the war are doing evil, as well. They can't have it both ways. You can't support the troops without supporting their mission.

Like Dreher, Rosen is focusing on the most bizarre elements of the antiwar movement and pretending those are somehow representative. The overwhelming majority of those who say, "I don't support Bush or the war with Iraq, but I support the troops," are being completely genuine, and the statement is not at all a cop-out.

Here's an analogy. Let us suppose that Rosen believes a relative is about to embark on a risky business venture. It would be perfectly reasonable for Rosen to say, "I don't think you're making a wise business decision. In fact, I think it could cause you a lot of problems. However, if you're set on doing it, I hope it works out for the best."

To generalize, it makes perfect sense to simultaneously believe a person's goal is unwise, yet support the person in achieving the goal once he or she sets out for it.

But Rosen, like too many people on both sides of the debate, focus on demonizing the opposition and casting the debate in terms of a moral struggle between good and evil.

Rosen's argument is simple because it is simplistic. Its effect is to categorize critics of the war as "bad people."

I've had enough of the ad hominem attacks, the demonizations, the replacement of reasoned arguments with speculation about motives. In reality, neither side of the debate is nearly as bad as the other side pretends. But both sides seem to be getting worse. If the ability of Americans to engage in reasoned discussion is collateral damage of the war in Iraq, then surely the nation is lost.


Previous comments by Ari Armstrong about the war:
Conservatives Split on War
The U.S. Goes to War
The Costs of War
Libertarians Join Lysistrata Project

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