I missed the anti-war rally last weekend. I’d call it a peace rally, but nobody’s really for ‘peace’ anymore; the majority of the country still thinks the war in Afghanistan was justified, and they’re even receptive to bombing Iran. Even the majority of the country who is now against the Iraq war isn’t really against it for the right reasons (as I see them), but because the terrorists are on track to kill up to 4,000 American soldiers by years’ end.
I used to be a big believer in rallies. I remember marching against Newt Gingrich and the “Contract on America” when I was 14. But as I got older and continued my study of politics, I realized that mass protests weren’t as effective as people used to think they were. Sure, if we had a responsive democratic government, there might be an impact, but unfortunately, we Americans live in the worst democracy money can buy.
If you believe in the war, and are able-bodied, the only moral course is to volunteer. At the same time, the only moral course of action for any soldier asked to kill or help kill is desertion. I know these sound like opposing concepts, but see if you can keep them both in your head at the same time while I explain.
Who is responsible for war? Everybody has their favorite culprit—Mel Gibson and his family blames me and mine, conservatives blame foreigners, liberals blame conservatives, charismatic Christians blame the Devil, and so forth.
The War in Iraq, which happened while the whole world was watching, gets pinned on all kinds of people. It’s a terrible chicken-and-egg problem—it’s deceptively easy to blame George W. Bush, because he was nominally in charge of the war. But those who live to delve a bit deeper have unearthed a treasure trove of culprits, from Dick Cheney to Curveball to the Project for a New American Century to Hillary Clinton to Bill Clinton.
There are all kinds of interesting philosophical questions about where the buck stops, because in this case, it isn’t necessarily what you did that caused (or helped cause) the war, but who you were and when you did it. When Hilary and Edwards falsely tied Saddam to Al-Qaeda, it was forgivable in the eyes of the protestors, but when Bush and Cheney did it, it’s totally unforgivable. When Bill Clinton bombed Iraq, it was prudent; when Bush bombs Iraq, it’s genocide, never mind that roughly equal numbers of Iraqi civilians were killed under both presidents. Conversely, when Barack Obama says he was against the war from the beginning, it gets discounted because he wasn’t really in a position to do anything about it as a state senator. And no one will ever really be taken to task for continuing to fund the war even though defunding it is the only way to stop the war legally.
Usually, when it comes to morality, the distinctions are a bit clearer; if you commit act X, you are responsible for its consequences. So, in the end, who is ultimately responsible for war?
The truth is so simple, it hurts. War is the fault of the soldiers. Soldiers on both sides. I figured this out using the “but-for” test, which I learned in a class on the Philosophy of Law; if it hadn’t been for a certain action, the result would never have happened. In the causal chain of events, the but-for test helps you figure out the last moment something (usually an injury of some kind) could have been averted.
As I’ve said before, war is a game cowards play with other people’s lives. Today wars are giant abstract board games, from the view of the commanders. The modern military keeps abstracting commanders further and further from he troops they command, reducing them to marks on a chalkboard or dots on a computer screen; and the politicians who engineer war are even more insulated from the reality of war.
But at the most basic level, war is impossible without soldiers. If there were no combatants, politicians would be revealed for what they are—loudmouthed invalids who would rather see you die in uniform than live up to the ideal of the public trust. Without soldiers, Bush can say anything he wants and have no less capacity to kill people with a word than the next citizen. Without soldiers, elites on both sides are can scream at each other all they want without piling up corpses.
It’s true that war didn’t always work this way; back when organized violence was more of a cottage industry, leaders used to actually lead their troops into battle. I’m reminded of the Genesis song “One for the Vine” which starts:
Fifty thousand men were sent to do the will of one.
His claim was phrased quite simply, though he never voiced it loud,
I am he, the chosen one.
In his name they could slaughter, for his name they could die.
Though many there were believed in him, still more were sure he lied,
But they’ll fight the battle on.
Often people will accuse one another of situational ethics, which means that they view the morality of an act based on its context rather than on principle. War is the ultimate case of situational ethics;murder is wrong unless someone in a uniform tells you to do it. And because the state is telling you to kill, it won’t hold you responsible for that killing—they’ll probably give you a medal for killing enough people. On the other hand, if you get captured by another state, all bets are off and you may be held accountable for the deaths you caused in any number of ways, from being held as a POW to being summarily executed.
As a pacifist and a conscientious objector, I refuse to make a distinction between the battlefield and civilian life, for the simple reason that there is no place on earth exclusively reserved for war. Even if you’re in uniform, you’re still waking through someone else’s town or field or community.
The crux of war is the act of killing. Anyone who demands death but doesn’t do the killing themselves is at best a pansy and at worst a deserter. Call me an AWOL wallflower, but that is the uncompromised truth. This is why, for example, the machismo surrounding 9/11 drives me crazy. Susan Faludi, whose recent book examined the impact of 9/11 on gender in America, The Terror Dream, notes how a search for father-figures and manly men like firefighters and soliders created a new wave of misogynistic backlash against the recent cultural gains of feminism. It always mystified me how an ineffectual preppy like GW Bush was suddenly revered as a strong, manly leader—Laura Bush has literally killed more people than her husband if you look at the world in terms of proximal causes. If the President doesn’t lead the charge up San Juan Hill anymore, what’s the difference if they’re macho or not?
As I’ve mentioned before, putting a woman in charge doesn’t cause peace—just ask Maggie Thatcher or Golda Meir. And neither do apparently limp-wristed men; I have it on good authority that Vladimir Putin, who is killing people left and right, was beaten up and teased by the people he was assigned to intimidate as a KGB agent. Napoleon was short and had gynecomastia. Richard the Lion-Hearted was rumored to be homosexual.
I don’t bring up these examples or characterizations to be sexist or homophobic—on the contrary, I mention these things because this ridiculous fiction that projecting strength will bring about peace (or war) is killing people. Elites play at war because they can, no matter what they look like.
You can’t be a puppet-master without puppets. I can rail about how person X should be killed, but unless I have influence over someone with the means to do so, it doesn’t matter. In the perverse logic of war, killing someone in cold blood based on what they’re wearing isn’t just acceptable, it’s demanded.
I’ve mentioned before that my cause is averting civilian deaths; people with guns can shoot each other in the head for all I care. I know that sounds flip—and most of the people serving in the world’s armed and irregular forces are my generation, in some cases even my former schoolmates. And while that makes it hard to blame the soldiers, it doesn’t lessen their fault. It’s the simplest categorical imperative—if everyone refused to kill, there’d be no way to force them, and no war.
The complement to the willingness to kill for your country is the willingness to die for it (if all you want to do is kill, you’re just a garden—variety sociopath). And so, there will never be peace until the last person willing to die for their country is killed.
We’re constantly admonished to “support the troops,” who in turn are in uniform because they’re “protecting our freedom.” Neither statement makes sense. If you were really supporting the troops, you’d be one; if getting into uniform had anything to do with protecting freedom, you wouldn’t be compelled to kill. Killing Iraqis only makes us less safe, and machismo is hardly a requirement for war-mongering.
To blame the war on the gum-flappers, the elites for whom war is a game, dishonors both the soldier who does the actual dirty work and the conscientious objector for whom killing is abhorrent. At the moment of death, all that truly matters is whose finger was literally on the trigger.
Politicians don’t kill people, guns don’t kill people. Killers kill people. Let the buck stop there and the chips fall where they may.