Friday, September 20, 2013

just war

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

-- Christopher McQuarrie, The Usual Suspects

It's obvious to me there is evil in the world. There are things at work --  or a beast at work with many heads -- that won't be contained in a catalogue of mistaken ideas, or misunderstandings, or errors of judgment. Srebrenica was not a colorful experiment in alternative politics, Wounded Knee was not a misspeaking, and Amritsar and Sharpeville were not good ideas badly executed. I am coming to believe that this beautiful world cannot be effectively described without the words evil and sin.

Because it is obvious to me there is evil, I cannot be a pacifist. Because violence is contagious, one must respond to evil with the least possible violence; and yet, because of evil’s nature, least possible may mean a considerable amount. Evil presents us with a menu of options that reek to heaven. Such a menu is before the president today, concerning a fabricated nation called Syria. Whatever his decision, innocent people will die because of it. Doing nothing is one of those choices, but is not categorically more pure than the others. It’s just one of the bloody alternatives.

In recent times we have seen sin forced to retreat without physical violence. The victories of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and of the Indian National Congress, are among those signal human achievements. Because of such victories we can make out in history’s long arc the silhouette of moral progress. The people who won those victories are prophets. The places where they put their lives in hock to mayhem and forced cruel gods to forgive the debt are holy.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Non-violent resistance takes its place on the continuum of warfare. We can measure its force in the enragement and accelerated violence of oppressors, relieved only by the intervention of greater powers. Innocent witness sometimes disarms a tyrant, but only after casualties, and much depends on the nature of the tyrant. King and Gandhi were shrewd warriors, betting their cause on fine appraisal of the oppressor’s character and its contradictions. They wagered many lives and their sacred honor on that analysis. There was something in British Imperial culture that, when forced to choose, would not condone (though it could not definitively condemn) a deliberate slaughter of innocents. There was something in the Constitution of America that, when forced in a theatrical moment to choose, could not place a seal of approval on abuse of children who asked (so politely) to go to school. The force of empire in one case, and of federal government in the other, was brought to bear at a specific moment for justice.

In both cases, tyrants of a simpler character would have responded very differently. The way of Assyrian emperors and Syrian presidents, European Fuehrers and Asian Great Leaders, tribal chiefs and bloody-minded barons, is to scorch those plots of earth where their power is disputed. The ancient function of armies, though not the last and best, is to terrorize the people. The general way of history is not to stop at dogs and fire-hoses. The great majority of tyrants, like Mao or Herod or Bashar al-Assad, are willing to kill until there is no one left to protest, or even to remember what was protested. They will keep it up until they have achieved their false version of peace; or until a greater and we hope more gracious power intervenes.

If an army arrives on the scene therefore, as in Little Rock in 1957, not to slaughter the innocents but to escort them into the schoolhouse, they commit a sacred aberration of history, a hiccup in the remorseless waltz of power. The infrastructure of justice is hard-won, recent and fragile, and every thug knows how to break it; and so we must memorialize such aberrations for future generations lest they forget.

There are just wars, but they are always tragic, because if we have to go to war it means that the peace has been lost and evil has, at least for a time, already triumphed. How many generations are we willing to condemn, in order to keep our own hands clean? We all want peace, but those who cry peace, peace when there is no peace are the false prophets.* Evil then compels us to do terrible things in the name of a better future.

Among the requirements of just war are: that it be waged to prevent a demonstrable evil, and by a governmental authority that allows for judgments about right and wrong; that there is a reasonable chance of success, and the struggle will stop when the objective has been attained; that violence will not be deliberately inflicted on the innocent.

Among the just wars waged by the government of the United States are the American Civil War and World War II. This is not to say we waged them innocently, for there is no innocence in warfare. This is not to say that they achieved their whole objective, for both left new regimes of injustice in place. This is not to say that they were morally safe, for in both cases our people sinned enormously, in an exponential coarsening of character that should make us grateful that neither conflict continued a day longer. There’s no telling, if we had fought for another few months, what we would have been willing to do in the name of peace. Nevertheless, but by a close margin, these were just wars that ended mighty regimes of violence.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Indian Liberation Struggle take their places in the catalogue of just warfare.  They are wars of liberation, and just ones. They achieved victories by unusual means, asking the troops to march into mortal danger without inflicting such danger on their enemies. These victories are modern events, possible because because humanity has created, here and there and not always in the United States, forces and institutions that expose and then restrain the natural rapacity and bloodlust of politicians. The British Empire was not the Assyrian Empire. The United States is not North Korea. The purpose of each engagement was to expose the violence inherent in the system. Words and images of that violence went out to the wider world, calling on higher and larger powers to countermand local corruptions. The grand strategy of peaceful protest is for scrutiny to domesticate, and armies when necessary to restrain, the feral instincts of politicians.

Real soldiers, having gone to war, do not wish to go again, and a moral nation goes to war, if it must do so, reluctantly. A civilized nation has capacity to distinguish, though it may fail to do so, between just and unjust wars; because in every war the soul of the nation is at risk, the danger growing with every day that passes. Colin Powell insisted that American troops never be committed without an exit strategy.** Caspar Weinberger insisted that, if the nation goes to war, it has a moral duty to win as quickly as possible.*** The campaign must have what wargamers call “victory conditions,” marking the completion and end of war. The generals must plan to bring the soldiers home, because the purpose of just war is peace -- a peace that, unlike false peace, can be lived with. An open-ended war is never a just war, and a war against a nebulous entity like “Terror” is a recipe for depravity.

It seems now that our Civil War never ended. Racism and its ally ignorance are raising regimental banners throughout the country, and particularly in states of the Confederacy. Our liberal anti-racist discourse, focussing on institutional as opposed to personal racism, has been caught off-guard; for the spectre we see now, rising from benches of Congress and from houses of state government, is personally and transparently hateful. A new aggression has been launched, and the voting rights of Americans are under attack. We must defend ourselves, our neighbors and our children. It is a just campaign. In the traditions of Powell and Weinberger, we must commit the forces necessary to win, and soon -- and then resume the peace.

The most powerful weapons we can bring to the field of contest are the ones we too often surrender to the enemy: the Christian Gospel, the Jewish Scripture and the founding documents of the United States. There are other works of literature, philosophy and spirituality, documents full of insight and inspiration. Each of us has the right to pick their personal favorite. But the Tea Party does not quail before the Bhagavad Gita or the Analects. They fear Matthew 25.

A proper campaign needs victory conditions and an exit strategy. We are here, like warriors of the previous Civil Rights Movement, to challenge and destroy corrupt laws, and to shame those in power who created and now defend them. Racism is however an amorphous term, changing its definition with time and place. Like Terror, Racism cannot be erased from the catalogue of human sinfulness, and our campaign, like all wars even just ones, will leave some things undone. If our objective is to end sin, we will never enjoy peace; but we can hope, like the warriors before us, to produce a peace that can be lived with. The veterans of fifty years ago know that, though the world is far from perfect, they were victorious.

We want to judge and be judged by our character. If white people sometimes “forget” that Oprah is black, isn’t that a good thing? Wouldn’t a lot of young black men, entering a store, hope that the detective forgets to say “There’s a black punk"? The one hope is already realized; the other lies still in the plan of march. To forget this purpose is to lose our way, as our nation lost its way struggling to protect the people from terrorism.  

There will come a day when Americans fear something else more than they fear Islamic suicide bombers, and there might come another day when a young black man has more pressing worries than whether some fool has prejudged him as a criminal. I have seen the daughter of a murdered civil rights worker,**** who never met her father, say that she has no hatred in her heart. I marvel that she has found peace, and I know that warriors of the present day must want peace if they are to win the war. We will have to define some big objectives, win some big victories, and then be prepared to stop. That’s what peace means.

*Jeremiah 6:14: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (NIV)

**Point 5 of eight in the “Powell Doctrine.”

***Point 2 of 6 in the “Weinberger Doctrine.”

****Angela Lewis, daughter of James Chaney