[lit-ideas] When a civilized society fights a barbarous one

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 26 Jun 2006 06:00:25 -0700

Much has been and is being said about how we, a civilized society, are
degrading ourselves in certain ways as we fight a barbarous one.  Diana West
does a good job in my opinion of addressing the salient issues.





The war for moral superiority

By Diana West

Jun 26, 2006

I can see it now -- I think. 

It's on the right-hand page of a book by or about Winston Churchill, and it
is a quotation by Churchill on the subject on war -- specifically, what
happens to a civilized society when it goes to war with a barbarous one. I
can't find it (yet), but what I remember as being the main point was that if
-- if -- the civilized society is to prevail over the barbarous one, it will
necessarily and tragically be degraded by the experience as a vital cost of
victory. Partly, this is because civilized war tactics are apt to fail
against barbarous war tactics, thus requiring civilized society to break the
"rules" if it is to survive a true death struggle. It is also because the
clash itself -- the act of engaging with the barbarous society -- forces
civilization to confront, repel and also internalize previously unimagined
depredations. This is degrading, too.

In Churchill's era, the more civilized world of the Allies was necessarily
degraded to some intangible extent by what it took to achieve victory over
barbarous Nazism. For example, bombing cities, even rail transportation
hubs, lay beyond civilized conventions, but this was one tactic the Allies
used to defeat Hitler. However justifiably, civilization crossed a
previously unimagined and uncivilized line to save, well, civilization. Then
there was Hitler's Holocaust -- an act of genocide on a previously
unthinkable scale and horror. Who in the civilized world ever imagined
systematically killing millions people before Hitler? And who in the
civilized world retained the same purity of mind after? Civilization itself
was forever dimmed. 

The question is, did, for example, bombing Dresden to defeat Hitler or, in
the Pacific War, dropping two nuclear bombs to force Japan to stop fighting,
make the Allies into barbarians? 

I think most people would still say, "of course not," and argue that such
destructive measures were necessary to save civilization itself -- and
certainly thousands of mainly American and Allied soldier's lives. But if
this argument continues to carry the day, it's because we still view that
historic period from its own perspective: namely, as one in which Allied
lives -- our fathers, husbands, brothers and sons -- counted for more than
Axis lives, even those of women and children.

How quaint. That is, this is not at all how we think any more. If we still
valued our own men more than the enemy's and the "civilians" he hides among
-- and now I'm talking about the war in Iraq -- our tactics would be totally
different, and, not incidentally, infinitely more successful. We would drop
bombs on city blocks, for example, not waste men in dangerous house-to-house
searches. We would destroy enemy sanctuaries in Syria and Iran, not disarm
"insurgents" at perilous checkpoints in hostile Iraqi strongholds. 

In the 21st century, however, there is something that our society values
more than our own lives -- and more than the survival of civilization
itself. That something may be described as the kind of moral superiority
that comes from a good wallow in Abu Ghraib, Haditha, CIA interrogations or
Guantanamo Bay. Morally superior people -- Western elites -- never
"humiliate" prisoners, never kill civilians, never torture or incarcerate
jihadis. Indeed, they would like to kill, I mean, prosecute, or at least tie
the hands of anyone who does. 

This, of course, only enhances their own moral superiority. But it doesn't
win wars. And it won't save civilization. 

Why not? Because such smugness masks a massive moral paralysis. The morally
superior (read: paralyzed) don't really take sides; don't really believe one
culture is qualitatively better or worse than the other. They don't even
believe one culture is just plain different from the other. Only in this
atmosphere of politically correct and perpetually adolescent
non-judgmentalism could anyone believe, for example, that compelling,
forcing or torturing a jihad terrorist to get information to save a city in
any way undermines our "values." It undermines nothing -- except the jihad. 

Do such tactics diminish our inviolate sanctimony? You bet. But, so what?
The alternative is to follow our precious rules and hope the barbarians will
leave us alone -- or, perhaps, not deal with us too harshly. Fond hope.
Consider the 21st century return of (I still can't quite believe it)
beheadings. The first French Republic aside, who on God's modern green Earth
ever imagined a head being hacked off the human body before we were
confronted with Islamic jihad? Civilization itself is forever dimmed --


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