2006/11/21

Cohen & moral seriousness

Excerpt from "The Lingo Of Vietnam" by Richard Cohen:

... let me explain that the "I" in the foregoing sentence is really four people. There is the "I" who originally thought the Vietnam War was morally correct, that the communists were awful people and that the loss of South Vietnam (the North was already gone) would result in a debacle for its people. That's, in fact, what happened. It was only later, when I myself was in the Army, that I deemed the war not worth killing or dying for. By then I -- the second "I" -- no longer felt it was winnable, and I did not want to lose my life so that somehow defeat could be managed more elegantly.

Things are precisely the same with Iraq, and here, too, I -- No. 3 -- originally had no moral qualms about the war. Saddam Hussein was a beast who had twice invaded his neighbors, had killed his own people with abandon and posed a threat -- and not just a theoretical one -- to Israel. If anything, I was encouraged in my belief by the offensive opposition to the war -- silly arguments about oil or empire or, at bottom, the ineradicable and perpetual rottenness of America.

On the contrary, I thought. We are a good country, attempting to do a good thing. In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic. The United States had the power to change things for the better, and those who would do the changing -- the fighting -- were, after all, volunteers. This mattered to me.

But these volunteers are now fighting a war few envisaged and no one wanted -- not I (No. 4), for sure. If at one time my latter-day minutemen marched off thinking they were bringing democracy to Iraq and the greater Middle East, they now must know better. If they thought they were going to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction and sever the link between al-Qaeda and Hussein, they now are entitled to feel duped by Bush, Vice President Cheney and others. The exaggerations are particularly repellent. To fool someone into sacrificing his life to battle a chimera is a hideous abuse of the public trust.

Cohen was kicked out of the tree-house of liberalism a long time ago, so we can no longer accuse him of not being a liberal (still true, but it's an old accusation). What he demonstrates here is that he cannot be considered a morally serious person. Here's the letter I sent to him:

Mr Cohen,

In your op-ed, you do not distinguish between the Bush Administration and the American People. Certainly, the American People went to war against Iraq because of WMD and supposed Iraqi connections to al Qaeda. But the Bush Admnistrtion very consciously and deliberately lied about those things, so we can dismiss the idea that these were motivations for them. What were their motivations? You make the case that the American People were acting out of the goodness of their hearts, that they were sincerely trying to help. Again, this was indeed a very real motivation for the American People. But was that really the motivation for the Bush Administration? That's a very difficult case to make.

Having been opposed to the war from the beginning, I take great offense at the notion that my objections to war were "silly arguments about oil or empire." The idea that "at bottom" my motivations were something else entirely is merely a conjecture on your part.

In August 2005, Bush declared ''If Zarqawi and [Osama] bin Laden gain control of Iraq, they would create a new training ground for future terrorist attacks," Bush said. ''They'd seize oil fields to fund their ambitions." In other words, yes, oil was indeed part of the Bush Administration' s calculations, even if it was an indirect calculation, a bit of projection on their part.

As the Washington Post put it in September 2002, "A U.S.-led ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could open a bonanza for American oil companies long banished from Iraq, scuttling oil deals between Baghdad and Russia, France and other countries, and reshuffling world petroleum markets." Oil was indeed an important part of US calculations from the very beginning.

I agree that the American People had noble and selfless motives for taking part in the Iraq War, but I'm quite skeptical that the same case can be made about the Bush Administration.

Obsidian Wings takes aim at the statement: "In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic." Sorry, but I served in the military for nearly a decade. I wasn't in there because my possible death might serve as someone's therapy or because my killing some foreigners might soothe someone's nerves back home in the US. Whether Cohen thinks of killing foreigners when he says "therapeutic" or whether he's acknowledging that US troops might die as well or whether he just thinks it's cool to rub out a lot of innocent civilians, I don't know or care. Cohen has absolutely no claim whatsoever to being a morally serious person. His admitting that, in neither case did he turn against either war because they were immoral, but turned merely because they didn't seem "winnable" cements my view of him as a morally unserious person. Editor & Publisher points out that:

Cohen reveals that he turned against Vietnam only after he joined the military and realized he didn't particularly want to die in an "unwinnable" war. Jumping ahead, it was easier for him to support the Iraq invasion because those doing the fighting would be "after all, volunteers. This mattered to me." In other words: It was okay if they died for a mistake -- in a "therapeutic" cause -- because they had signed up for the military, in peacetime.

A more truly disgusting rationalization woul be difficult for me to come up with. A fight does not become immoral because it becomes unwinnable. Winnability has nothing to do with morality. Nor does the morality of a war have anything to do with whether someone is a volunteer or not. My years in the Navy were years that I volunteered for. No, that would not give anyone the right to have casually tossed my life away for their own "therapy." My life is worth a bit more than that. So too, are the lives of every human being involved with the wars that the US gets tangled up in.

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