The war for moral superiority

Diana West
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Posted: Jun 26, 2006 12:13 PM

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 -- again.