Let’s debate Afghanistan, but give us the facts first
August 29, 2010
Where there is no information, there is no hope of a meaningful discussion.
IT HAS taken nine years, the deaths of 21 Australian soldiers and a hung parliament, but now our politicians agree: they will have a debate on Afghanistan. The Greens have long called for one; so have former and serving soldiers. Now Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott reluctantly concur…
You almost never find anyone, whether it’s in a weapons plant, or planning agency, or in corporate management, or almost anywhere, who says, ‘I’m really a bad guy, and I just want to do things that benefit myself and my friends.’ Almost invariably you get noble rhetoric like: ‘We’re working for the benefit of the people.’ The corporate executive who is slaving for the benefit of the workers and community; the friendly banker who just wants to help everybody start their business; the political leader who’s trying to bring freedom and justice to the world—and they probably all believe it. I’m not suggesting that they’re lying. There’s an array of routine justifications for whatever you’re doing. And it’s easy to believe them. It’s very hard to look into the mirror and say, ‘Yeah, that guy looking at me is a vicious criminal.’ It’s much easier to say, ‘That guy looking at me is really very benign, self-sacrificing, and he has to do these things because it’s for the benefit of everyone.’
Or you get respected moralists like Reinhold Niebuhr, who was once called ‘the theologian of the establishment’. And the reason is because he presented a framework which, essentially, justified just about anything they wanted to do. His thesis is dressed up in long words and so on (it’s what you do if you’re an intellectual). But what it came down to is that, ‘Even if you try to do good, evil’s going to come out of it; that’s the paradox of grace’. And that’s wonderful for war criminals. ‘We try to do good but evil necessarily comes out of it.’ And it’s influential. So, I don’t think that people in decision-making positions are lying when they describe themselves as benevolent. Or people working on more advanced nuclear weapons. Ask them what they’re doing, they’ll say: ‘We’re trying to preserve the peace of the world.’ People who are devising military strategies that are massacring people, they’ll say, ‘Well, that’s the cost you have to pay for freedom and justice’, and so on.
But, we don’t take those sentiments seriously when we hear them from enemies, say, from Stalinist commissars. They’ll give you the same answers. But, we don’t take that seriously because they can know what they’re doing if they choose to. If they choose not to, that’s their choice. If they choose to believe self-satisfying propaganda, that’s their choice. But it doesn’t change the moral responsibility. We understand that perfectly well with regard to others. It’s very hard to apply the same reasoning to ourselves.
In fact, one of the—maybe the most—elementary of moral principles is that of universality, that is, if something’s right for me, it’s right for you; if it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow. But that principle is overwhelmingly disregarded all the time. If you want to run through examples we can easily do it. Take, say, George W. Bush, since he happens to be president. If you apply the standards that we applied to Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, he’d be hanged. Is it an even conceivable possibility? It’s not even discussable. Because we don’t apply to ourselves the principles we apply to others.
There’s a lot of talk about ‘terror’ and how awful it is. Whose terror? Our terror against them? I mean, is that considered reprehensible? No, it’s considered highly moral; it’s considered self-defense, and so on. Now, their terror against us, that’s awful, and terrible, and so on.
But, to try to rise to the level of becoming a minimal moral agent, and just enter in the domain of moral discourse is very difficult. Because that means accepting the principle of universality. And you can experiment for yourself and see how often that’s accepted, either in personal or political life. Very rarely.
…Let’s take the Iraq war. There’s libraries of material arguing about the war, debating it, asking ‘What should we do?’, this and that, and the other thing. Now, try to find a sentence somewhere that says that ‘carrying out a war of aggression is the supreme international crime, which differs from other war crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that follows’ (paraphrasing from Nuremberg). Try to find that somewhere—I mean, you can find it. I’ve written about it, and you can find a couple other dozen people who have written about it in the world. But is it part of the intellectual culture? Can you find it in a newspaper, or in a journal; in Congress; any public discourse; anything that’s part of the general exchange of knowledge and ideas? I mean, do students study it in school? Do they have courses where they teach students that ‘to carry out a war of aggression is the supreme international crime which encompasses all the evil that follows’?
So, for example, if sectarian warfare is a horrible atrocity, as it is, who’s responsible? By the principles of Nuremberg, Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rice—they’re responsible for sectarian warfare because they carried out the supreme international crime which encompasses all the evil that follows. Try and find somebody who points that out. You can’t. Because our dominant intellectual culture accepts as legitimate our crushing anybody we like.