January 27, 2005

Revising History Is Easy

Just lie. There are times when we peoplethings wont opt to remember the past when it's easier to hear it recounted by someone else in the present. Especially, of course, if the recounting is in line with how we want the past to have happened.

Critics of the war in Iraq, these days, often claim that President Bush made WMD the central reason for going to war. Some even assert that he claimed that the threat from Saddam's WMD was "imminent". (That second point is easy enough to refute, but it still gets repeated ad nauseum by demagogues who don't care that it's a lie, but only that it's bad if it's true. And, as long as someone might believe it, it's worth repeating...)

Exploring my own memory -- tricky business sometimes -- I think I've realized something.
The reasons given for the war were many. Yes, Saddam had ignored 17 U.N. resolutions; he had used WMD on Iraqis and Iranians; he was a murderous tyrant who mercilessly tortured men women and children and filled mass graves with their remains; he would be a menace to the region if and when the sanctions were to be lifted. Most of the reasons given were not in dispute. But, the present existence of WMD was in dispute.

Nevermind that Saddam had documentation "proving" the existence of WMD and that he had failed to provide documentation of their destruction. Maybe they never existed; maybe they were smuggled out before the war. I dunno.
The existence of WMD in Iraq was never central to the justification for Iraqi liberation. (That was Saddam not satisfying the conditions of the 1991 cease-fire.) But, since WMD existence was actually in dispute, their existence became central to the debate about the justification for war.

I looked back through my archives during the period leading up to the invasion and found a post I'd written on February 27th, 2003. It's about why I came to support the impending mission in Iraq. Conspicuously absent are references to WMD. They're not mentioned at all except for an aside, in passing, that they may, in fact, not exist.

So, at least for me, at the time, WMD in Iraq was not considered to be a major, or deciding, factor.

This was posted on the old blogspot edition of Blather Review, which means that nobody read it. So, in the interests of remembering history rather than revising it, I present a reposting of:

WHO ARE WE TO DO THIS? (The Overdue Choice of a Reluctant Warrior)

Who are we? We're Ted Bundy, and we're Todd Beamer. We're Charles Lindberg and Charles Manson. Ghandi and Stalin are in there, too, arguing...the one determined to topple the other. When examined down to the brass tacks, is there any meaningful difference between them? Are they seperate but equal philosophers, each "right" in his own way, according to his point of view? Since they each sprang from the same human gene pool, who among us--sprung from that same muddled puddle--can pass judgement on what is right and what is wrong? On what then should our moral choices be based? Should we even bother to agonize ourselves over "moral" choices at all?

Werner Heisenberg, the great German physicist, had a choice to make. Nazi Germany was taking shape...a twisted shape. With war raging and Hitler expanding his reign and his weaponry and what with concentration camps filling up with people and all, Albert Einstein fled Germany for America. Neils Bohr fled Denmark for America. Nuclear physicists, under cover of some of the darkest of all European nights, were escaping Hitler's realm, lest they be "invited" to work for the Nazi nuclear program.

Heisenberg's main achievement was his "Uncertainty Principle"; the realization that the more we established a particle's velocity, the less we are able to determine it's location, and vice-versa. And not just because of a technically limited ability to measure those properties, but because uncertainty is a basic property of sub-molecular form. Uncertainty at the base level of matter was a new and fascinating notion. Extending the idea from the microscopic to the macroscopic world was philosophically inviting. Nietzsche's "Beyond Good And Evil" was a popular read among the intellectuals of 1930's Europe, and it had two well-placed admirers.

Heisenberg found Nietzsche's thesis intriquing. Hitler found it useful. Finding no certain justification to condemn the morality of Hitler over any other, Heisenberg led Hitler's nuclear project, his quest for the atomic bomb.

In America, Albert Einstein implored President Roosevelt to get to work on an atomic weapon...as Heisenberg would surely be making significant progress. Although having made a late start, the Robert Oppenheimer-led Manhatten Project succeeded where Heisenberg's project had failed. Perhaps it was because the best scientists had fled Europe, or perhaps it was because Heisenberg's heart wasn't wholly in it. Either way, one thing that the Nazi atomic bomb project lacked was moral purpose.

It isn't very "intellectual" to talk about moral purpose. Intellectualism is, by default, academic; thoughtful, unextreme...inconclusive. But one wonders in what way that kind of academic non-definitiveness applies to the real world. Moral relativism may be a kind of denial; an "intellectual selflessness". But since when are we ever not ourselves? That amorality is a kind of unreality poetically seems to be self-evidenced by the fact that when a particular point is moot we call it "academic." Thought experiments that don't interface with life experience are moot. They are academic.

France (at times anyway) doesn't consider morality to be a moot point. When Princess Diana et al were killed in a car crash resulting from a high-speed evasion of paparazzi photographers on motorbikes, French (or, perhaps, merely Parisian) law was to come down hard on the bystanders, including the paparazzi, who offered no assistance to the crash victims. Parisians agree, then, that bystanders to a tragedy are not innocent, they are involved in the moment at hand just as much as are the victims and victimizers. To excuse one's self from the events at hand, especially moments of tragedy and/or atrocity, is to have chosen alienation over empathy; selfishness over selflessness. Amorality then reveals itself to be more than a bit self-serving.

Elie Weisel spent some time in a Nazi concentration camp. He's a Pulitzer Prize winning author whom wrote, in "Man In Search Of Himself", about that experience; and his education as a result of it. I remember clearly he imploring President Clinton (at--if memory serves--the 50th anniversay of D-Day commemorative service on June 6th, 1994) not to look the other way while "ethnic cleansing" scourged within what was left of Yugoslavia. What struck me the most was that I discerned a curious expression on the President's face as Weisel, staring to his right and directly at the President, called for what sounded like international intrusiveness. Clinton's expression seemed thoughtful...yet agitatedly so. Actually, the expression had an almost nervously self-conscious dismissiveness to it. Aw hell; Clinton seemed downright irritated by the appeal, as if he were mulling through his mind "Who are we to do that?"

Bill Clinton did eventually do it. He knew he had to intervene because, morally, it was right. And, instructively, he didn't waste time trying to corral the U.N. He simply chose not to join in the synchronous writhing of the Security Council's endlessly contorted academic self-doubt.

Today, with respect to Iraq, the U.N. is trying to decide if it cares whether or not it enforces it's own resolutions. It seems to me that the time has come to either enforce them, repeal them, or just whistle merrily down the same path to obsolescence first blazed by the League of Nations. Wake up and smell the East River, boys. To lead is to choose.

I've seen coverage of the large anti-war rallies that have recently filled world capitals...heard their arguments...witnessed their vitriol at the very idea that we have a "right" to depose a "sovereign" tyrant. In New York I saw Americans; Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, German-Americans. But we have to ask: where were the Iraqi-Americans? More specifically, where were the Iraqis whom are free to protest?

They were in Jordan, having crossed the border under cover of the darkest nights they've ever had to find the strength to see each other through. They were in American cities, too, pleading for the libertation of their country and their countrymen. We won't find Iraqi-Americans at the anti-war rallies, because they know all too well something every willfully ethically conflicted academician will never know: moral purpose. Iraqis know what evil is because they've seen what it does.

And so have we. Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, and the others...all the others; the guy with a steak knife ready to take on his first fight since 2nd grade...the flight attendent with the pot of piping hot coffee--ready to splash it over a high-jacker's face and hands...the Air Force pilot who would take the hot seat if the insurgence were to be--fingers crossed--successful.

Each woke up that morning an average Joe, a plain ol' Jane...same as we had. They, too, had grown up with cats and dogs and slingshots and Mr. Rogers... only they suddenly found themselves in a circumstance where they'd make themselves fully locked and loaded and determined to assault their captors with a brutality that they, up to that moment, probably thought could only arise from within a darkened heart. Yet, all they did was refuse to accept that their fates were sealed.
They knew that they were likely to die trying. And if they couldn't take back that plane, they would at least spare the lives of others at the hijackers' intended target.

Morality is something we can--and should--examine; but not as a maze of semantic vaguery that we'll never be able to exit. Sometimes we don't think we know that as clearly as we do. The passengers of flight 93 weren't constipated with some academic uncertainty when they faced their moment of decision. They made a choice (perhaps--I hope--the only choice that we could have made), and it was correct. We know that because we honor their choice.
And not just because it may have saved others on the ground. We, I think more deeply, honor their choice because of what it showed us about ourselves. We may have Ghandi and Hitler within us, hiding and arguing somewhere in an unexplorable recess of our psyche; but we know now, through vivid example, that we have every reason to expect that we too can rise above isolation, alienation, and fight...yes, fight...for the reclamation of life, liberty and dignity.

I am a very reluctant warrior, and it's taken me a long time to come around to supporting the mission to liberate Iraq. And it will be a struggle; ground troops will have to go in -- and lots of 'em. But I believe that the degree of horror that is Saddam's method -- judging from what is known of it and what is feared to be discovered -- as it terrorizes a nation, is enough madness to call us to reclaim the very human nature of moral clarity from the circular doubt of a cynical academic approach.

Do we have to free an entire nation or region's population from the terror in the mirror we call Saddam? No. But we do know that we can do it. And maybe that's all we need to know because, I think, we want to find the will to do it because that's who we are.

[End Note: It's interesting the idea of changing the nature of the Middle Eastern regimes, using Iraq as the focus, isn't mentioned either. I believe I considered that as an aspect of the mission only after the war had started. --TS]

Posted by Tuning Spork at January 27, 2005 06:35 PM
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