The noted contrarian Christopher Hitchens is fond of saying that heat is not the antithesis of light, but rather the source of it. Therefore when you want to shed light on a subject one should debate it hotly. That’s exactly what John Podhoretz has been trying to do since his July 25th New York Post column — titled “Too Nice to Win? Israel’s Dilemma — appeared. Specifically, the author asks whether the West hasn’t become too nice to protect its own interests.
What, asks Podhoretz, “if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point where they can no longer wage war effectively because they have achieved a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any really cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?” His references were to the recent outcry over civilian deaths in southern Lebanon, and the continuing insurgency in Iraq, and how that reaction compared to, say, the relative indifference over civilian deaths in World War II.
Podhoretz doesn’t have any easy answers; he simply wants to get the debate going. Instead the author has spent his time fending off idiotic accusations that he favors genocide. A spurious charge and a distraction from the real issue at hand.
Podhoretz’s mistake was to put a philosophical query more suited to the Greek Akademeia before political pundits and college professors who seem only interested in spotting political incorrectness. Beyond that, the left cannot be bothered to debate the point since it objects to the original premise — that the West is “too nice.” Too nice? The West is evil. It is imperialist, decadent, greedy, wasteful, racist, etc., etc.
Second, Jpod’s thesis assumes that the West’s morals and values have evolved, that we are more civilized and decent folk than, say, in 1865 when William T. Sherman burned Atlanta, or 1945 when Truman bombed Nagasaki, both total victories that left the Confederacy and the Japanese so demoralized they were ripe for a complete transformation. As it happens it’s effectively impossible to measure something as intangible as moral evolution. Were the Germans of 1939 more morally evolved than the Germans of Frederick the Great’s day? Who can say?
Podhoretz believes that the West’s humanitarian focus (the value of the individual above all) is the highest achievement of our civilization. This is reflected not only in our generous dispensing of welfare to foreign governments — aid that often allows them to put off genuine reforms — but in that unprecedented beneficence which reduces history’s greatest military power to that of a peacekeeping and despot removal service.
But some have argued that the West has gone too far in its humanitarian concerns. Is it any more virtuous to stand idly by — as the West did in Bosnia and Rwanda — and do nothing during a genocide? Where is the virtue in allowing Hezbollah time to regroup and rearm? Perhaps the debate should be whether the West is becoming too nice or too wimpy? “We are perceived,” writes pundit John Derbyshire, “as a soft and foolish nation, that squanders its victories and permits its mighty military to be held to standoff by teenagers with homemade bombs…”
The alternative, of course, is to adopt the “total war strategy” of the enemy, and while conservatives resist the moral equivalancy of the left, they too are unwilling to “squander our moral progress” by employing such measures.
IMAGINE IF DURING World War II the American people had been shown images of the firebombed ruins of Tokyo and Dresden and the tens of thousands of homeless Japanese and German refugees. Would we have had the stomach for Hiroshima? Probably not. In that case could not our so-called “moral progress” be simply the result of saturation media coverage? What if our victory in World War II was due to a sort of out-of-site, out-of-mind mentality at work? And since we’re being brutally honest here, wasn’t much of our victory over Nazism — our “Good War” — the result of our ally Stalin’s atrocious and brutal war in the East?
With the stalemate in southern Lebanon these questions have been raised anew. Why couldn’t one of the greatest military powers in the world defeat a rag-tag army of jihadis? Wasn’t Israel’s unwillingness to wage total war — to annihilate the enemy at all costs — the reason for the stalemate? How long before Hezbollah is back, with its rockets and its camera crews? Won’t Israel’s reluctance to completely annihilate its enemy lead only to more war and more bloodshed ad infinitum?
In a postscript Podhoretz concluded, “I think it’s fair to say that we would rather our civilization die than that we commit such acts.” The irony is that if we lose our civilization to barbarians we too will slip back into barbarism. Then and only then will be able to confront our enemies on equal footing.
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