The conscience of the left is a wonderful thing to behold. I remember some commentator during the Vietnam war who found his way into the “Current Wisdom” of The American Spectator — it may have still been The Alternative then — who blamed Johnson or Nixon or whoever it was who was getting the blame in those days because he had woken up one morning to find that he was “rooting for” the Viet Cong! There he was, rooting (and tooting) against his own country and for its enemies and it was all the government’s fault. The bastards! What they had done to the Vietnamese people was as nothing compared to what they had done to this poor addled peacenik’s amour propre as a good American.
I thought of his narcissism, so far ahead of its time in some ways, once again when I read that Gary Kamiya of Salon had confessed that “I have at times, as the war has unfolded, secretly wished for things to go wrong. Wished for the Iraqis to be more nationalistic, to resist longer. Wished for the Arab world to rise up in rage. Wished for all the things we feared would happen. I’m not alone: A number of serious, intelligent, morally sensitive people who oppose the war have told me they have had identical feelings.
“Some of this,” he is ready to admit, “is merely the result of pettiness — ignoble resentment, partisan hackdom, the desire to be proved right and to prove the likes of Rumsfeld wrong, irritation with the sanitizing, myth-making American media. That part of it I feel guilty about, and disavow. But some of it is something trickier: It’s a kind of moral bet-hedging, based on a pessimism not easy to discount, in which one’s head and one’s heart are at odds.”
Of course you can see how they would be. “What,” for instance, “if you are convinced that an easy victory will ultimately result in a larger moral negative — four more years of Bush, for example, with attendant disastrous policies, or the betrayal of the Palestinians to eternal occupation, or more imperialist meddling in the Middle East or elsewhere?” Surely, he implies, preventing any or all of the above is worth a few more lives, whether American or Iraqi, and a prolonged period of misery for the Iraqi people who do manage to survive. Yes, Mr. Kamiya might well be willing to pay that price in other people’s blood to be spared the “larger moral negative” of a second Bush term.
Perhaps it was in the same spirit that Mr. Trevor Trotman of Croydon writes in a letter to The Times of London that “The fact that a war is brought to a quick conclusion does not prove that it was right to go to war.” This is true. But neither is the fact an irrelevant datum in any calculation of the war’s rightness. In this war, especially, there were very few among those who opposed it going in who did so on the grounds that the removal of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen from power in Baghdad was an unworthy use of military force. Very many of those opponents, however, did so on the grounds that the prospective war’s duration or intensity would be catastrophic for one side or the other, or for both. They have now been shown to have been in error.
In another letter Mrs. Muriel Syed of Burnley cited the well-publicized case (in Britain) of Ali Ismail Abbas, the little boy who lost both his arms when an allied bomb blew up his house: “As a mother and grandmother it is my belief that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq, nothing at all is worth his suffering, nor that of hundreds of children like him in Iraq. If the Iraqi regime had to be changed there had to be another way.” Ah, but, you see, there didn’t have to be another way — because there wasn’t another way. There very often isn’t when countries go to war. But when they do so, some calculation of the number of little boys who will suffer one way as measured against the number who will suffer the other must, of necessity, end up proving that somebody’s suffering is worth it. If Saddam Hussein had been left in power, something tells me it would not have been difficult to find some other little boy who would suffer for it at least as much as young Ali Ismail Abbas has done. Would, then, his suffering have been worth it as the cost of putting up with the dictator a bit longer?
And then there was the Michael Kinsley approach to being an anti-warrior after the war’s successful conclusion: “No sane person,” he wrote “doubted that the mighty U.S. military machine could defeat and conquer a country with a tiny fraction of its population and an even tinier fraction of its wealth — a country suffering from more than a decade of economic strangulation by the rest of the world.” No sane person? Lots of sane people had doubted it only just over a week before. “Oh, sure,” he allows, “there was a tepid public discussion of how long victory might take to achieve, in which pros and antis were represented across the spectrum of opinion. And the first law of journalistic dynamics — The Story Has to Change — inevitably produced a couple of comic days last week when the media and their rent-a-generals were peddling the q-word.”
Ha ha. Very comic. Looking back on it Kinsley is quite sure that he and other “honest opponents” of the war had paid no attention to the rent-a-generals or the shallow media pessimists and “unreflective peaceniks” who had spoken of a quagmire. Yet he reserves his right to be antiwar even after its success on the rather feeble ground that the arguments about it (unspecified) remain unsettled and that “dropping all opposition at the beginning of the war would surely be more intellectually suspicious than maintaining your doubts while sincerely hoping for victory.” Like the “antiwar” Mr. Kamiya of Salon, in other words, who has managed to square it with his conscience that he wanted, well, a bit more war, Kinsley is at least untouched in the sense of his own intellectual rectitude.
“Inevitably,” he concludes, “more than one supporter of this war has taunted its opponents with Orwell’s famous observation in 1942 that pacifists — the few who opposed a military response to Adolf Hitler — were ‘objectively pro-fascist.’ The suggestion is that opposing this war makes you objectively pro-Saddam Hussein. In an oddly less famous passage two years later, Orwell recanted that ‘objectively’ formula and called it ‘dishonest.’ Which it is.”
Regrettably, Kinsley does not get around to explaining this alleged dishonesty. If there is an opportunity to remove a tyrant from power and you speak and write and vote against making use of that opportunity, however high-minded your anti-war principles, aren’t you “objectively” on the side of the tyrant’s desire to stay in power? Kinsley may have an argument to make against that logical inference, but he does not make it — let alone show any reason why it should be considered “dishonest.” But then not making arguments and instead only alluding to them, or calling them “dishonest,” is another of the privileges of the lefty conscience.