The Basis of War

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(This was originally going to be part II of Is the United States Worth Defending? but that got too long to continue.)

What are my political priorities? Quite simply, I want to make the world as a whole and the United States in particular better places to live. I want people to live longer, richer, safer, happier lives. I want people both here and in the rest of the world to be able to do what they want as long as it doesn't mess up anybody else, and by anybody else I mean people.

Part and parcel of making the world better is not allowing it to get any worse. We have scratched and clawed our way up from the primordial slime, and whether you're talking 750 million years since life began on earth, or just the last hundred thousand or so when our species has identifiably existed, it was a long hard brutal slog up the slope, and the further down we fall, the harder it will be to start our way up again. Only in the last few hundred years have we come up with the idea that as we learn more about the world around us, maybe we know more than our ancestors. It's only been a couple of centuries since we started to drive out the idea that the people with the important ancestors are the important people. They certainly can be as is witnessed by any number of families of brilliant people, but this fallacy is to blame for the slowness of progress throughout most of human history. If your daddy was a peasant, you were a peasant, and if you didn't want to break your back to grow food for the rest of your life, you'd damned well better do it anyway until you prove that you can do something else - and because your daddy was a peasant, nobody believes you can be anything more, either. If your daddy was a king - even a king who accomplished nothing more than falling asleep and drooling on himself, the supposition that you deserved to be important also was overwhelming. History is largely the study of those people who made themselves important. It's only by oblique examination of the attitudes of the time that you find out how truly amazing the exceptions were.

It's only been a couple hundred years since the notion of democracy really took root, first in western culture, and recently spreading elsewhere. The idea that perhaps the sum of everybody's wisdom was greater than any one person's is a profound conceptual change. The idea of patent and copyright, that someone who invented something that potentially made everyone's life easier was entitled to some of the good of their invention, as opposed to it being just taken over by whatever noble (i.e. those who already had the resources to take advantage of it) first saw the uses, was likely what really ignited the industrial revolution.

It's been less than a century since people first really began to practice the idea that perhaps we ought to give everyone those same chances, not merely those who happened to be of the ruling sex, race, class, or ethnicity. It's only been a few decades even here in the United States where it has really been practiced. It's only been a few decades that sciences from medicine to physics to chemistry started advancing rapidly.

I could go on for hours, but the point I'm trying to make is that the ideals and elements of western civilization, and the United States in particular, however unpopular they may be with certain elements (who, I might add, would never give them up!) are worth defending. Hell, they are worth circling the wagons and retreating into the mountains and fighting guerilla style as our enemies have done and fighting to the last man, woman, and child, if we have to, rather than giving them up. If you don't substantially agree with me on this point, you might as well stop reading right now. I am not giving up our Freedoms which permitted all of this to happen. Not a chance in anybody's hell. And there are whole armies of people, good decent people who spend their lives as schoolteachers and police and firefighters and scoutmasters and military defenders of our country, and even bureaucrats, who will not allow it either. I am humbled by the knowledge that they would even permit me to stand with them if it came down to the necessity, and yet there is no doubt in that they would, and that they would be similarly humbled that I would permit them to stand with me.

The beauty of this society that we have built here in this country just beggars the imagination, and every time I think I understand it all, something comes along and knocks the feet out from under me and picks me up and slaps me around and shakes me and rubs my nose in the fact that we live in the most wonderful society anywhere throughout human history, and I am moved by the experience every time. Because of the great ideas of our civilization and our country, and the fact that they are so beautiful, so enabling of human dignity and human worth, they are so contagious that half the world wants to be an American, and most of the rest and a good deal of the first half wants to create an America wherever they happen to be. They may not speak English, they may never have so much as seen an American in the flesh, but they understand that they want to be American, and in that moment they have taken the first step in becoming Americans. Every year, millions of people want to be Americans so much that some of them will wait decades for the opportunity and come here to start all over again at an age when most people figure they have earned the right to take it easy for the rest of their lives. And millions more want to be Americans so much that they will break our laws, and risk, at least threoretically, a lifetime banishment in order to start becoming Americans right now. These people are more counterweight than the Chomsky brigades and other "America is Eeevil!" apologists can ever make up for even if they did put their lives where their mouths are and vote with their feet by actually going to live in one of those Fifth World hellhole "paradises" they keep telling us about, that would be wonderfully glad to have them and give them positions of privilege and importance, insulated from the everyday realities of life there, where they could rail to the world about how evil America is, and how wonderful their new homelands are, all the while living off the blood, the sweat, the tears of those who never were and never will be given any of the opportunities that these useful idiots take for granted. And yet these people haven't left, and more new Americans cross our borders every day. That tells me something quite profound.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world is not America. In fact, the entire idea of America, and western civilization in general, is supremely dangerous to those who are powerful in many areas of the world. The idea of democracy, that says we will choose our leaders based upon the one who persuades us that we want to go the way they want to go, mocks and undercuts those who are leaders because their grandfather was a leader, and their grandfather's grandfather before that, and instills no little amount of fear that perhaps they will not always be a leader. The idea of evolving wisdom based upon learning how the world works in ways that can be repeated, time and time again, and get the same answer no matter who conducts the tests, mocks and undercuts the idea of revealed wisdom, the idea that the Answer is always going to be the same because some priest hundreds of years ago said that was what God wanted, and instills no little amount of fear that perhaps the answer that priest put in God's mouth may not be correct. The idea that anyone can become wealthy, important, one of our leaders if they only have good ideas, work hard, and stick to it, mocks and undercuts those who are wealthy and powerful because their family has owned the port concession for the past seven generations, and instills no little amount of fear that perhaps someday, someone else may be given another port concession and manage it enough better so as to put them out of business, or even that there may be no port concession and so whomever wants to run the port can try.

These people we threaten by spreading our ideas are not blind or stupid. If they were, they would have lost their positions of power and wealth and privilege in favor of a new leader who really is as inspired as grandpa was. They are typically competent enough, and it's much easier to hang on to a position than to get it, and grandpa made certain daddy knew enough to hang on, and daddy made certain they did. But they feel threatened because however great a man grandpa, or grandpa's grandpa was, they know deep down that they personally are nothing special. They know that any number of people could do just as well, given their positions starting from wealth and privilege and having connections that most people do not.

But however unintentional the threat may be, the threat that American values represent is nothing short of devastating to their way of life. The fact that this powerful man is the son of a line of chiefs going back to the days of the prophets means very little to people who have been infected by our ways of thought. It still means something, even here in America, else the Kennedy and DuPont and Ford families (among others) would not have the cachet they do. It's a sign that it's more likely that there may be something here worth watching. But not even being a member of those families will get you anything if you're a loser (in fact, it will get you derision for being a waste of an opportunity), and it won't get you any opportunities that someone from outside them cannot get, even if they have to work harder than you do.

But even this mode of thought is supremely threatening to the man who is what he is because he's the son of the last king, or the son of a line of influential priests. Evolving wisdom, based upon experiments and observable, verifiable results, are a direct and immediate threat to the world of Revealed Wisdom and the Word of God (according to some priest or another, of course). Competition is anathema to those who have always been insulated from it, whose position depends upon being the only one with the ability to do some good or necessary thing, however artificial that ability may be.

So they want to stop these ideas, and the only way to stop them is at the source. So long as America and her allies stand strong and proud, America's ideas are going to, as they see it, "infect" the rest of the world. But let America be humbled, let her confidence be broken, above all let her ideas be defeated, and these people can retain their positions of wealth and power and privilege, and maybe even expand them.

That the desire to strike at us is understandable in no way, shape or form means that I think it should succeed. It should not, in fact, if we want the world to continue to become a better place, it must not. It only means that these people are not, by their own lights, necessarily evil.

Just because they do not see themselves as evil does not mean that their prescription is the one the world should be following. Indeed, in the free competition marketplace of ideas, their method of striking back tells us that they know their ideas will lose. They cannot convince us by rational process, and they know they cannot really convince us by force, either. Their strength is a fraction of ours.

Where they do see a light of hope for their cause, however, is ironically in the very successfulness of our ideas. Our ideas are so successful that not even our grandparents grandparents had any significant war or violence across an entire continent that their parents had conquered. It has been 140 years and counting since any large proportion of our population saw war "up close and personal" the way large proportions of most generations in the rest of the world have. There are still a large number of living Chinese who remember the events of the Communist Revolution. The violence of the Partition of India was contemporaneous with that. We sent something like ten million uniformed troops overseas in the second world war, but people from North Africa to the whole of Europe to the entire Western Pacific watched the war ravage their cropland, bomb their manufactories, and squash their homes. The generations since in Central and South America, all through Africa, and large swaths of Eurasia, have seen war just as closely. We have not. Many of us do not understand war. Many of us don't understand the nature of war. Many of us don't understand what it's like, what it means, to have war come to you, and be fought over your land. Most of us especially don't understand what it means to lose a war. It's been too long since it really happened.

In this lack of understanding, our enemies see a window of opportunity. If they can just convince us that it's not worth fighting, they can win. Indeed, if they convince us it's not worth fighting, they will win. Once we concede that we're not fighting any more, they automatically win. And because of the casualties and the allies we betray and the treasure we have wasted, if we later decide that we were wrong, it becomes much harder to change our minds. The South Vietnamese we encouraged to stand straight and tall and resist communism, and whom we then left to die because Democratic congress wanted to strike back at a Republican administration for domestic misdeeds were the genesis of the communist successes of the later seventies, when it seemed that the whole world was turning Communist. Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, the role call of countries that fell, or almost fell, goes on and on. Established, stable allies like Columbia and Venezuela fought off determined marxist insurgencies, both military and political, that sowed the seeds for modern troubles in those countries. The communists saw that they could bluff their way to victory, and those who would have opposed them saw that we left our allies to die when it became politically convenient to do so. So our enemies became emboldened, and our allies became fearful.

We rescued ourselves from that one, or actually Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher rescued us by restoring our confidence. A good thing, too, else we probably would have learned all too soon what it's like to really lose a war, in a way that we escaped with Vietnam, because it was so unexpected and our enemy never thought that we were really that stupid until we proved that we were, and next time we won't be likely to be nearly as lucky. Losing a war means real, long term consequences. Just ask Germany, or Japan, and reflect that we treated them far more kindly than any other defeated adversary had ever been treated, any other time in the history of the world. Ask the Nationalist Chinese, or any of the losers from dozens of revolutions around the world in the last two generations. Ask the Bosnians, the Croatians, the Rwandans, the Angolans, the Sudanese, the Cambodians, both the Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis, ask the Afghanis. Only where the victorious armies were themselves civilized, and subject to morality based claims of right and wrong, as with the United States, Britain, and the Israelis, have any of these hard facts been somewhat lessened.

I would rather not be in this war. War is a nasty, dehumanizing business that makes people die unpleasantly, wasting lives and resources and treasure that might have won real advances for us as a species. Like it or not, though, one determined enemy makes a war - it is peace that takes the cooperation of both sides. The other side has been at war with us, whether they realized it or not, since at least the 1970s and perhaps since the 1930s. That we as a group did not wake up to this until September 11, 2001 in no way alters these facts. Consider the way that any Americans captured by them have always been singled out for special attention. Not Swedes, not Danes, and not Greeks. Americans. The only nationality which draws anything like the same degree of attention is Israeli, and I think we all understand why that is. Israel represents the presence in their area of the world, but the United States stands behind that.

Unfortunately, there is no way that we can not threaten this group of opponents. Our very way of life provides the threat, and we cannot change this without changing our way of life, the thing that makes us American, and therefore worthwhile. The threat we represent has nothing to do with our military, which although it may be the most advanced and most capable in the world, it in no way, shape or form threatened them prior to September 11, 2001. Okay, we had bases in Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the region. Our actions said, as clearly as it can possibly be said, that we had no territorial ambitions in the area, and that so long as our mercantile interests were not threatened, we just weren't going to do anything. Why else would we have let Saddam Hussein off the hook the first time? We even went a far distance out of our normal ways to respect their ways of life and customs. I knew military women who were stationed in the middle east in the early 80s, ten years before Desert Storm, who were ordered to wear extra clothing in the desert heat so as not to offend their mores. Christians were told to keep their religion as low key as they possibly could, and public activities such as worship discouraged. And unless you yourself were Islamic and therefore permitted, for crying out loud don't go anywhere near the holy places! (By contrast, our great ideas have no problem with the idea of nonbelievers visiting Bethlehem, or Jerusalem, or Rome, and even the Mormons have no problems so long as you stay out of the "sealed" areas of their actual churches. Indeed, no small number of converts have been won by precisely this approach!)

We have tried being low key and inoffensive. It hasn't worked. The people we are fighting are threatened not by our guns, but by something a thousand times more powerful: our ideas. Indeed, it has finally become apparent to both sides in this war exactly what it is we are fighting over. This great clash between civilizations is over nothing less than the future direction of the world. Forward looking, evolving wisdom based upon observable reality, or Revealed Wisdom of words put into the mouth of God by a priest over a thousand years ago. Finding leadership in whichever of our citizens can best provide it, or looking to the sons and grandsons of chiefs. Remember, our enemy is not evil by his own lights, I would even argue that the vast majority are not really evil at all, but instead merely threatened by ideas that they cannot counteract with ideas of his own. Indeed, the thought of allowing those ideas to do battle in the intellectual marketplace is itself alien and threatening to him. Nonetheless, our enemy must be defeated. However imperfectly we practice and however recently we have come to it, the idea of allowing any citizen to lead who can convince us that they are worth following trumps the idea of following the son of the last leader. The idea that we should all be free, within limits of not harming others, to do what we want trumps the idea that our actions are prescribed by the place in society where we were born. The idea that members of all groups should have at least the same opportunities as anyone else trumps the idea that that the tribe that has always ruled gets all the goodies. The idea that women can make their own roles trumps the idea that women are housewives and mothers whose role is to support their husbands and raise their sons to treat their wives in the same way ("Women should not be beaten with a stick thicker than your forefinger"), second class citizens in every way. The idea that everyone can, should, must be allowed input into the decision-making process and that the daughter of a bricklayer may be more correct than the son of our leaders for the last hundred years trumps that the idea that the nobles and educated elite should make all the decisions because their clans have always led us and always been educated. You see, the real reason why they are losing the war - why they've already lost it, unless we throw away the victory by refusing to fight, or refusing to follow up the victories that have already been won - is that they waste so damned much of the human capital they are given, and that alone is more than reason enough why they must be defeated, and gives us ten thousand times more justice and right than our real enemies will ever have on their side. Not to say that we don't waste any, but they cannot hope to beat us except by becoming like us, and that in itself spells defeat for them, or by seducing us into a forfeit. The system we have beats anything that has come before it so hollow that there is no competition, which is why millions of ordinary people every year want to become Americans, and why we are a example held out as a symbol of hope by those fighting opression elsewhere in the world. It is not to the Secretary General of the United Nations that they appeal, not to the head of the EU, nor even to the executive of NATO, but to the President of the United States. It is to his eternal credit, and ours, that he has shown he understands what really is at stake here and has shown himself willing, et enormous risk and cost to himself, to take the proper actions.


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