“In the presence of a relentless pageantry of hideous behavior, something in the moral imagination shuts down, or acquiesces, or else denies that all of this gaudily squalid awfulness should be described as evil at all. We absorb more horrors than our systems can tolerate. We overdose on horrors; eventually, inevitably, horrors begin to cease horrifying us. The moral system, and with it the capacity for outrage, shuts down.”
- Lance Morrow – Evil: An Investigation (Page 84)
- Lance Morrow – Evil: An Investigation (Page 84)
Like no other writer I’ve read in the past five years, Lance Morrow described much of the thinking that gripped the world in 2003. The horrors of World War II were becoming ancient history. America had passed from Korea to the Cold War to Vietnam, from the Gulf War in 1991 to the Balkans, then to Rwanda, and, finally to the horror of September 11, 2001. By 2003, most of the world had had enough. Afghanistan was one thing, but Iraq was a step too far. Few doubted the evil going on in Iraq, but it seemed to be an acceptable level of evil. While the debate about weapons of mass destruction raged, fewer still asked whether the oppressed people of Iraq preferred a diplomat or a gunboat to come to their rescue. The brutalization of the Sunnis, the Marsh Arabs, and the Kurds was an evil the world had just come to accept. In fact, we’d come to the place where we could watch it all unfold casually while pitchmen sold us Pampers and the Dow soared into the stratosphere. In the face of all that, what argument could those being run through Saddam’s shredders make? Thus, when America and its coalition partners invaded and weapons of mass destruction weren’t found, international anger mounted. Then, as a brutal insurgency and terror attacks followed the liberation of Baghdad, fueled and perpetrated by Osama’s faithful, the moral question that should have been considered in the run-up to the war got turned on its head. America, and its coalition partners, became the embodiment of evil and the practitioners of terror began to gain cult hero status. From then, till now, George Bush and America haven’t been able to shed the mantle of the bad guy.
Earlier today I read a piece penned by E.J. Dionne on the heels of the testimony of Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus a few days ago. He’s an excellent writer, appropriately provocative. In the piece he posits the idea that it is the war’s supporters, and not its detractors, who are caught in the past, justifying a war that could never be justified.
Upon reading Mr. Dionne’s piece I decided to send him a response. In closing, that response follows.
I just finished reading your op-ed.
I've been a supporter of our effort in Iraq from the beginning. My support wasn’t/isn't based on whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or geopolitics. It was based in the principle that Saddam's genocide had to be stopped. It was clear to me from the beginning that the United Nations wasn't going to act on behalf of the Kurds, the Marsh Arabs, or the Sunnis, and that someone had to.
While I don't believe I'm “stuck” in the past, I do think there is an element of truth in what you say. The past means something to me. The history of unchecked aggression and its consequences also means something to people in my generation. I was born a year after the Pearl Harbor attack. I remember nothing of the war and its consequences until the early fifties. My first encounter with that cost came one morning as I was walking. I noticed a window with a gold star placed on it. When I got home I asked my mother what the star meant. She explained that it was one of the country's ways of honoring a mother whose son had died in the battle to protect the world against fascism. As time passed I read about the war and its toll - hundreds of thousands of American lives lost, the millions lost on both sides, the millions of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, homosexuals, religious dissenters who had died in the concentration camps. Even at that young age questions occurred to me. Why didn't we just leave the fascists alone? Could this terrible war have been avoided through diplomacy and containment? After all, they weren't directly threatening us. Questions also came from the other side of my thought process. If what the fascists were doing was so terrible, why didn't someone stop them earlier? If we knew what was going on in the early thirties, why didn't we confront them when the human cost wouldn't have been so staggering?
I suppose they’re not fair questions to ask. We can't turn back the clock. The history has been written. The battles have been fought; the bombs have been dropped. The death toll has been calculated. The crosses, stars of David, etc mark the graves of the fallen. As they say in New York, “it is what it is.”
But those who lived through those days have passed on a great lesson to us - unchecked aggression has deadly consequences.
As I listened to the testimony the other day I thought one person, Barack Obama asked one half of the really important question - How much al Qaeda influence are we willing to accept in Iraq and how much Iranian influence? The senator assumed, correctly, that even in a best case scenario there would be some. I agree.
But, as I watch the Democrats, particularly Hillary Clinton, pull to the left, I realize more clearly that the Democratic plan will almost certainly be a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, and consequences would follow from that.
That brings me to my questions. How much al Qaeda influence are the Democrats willing to allow under a worst case scenario? What will the Democratic thinking be if we withdraw rapidly, al Qaeda and Iran then sweep in to fill the power vacuum, a new cycle of genocide in Iraq begins, the region is destabilized, and Israel is placed in real danger of annihilation? What do you suppose the next move might be on the international stage once all that takes place? What expectation will you and the Democratic president have of America's sons and daughters if/when that scenario plays out? What will our strategic, geopolitical, and moral obligations be in such a circumstance?
That scenario seems improbable right now, but I suspect that thinking is grounded in wishful thinking. I'm sure that in the early thirties Hitler's evils seemed containable through dialog. The world was so fearful of confrontation it was willing to cede sovereign nations to Germany. By the time all the compromising was done Hitler and his fascist allies were powerful beyond measure. The six years that followed Germany’s invasion of Poland were the bloodiest in human history.
I do think Senator Obama asked crucial questions. If we can't eliminate all the evil forces arrayed, how can we best contain them? Just how much are we willing to accept? How do we measure it? What is our best case scenario?
The questions are fair.
I also think it's fair to ask what the consequences of withdrawal would be in a worst case scenario. Would the eventual consequences of rapid withdrawal too terrible to imagine? What would the eventual cost of inaction be?
Neither you nor I nor anyone in power can fully answer those questions. In that regard, the lessons of history and our collective consciences are all we have to guide us.
In a few months the question of direction will be answered. I'm certain that a Democrat will be elected to the presidency, and that Democrats will gain enough seats in the Senate and House to form a filibuster-proof majority. That will mean, almost certainly, that we'll withdraw from Iraq unconditionally. When that happens I will hope and pray for the best. I'll do my utmost to support the decision. I'll even be there if the worst case scenario plays out. When the call comes to my sons and my grandson to stem the tide, I'll be loyal, as will they. If God forbid, they were to fall and my wife was given a gold star in the name of a Democratic president and a grateful nation, I'd say all the right things. But in the recesses of my aching heart I'd be asking, “Why did it have to come to this?” “Why didn't we act before it became so bad and the cost of purging the evil was so great?”
Under those circumstances, what would you, as a journalist, tell my wife and me that would soothe our grief?
So, I labor under the burden of history, as I see it. As you put it, I'm stuck in the past. I'm torn between the costs of current action and plagued by what history has taught me about the terrible cost of inaction. I've tried devising geopolitical and moral equations to come up with some certain, mathematical answers to the questions. Unfortunately, this is not a circumstance like calculating the time of convergence at point C if John leaves station A at 9:00 going east at 25 MPH and Sally leaves station B at 9:12 going west at 31 MPH.
I wish for all the world, as do our senators, congressmen, and journalists, that I could see the end with certainty. But, none of us can. In the end, this war's opponents will in all likelihood get their wish. I hope and pray that point C will be success. But if point C is disaster what would you ask of me, my sons, and my grandsons? What will you say to me when I ask the inevitable questions – “why did you let it come to this?” “Why are so many more going to have to die when we could/should have acted before the unthinkable happened?”
I've prattled on far longer than I originally intended to, wrenching words out of my gut. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to engage in this task daily as a journalist. I doubt that you'll have time to read this, but that's alright. It's been cathartic for me. The questions I've asked come from a sincere heart, much like Senator Obama's questions the other day. We all have a stake in the outcome in Iraq. I believe your thoughts come from a sincere heart as well. We're all grappling with the questions and a very uncertain future. Mine are rooted in the moral lessons passed on to me through history. Perhaps my thinking is archaic, with roots tangled in history that is slowly being choked out by weeds of “now.” I have no power to carve out our course. I leave that to generals, politicians, and journalists who do, and will. In the end, I'm going to go where the tide of history takes me. Unfortunately, I see disaster on that horizon. I hope and pray that I'm wrong.