Beware the Call to Righteousness

By Benjamin Schwarz


95682_Crusaders_thy_kingdome_come3_mediumDiscussion of the moral dimensions of American military intervention in the former Yugoslavia has been almost criminally inadequate. Both those who favor intervention and those who argue against it for pragmatic reasons agree that “morality” dictates U.S. military action. Blithely yielding to this “moral imperative” obscures the moral hazards inherent in the savage war of peace that many clamor is America’s duty to wage.

Our crusading zeal no doubt satisfies our image of ourselves. And explaining away the horror in the Balkans as simply the product of Serbian policies is reassuring, just as believing that such evil can be exorcised by “decisive American action” is comforting. But to indulge in Bosnian rescue fantasies is to play a role fraught with danger to ourselves and to others.

America’s missionary impulse, the conviction that we are obliged to inflict our conscience upon the world, engenders within us a reckless and cruel pride. The ethic of conscience is intrinsically insidious. A sense of righteous omnipotence is not the mark of a balanced and enlightened state, but of the fanatic and the crusader from whose civilizing zeal brutality seems inevitably to flow. If we choose to be morality’s avenging angel in the Balkans, we may at first be pleased to see ourselves, like Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness,” as “an emissary of pity and progress”; but once we face, as warriors for right, those we have demonized, we will eventually succumb to Kurtz’s conclusion as well: “Exterminate the brutes.”

Those calling for a crusade in the Balkans forget that something perhaps necessary but nonetheless terrible happens to Americans when they make war: They become ruthless. The public’s response to Vietnam is a good example. Although that war ultimately became the most unpopular in U.S. history, in 1968, when opposition to it turned fierce all across the country, polls showed that only 24% of the population wanted to pull out. Even though Americans did not see their security threatened by what happened in Vietnam, more than 60% wanted to escalate the fighting and 28% wanted to do whatever was necessary to win, even at the risk of provoking war with China and the Soviet Union. Expert pollsters described public reaction to American soldiers committing mass murder and rape at My Lai in 1969 as “at best bland.” Far from feeling moral outrage, most Americans were crying for blood. More recently, while there was no great initial public enthusiasm for the Gulf War, once the United States was engaged, fully half of the public favored using tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq.

War is at best a defensive necessity; it is never a civilizing exercise. Even–or perhaps especially–a war waged for morality brutalizes all. Fortunately, we managed to avoid our worst excesses in Vietnam and Desert Storm. During Vietnam, America’s political leadership, more sensitive to the apocalyptic dangers of unlimited conflict than was the public or military, leashed in the dogs of war, much to the public’s and the military’s frustration. The Gulf War was less restrained since there was no fear of inciting a superpower confrontation, but it was mercifully short.

The military “compellance” of Serbia and Bosnian Serbs promises to be a more complex and time-consuming task than obliterating Iraqi army units on the desert floor. Public and military pressure to do quickly whatever is needed to win “decisive victory” will begin as soon as the United States is committed in Bosnia. It will swell once it becomes clear that, as Britain and France and nearly all military experts believe, only large numbers of ground forces conducting offensive operations can “persuade” the Serbs, and that once they are persuaded, “enforcing” peace in Bosnia will require protracted and potentially very bloody pacification operations.

Vietnam and the Gulf War were fought for the same ostensible purposes that impel intervention in the Balkans: to punish aggression and to ensure a just and peaceful world order. These laudable if abstract ends, however, justified the most atrocious means. In Vietnam, villages were “saved” by being destroyed, and in the gulf, international law was preserved–and a virtually bloodless victory for America purchased–at the price of 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and 170,000 Iraqi children who died in the public health crisis created by America’s “antiseptic” air war. Given an enemy to hate, a righteous cause and fear for its men and women in uniform, America, like any country, will treat military operations not as a delicate and limited means to bring about a more moral world, but as a blunt instrument to inflict pain.

President Clinton has often spoken of America’s moral force as born of this country’s “founding ideals.” But he should remember that America’s founders warned us to go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” for fear of the monster we might create at home.

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