America’s Heart of Darkness

By Benjamin Schwarz

As pressure mounts for the U.S.-led NATO to commit ground forces to its war against Serbia, Americans should recognize that discussion of the moral dimensions of American military intervention has been inadequate. Both those who favor intervention and those who, for pragmatic reasons, oppose it agree that “morality” dictates U.S. military action. But this presumed 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 a nefarious Serbian leader is reassuring, just as believing such evil can be exorcised by “decisive American action” is comforting. But to indulge in Balkan 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 a reckless and cruel pride. A sense of righteous omnipotence is usually the mark not 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 Kosovo, we may at first be pleased to see ourselves, like Kurtz in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” as “an emissary of pity and progress.” But as warriors for right, faced with those we have demonized, we will eventually succumb to Kurtz’s conclusions 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 the war in Vietnam is a good example. In 1968, when opposition to that conflict turned fierce across the country, the number of Americans who favored ending the war by escalating, even to the point of invading North Vietnam–a move likely to risk war with China and the Soviet Union–exceeded the number favoring complete withdrawal by a majority of 5-3. Even though Americans did not see their security threatened by events in Vietnam, 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, a disturbing number of Americans were crying out for blood. More recently, although there was initially little public enthusiasm for the Gulf War, once it became clear that a ground war was imminent, fully half 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 in the name of 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 military’s frustration. The Gulf War was less restrained since there was no fear of inciting a superpower confrontation, but it was mercifully short.

Military action against Serbia, however, promises to be more complex and time-consuming than obliterating Iraqi army units on the desert floor. Public and military pressure to do quickly whatever is needed to win “decisive victory” will probably swell once it becomes clear that, as nearly all military experts believe, only large numbers of ground forces conducting offensive operations can “persuade” Serbia, and that “enforcing” peace in Kosovo 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. But these laudable if abstract ends justified atrocious means. Notoriously, in Vietnam, villages were “saved” by being destroyed. In the Gulf, international law was preserved–and a virtually bloodless victory for America purchased–at the price of an estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers as well as 170,000 Iraqi civilians who died in the public health crisis created by America’s “antiseptic” air war, a campaign described by a U.N. report as “near apocalyptic.” 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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