As war continues to rage in Iraq and Lebanon, appalling pictures of human suffering and death fill our front pages and television screens. Some people who have previously supported the Bush administration's foreign policy and who are generally pro-Israel are concluding that the human costs of the war on terror as currently conducted—both in terms of direct casualties and human rights abuses—are unacceptably high. Meanwhile, others are making the startling argument that we may have become too soft for our own good when it comes to the human costs of war.
A recent column by John Podhoretz in the New York Post opens with this inquiry:
"What if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point where they can no longer wage war effectively because they have achieved a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any really cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?"
Podhoretz goes on to ask if Britain and the United States could have won World War II if they "did not have it in them to firebomb Dresden and nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki," inflicting massive civilian casualties, and he ends with this reflection: "Can it be that the moral greatness of our civilization—its astonishing focus on the value of the individual above all—is endangering the future of our civilization as well?"
In all honesty, the question has occurred to me, too. What if Americans during World War II had been confronted daily both with reports of American casualties and with images of dead and wounded German civilians, including children and old people? What if public opinion had been as troubled by both American and German casualties as we are by American and Iraqi (or Lebanese) casualties today? Would there still be a free world to speak of?
Yet it is all too easy to move from pondering a tragic paradox to considering acts from which even the most hawkish among us would recoil in horror. Thus, Podhoretz inquires: "What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them…? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?"
Of course, the targeted slaughter of a population group—known as genocide—would go far beyond anything done by the Allies in World War II. In a National Review blog post coyly titled "No, I am not in favor of genocide," Podhoretz reaches for comparison to the tactics of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria, who quelled uprisings by wiping out thousands. He also stresses that he is not advocating such measures: "I am not upset—far from it—that they are closed off to us." He simply thinks that we should understand that our "more civilized approach might represent a form of self-shackling" against a ruthless enemy.
But such a discussion is a slippery slope. Where one person sees a need to acknowledge our dilemma, others will argue for cutting the knot by abandoning some of our scruples. This has already happened, to some extent, in the discussion of torture. And some of Podhoretz's colleagues at National Review have been quite outspoken about thinking the unthinkable. In June, one of the magazine's columnists, John Derbyshire, wrote that he had been wrong to support the war in Iraq because the Bush administration was too wimpy to wage it properly.
"One reason I supported the initial attack, and the destruction of the Saddam regime, was that I hoped it would serve as an example," wrote Derbyshire. "It would have done, if we'd just rubbled the place then left." Then, he noted, "we would have been seen as "a nation that knows how to punish our enemies… a nation to be feared and respected."
Most of us, I hope, wouldn't want to be part of a nation seen as capable of such acts. In fact, it troubles me that we are now part of a nation where such commentary is not beyond the pale of civilized discourse.
In fact, even concerning World War II, there are legitimate questions about whether some Allied actions were truly justified.
Moreover, as blogger and international affairs specialist Gregory Djerejian notes in a critique of Podhoretz, the danger we face from terrorism today is hardly comparable to being at war with Hitler's empire.
If fear makes us squander our moral progress, it will be a tragic paradox indeed.