Friday, March 22, 2013

The Means and Ends of a War

I remember debating the merits of the Iraq War in 2003 at a special gathering of students and professors during my undergrad at Redeemer University College. The declaration of war was a novel enough event on the world stage to jolt academia from its erudite repose.

I remember also how surprised I was that the general consensus in the room seemed to be that this was a positive step forward, in particular, for the future of the region. What about collateral damage? I asked. The ends, which were the removal of a dictator from power, the establishment of democracy, and the opening up of a free society, in fact, justified the means. More to the point, I was told the end of Justice, with a capital 'J', justified the means.

Now, whether everyone in the room shared the spoken opinion, I cannot be sure. The voices in the room, though, all engaged in detached academic discussion over the ways an intellectual abstraction could be implemented on the ground in Iraq. It was a great day for Iraq--in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada.

Today, I am not sure what to make of the Iraq War itself beyond that it changed things. There's a silly game foreign policy wonks play among themselves, in which opponents are bested with counterfactual arguments. If X had not happened, then Y; or if X had happened, then Z. If the US hadn't gone into Iraq, then Saddam Hussein might still be in power angling to get his hands on nuclear weapons; and so on. These arguments obey strict logical formulations. They appeal to certain sets of correspondences between states of affairs, as they are generally understood to be true. The victor is usually the one able to point out the most obvious correspondence. But these arguments don't actually prove a damn thing. Just ask a historian. They will tell no human being has ever sketched the future state of things with anything more than the vaguest of impressions. At the distance of 10 or 20 years, all such intelligent prognostication amount to nothing more than blathering idiocy.

Though I am unsure what to make of the impact of the Iraq War on world affairs, watching it played a very large role in shaping the future course of my education. One of the first things I did was to read widely in Islamic history. I set up a Honours History independent study and wrote on Muslim Spain. I went to McMaster University and studied with the resident Ottoman specialist, eventually producing a research paper on an early modern French appropriation of the image of enlightened Turk as a criticism of the irrationalities of European society. My perspective may have broadened today into a general interest in the study of world religions. The lessons learned studying Islamic history, though, have not been lost.

I may not be sure what to make of the Iraq War itself, but I am quite sure the sort of arguments made in its favour amount to practical atheism. Not just the arguments that left such a bad impression on myself personally back in 2003, but the official position of the Bush administration, of the news anchors, of political commentators. By this I mean simply the means by which one achieves a desired end are so far out of step with the end itself that the means employed prevent the end being achieved. Persons speak in abstractions, without concern for the existing relations between persons. Such persons sees only ends, with little concern for the means. For example: the military doctrine 'Shock and Awe' was supposedly neither good nor bad; it is merely effective for achieving certain ends. Speaking from on high, from the seat of the Most High, such a person is a practical atheist.

The Daily Beast has published an article ('Iraq War, 10th Anniversary: The Last Grand Mufti') by a correspondent who spent seven years in Iraq covering all facets of the conflict. The article tells the story of Shiekh Hamza of Fallujah, killed in November of 2005 for his refusal to support the more radical action against occupying forces. The author concludes, though an Iraqi may have put the trigger,  American action put the venerable sheikh in harm's way. This is not the place for the counterfactual observation that had American's not been in Fallujah, the sheikh would still be alive today. (He probably would be, though there is no way to verify this.) It is rather to follow a series of actions and events leading up to the sheikh's death in order to understand how things came to they terrible conclusions that they did.

My take-away is that the road to hell truly is paved with good intentions--good, short-sighted, self-serving intentions imposed at will without consideration of the concerns of others involved. Service rendered to grand abstractions like A More Just Society means that simple truths like doings to others what you would have them do to you are lost.

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