Thursday, December 08, 2005

Our noble cause

Harvard Law prof William Stuntz argues in The New Republic for the nobility of our cause in Iraq by comparing it to the Civil War, a comparison I had made but which makes a lot of sense.

His thesis is that while the cause for a war might change over its course, the new cause may be bigger, better, and nobler, and further that quick wars rarely produce lasting or desirable results, but long ones often do.

In the case of the Civil War:

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln led what was left of his country to war to restore "the Union as it was," to use the popular phrase of the time. Free navigation of the Mississippi River, the right to collect customs duties in Southern ports, the status of a pair of coastal forts in South Carolina and Florida--these were the issues over which young American men got down to the business of killing one another that sad summer.

It was all a pipe dream. […]

But there was a much bigger, much better, and above all much nobler dream waiting in the wings: "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom" (to use Lincoln's own words)--that the chains of four million slaves might be shattered forever, that freedom and democracy might prevail against tyranny and aristocracy in a world still full of tyrants and aristocrats.

[…] World War I was senseless, both because it was fought over territory and because it settled nothing. The Civil War that Lincoln and Jefferson Davis set out to fight would have been no different. If control of America's rivers had remained the war's object, then whoever won the day in the early 1860s would have had to defend that object again a generation later, just as World War II saw a generation of British and American men fight for the same territory their fathers won a generation after their fathers won it.

Freedom and democracy, justice and the equality of all men before God and before the law--those causes were very different. Shedding an ocean of blood for them was terribly sad but not tragic: The essence of tragedy is waste, and the blood shed on the Civil War's battlefields was not wasted. Horrible as its killing fields were, those young men accomplished something profoundly good: Their deaths ensured that (to use Lincoln's words again) "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." […]

In 1861 neither Lincoln nor Davis could have won a fair vote for the war they wound up fighting. Lincoln nearly lost his office, and hence the war, over his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1861 the North could not imagine the suffering of the next four years--and had Northern voters done so, they would have bid the South go in peace and left slavery's chains intact. Thankfully, no one guessed the future (well, almost no one--Sherman came close), and the future was better because of it.

What does this history teach us? Three things: First, that Victor Davis Hanson is right--wars often change purposes after they begin. Second, that sometimes the new purpose is vastly better than the one it replaces. Few nations choose up front to sacrifice their sons for the sake of others' freedom. When such sacrifices are made, they usually flow not from design but from accident and error--just as the North's military blunders prolonged the Civil War, and thereby made it a struggle to bring that new birth of freedom to the war-torn land over which the soldiers fought.

The third lesson is the most important. Brief wars rarely produce permanent results, but long wars often do. Had McClellan's army taken Richmond and ended the war early in 1862, slavery and secessionism would have survived, and "the South shall rise again" would have been a prediction rather than a slogan.

Compare this to the course and consequences of the current Iraq War (yes, in reality it is a continuation of the 1991 Gulf War, I’m not going to get bogged down in that discussion here):

What would have happened had the second Iraq war turned out like the first, as the White House apparently expected? Saddam would have been toppled, the Iraqi people would have celebrated, order would have been restored quickly, followed by a speedy exit for British and American troops. Then what? Maybe the rule of Iran-style Shia mullahs, perhaps another brutal Sunni autocrat to take the place of the last one, possibly an endless civil war between the two. Today, there is a real chance of a vastly better result--precisely because the insurgency survived, because it wasn't quickly defeated. Sunni intransigence needed to be crushed slowly; a quick in-and-out war was not enough to kill the dream of forever tyrannizing Iraqi Kurds and Shia. More important, thousands of senseless murders over the past 32 months have taught Iraqis--Sunni, Shia, and Kurd alike--just how vicious Zarqawi and his allies are. That lesson will have very useful consequences for the long-term health of the region.

Today's fighting in Iraq bears little resemblance to Pickett's charge or the Union assault on Marye's Heights in Fredericksburg. For one thing, the Civil War was infinitely bloodier: Its worst battles killed more American soldiers in a day than have died in two-and-a-half years of fighting in Iraq. And the purpose for which our current war was begun--capturing Saddam Hussein's supposed stash of WMDs--seems nobler than the fight over who held Fort Sumter. Still, some key parallels remain. Toppling Saddam and seizing his chemical and biological weapons probably wasn't worth the sacrifice of 2,000-plus American lives (as long as nuclear weapons weren't in the picture). Similarly, control over the Mississippi wasn't worth the bloodletting across the length of the Confederacy's border that took place in Lincoln's first term.

Thankfully, Lincoln saw to it that the war's purpose changed. George W. Bush has changed the purpose of his war too, though the change seems more the product of our enemies' choices than of Bush's design. By prolonging the war, Zarqawi and his Baathist allies have drawn thousands of terrorist wannabes into the fight--against both our soldiers and Muslim civilians. When terrorists fight American civilians, as on September 11, they can leverage their own deaths to kill a great many of us. But when terrorists fight American soldiers, the odds tilt towards our side. Equally important, by bringing the fight to a Muslim land, by making that land the central front of the war on Islamic terrorism, the United States has effectively forced Muslim terrorists to kill Muslim civilians. That is why the so-called Arab street is rising--not against us but against the terrorists, as we saw in Jordan after Zarqawi's disastrous hotel bombing. The population of the Islamic world is choosing sides not between jihadists and Westerners, but between jihadists and people just like themselves. We are, slowly but surely, converting bin Laden's war into a civil war--and that is a war bin Laden and his followers cannot hope to win.

We see the fruits of that dynamic across the Middle East. Democracy is rising, fitfully to be sure, but still rising: in Lebanon, in Palestine, in Egypt, in Iran, even in Saudi Arabia--not just because it is also rising in Iraq, but because its enemies are the same as our enemies. That is a war very much worth fighting.

Okay, the effort is noble and worthwhile, much as was the Civil War, but what of the contemporary antiwar movement - surely the comparison breaks down there? No:

Today our forces and Iraqis are fighting together and, slowly, winning a good and noble war that holds the hope of bringing to millions a measure of freedom they never knew before. And yet today, America seems ready, even eager, to concede defeat and withdraw: a sad twist on the famous George Aiken formula for extricating American soldiers from Vietnam. It sounds bizarre--why would anyone want to throw away the chance of such a great victory, when victory seems within reach? But it isn't bizarre. On the contrary, it has happened before.

Again, consider the politics of the Civil War. In 1863 the Northern street--the term didn't exist then, but the concept did--rose, and New York saw the worst rioting in our nation's history. The rioters' cause was ending the draft on which Lincoln's war depended. A year later Lincoln seemed headed for electoral defeat, even as Grant's and Sherman's armies seemed headed for decisive military victories. Victory often seems most elusive to civilians when it is most nearly within soldiers' grasp. And noble causes often do not sound noble to the nation whose sons must fight for them. (Those who do the fighting understand: Lincoln had the overwhelming support of soldiers in the field, and I would bet my next paycheck that today's soldiers overwhelmingly support fighting through to victory in Iraq.) In many American towns and cities, then as now, the cause of freedom for others did not seem a cause worth fighting and dying for.

But it is, partly because--as Lincoln saw better than anyone--others' freedom helps to guarantee our own. A world where Southern planters ruled their slaves with the lash was a world where Northerners' rights could never be secure; if birth and privilege and caste reigned supreme in the South, those things would more easily reign elsewhere, closer to Northern homes. Lincoln had it right: Either democracy and freedom would go on to new heights or they might well "perish from the earth." So too today. A world full of Islamic autocrats is a world full of little bin Ladens eager to give their lives to kill Americans. A world full of Islamic democracies gives young Muslim men different outlets for their passions. That obviously means better lives for them. But it also means better and safer lives for us.

None of this excuses the bungling and bad management that have plagued the Iraq war. The administration has made some terrible mistakes that have cost precious lives, both among our soldiers and among Iraqi civilians. But bungling and bad management were far more evident in Lincoln's war than they have been in Bush's. Most wars are bungled; battle plans routinely go awry. Sometimes, error gives rise to larger truths; nations can stumble unawares onto great opportunities. So it was in the 1860s. So it is today in the Middle East.

In conclusion, let’s hope we learn from the past:

Two-and-a-half years ago, our armed forces set out to fight a small war with a small objective. Today we find ourselves in a larger war with a larger and vastly better purpose. It would be one of history's sadder ironies were we to turn away because that better purpose is not the one we set out to achieve. Either we fight the fight our enemies have chosen until they are defeated or (better still) dead, or millions of Muslim men and women may lose their "last, best hope"--and we may face a mushroom cloud over Manhattan, the work of one of the many Mohammed Attas that Middle Eastern autocracies have bred over the last generation. The choice belongs not to the president alone, but to all of us. Here's hoping we choose as wisely as Lincoln's generation did.

Stuntz’s comparison is a new and useful one because it provides some much-needed historical perspective. The cut and run crowd would prefer to ignore that there always were and still are compelling humanitarian reasons for liberating Iraqis from the bloody tyranny of Saddam, and to make sure that their freedom is not fleeting. They don’t want to acknowledge the regional transformation that has begun and which needs to continue to make life better for the people who live there, as well as for the people of the West. They would gladly sacrifice hundreds of thousands (at least) of Iraqi lives and the interests of the US for short term political gain, much as they (mostly the same group) were willing to sacrifice a few million Indochinese in the 1970’s. Don’t let them get away with this deception and with their immoral and potentially disastrous quest, the effects of which will be felt, one way or the other, for decades after any elections these next three years are long forgotten.


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