Sunday, August 13, 2006

Hey Hey, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?

The Vietnam War has come to be something of a foundational myth - an example the moral implications of which are beyond reproach, almost - on much of the left, and even the centre, I'd guess. There can't be many Britons, for example, who think that Harold Wilson did the wrong thing by refusing to send British soldiers when asked to by LBJ, and when arguing about other military interventions, despite how much Vietnam gets used, the retort is always 'it won't be like Vietnam', rather than 'what's so terrible about Vietnam?'. I'm not sure how much that is because Vietnam was a totally unmitigated disaster, although you'd have to guess that plays a role, rather than because of how central Vietnam was to the formative political experiences of a whole generation, and so, as a consequence, appears all over that generation's literary and cinematic output, which then means that a whole other generation gets socialised into the myth. Like I was, I suppose. I've read 'Bright Shining Lie' and 'In Pharaoh's Army', and, more importantly I think, seen 'Apocalypse Now', 'Born On The Fourth Of July', 'Platoon', and 'The Deer Hunter'. So in that context, it was interesting to see 'The Fog Of War', a documentary based around a series of interviews with Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defence from 1961 till 1968.

The film is structured around eleven lessons the director, Errol Morris, draws from McNamara's experience in the US Government, the US Airforce during World War Two, and working at Ford in between. McNamara clearly regrets decisions he took, or encouraged the taking of, whilst working for the first two of these organisations: maxim number five, "proportionality should be a guideline in a war", either prompts or is prompted by the thought that he, as an adviser involved in the firebombing of Japanese cities, committed war crimes, and he is clear that US involvement in Vietnam breached maxim number one, "empathise with your enemy", by seeing what the other side saw as a struggle of national liberation as the attempt to maintain a barrier against the spread of communism. Given the conventional wisdom on those events, I don't suppose that's particularly surprising. Neither are the content of the maxims: number two, extrapolated from his experiences during the Cuban Missile Crisis, partly either reflects or is mirrored by work in game theory which has drawn heavily on the experience of nuclear confrontation, claiming "rationality will not save us", while number six, "get the data" is banal even for common sense, although, from McNamara's examples, more important than you might think.

The temptation, obviously, is to regard the lessons McNamara draws as having wider currency. It's not really one I'm prepared to resist, and, given the general terms in which they are articulated, it's one that he and the film explicitly encourage. Only the claim that rationality will not save us, which McNamara quite clearly means to be understood as relating to the use of nuclear weapons - he baldly states that it was a matter of luck, not judgement, that there was no nuclear war in 1962, saying that, amongst other things, Castro had not only told the Soviet Union that they could use the weapons in Cuba but that they should in the event of an invasion, despite both being rational and knowing it would result in the total destruction of Cuba - does not clearly have wider application. Given what I said here, for example, it's tempting to read maxim number nine, "in order to do good, you may have to be prepared to do evil" as alerting us to the occasional duty of neglecting to intervene whilst evil triumphs, for fear of the consequences of doing so, especially in light of McNamara's unwillingness to escalate the conflict in 1962, rather than the more conventional reading.

That's not the clearest one though, I think. Making judgements of counter-productivity and imprudence in morally charged situations can often both difficult and dangerous, because you need to be sure of what aim is not being realised, of what imperative is being violated. That means being sure both of the specific intentions of the actors involved, and of the possible moral limits to the achievement of those ends - because of a standing assumption that people don't want to commit obvious moral wrongs which, to be effective as a tool of criticism, needs to identify obvious moral wrongs - neither of which can always be easy.

In some cases, though, it's relatively easy. A significant strand of the criticism of both what is described as the War on Terror and the current Israeli occupation of the southern Lebanon seems to me to point out that they break maxims one, six, seven and eight - that they don't understand what the enemy is fighting for, that they lacked adequate intelligence, and that they lack the necessary openness to the possibility that the beliefs and reasoning they are fought on is flawed. That doesn't rule out the further criticism, that they are simply wrong and shouldn't be done because of that, of course. It has a kind of strength unavailable to the 'it's just wrong' critique if successful though, because it, immediately, without engaging in further moral argument, performs an immediate reductio ad absurdum: if you want to do x, why on earth would you do y, it demands. For example, why on earth would Israelis think that occupying the southern Lebanon was a good idea, when they did it for nearly twenty years, failed to destroy Hizbullah, and, only six years ago, were more or less agreed it was a pretty disastrous policy? Or that serious damaging the capacity of a state to act by devastating its infrastructure would be a good way of ensuring that it acted to disarm what is by all accounts a well-equipped and trained militia force?

The problem is, of course, that these critiques aren't always paid attention to. Ways of avoiding them are developed: mostly obviously, perhaps, the denial, by essentially denying their humanity, of the opponent's possession of a complex set of motives, and so the possibility of empathy with them. Think of the claim that Hizbullah presents an existential threat to Israel, for example, and the uses to which that is put. Interestingly, the last maxim that Morris drew from talking to McNamara is that human nature doesn't change, which he apparently sees as an ironic comment on the rest of the maxims, since it shows that the mistakes which McNamara made are mistakes that we will keep on making, that, effectively, the maxims are useless because they will continue to be ignored. Maybe we should just go back to chanting.

9 comments:

dearieme said...

What no-one said at the time, but was crucial to the opposition to the war, was that the (American)kids, the war's opponents, were cowards. Very wise too, given what a cock-up their elders made of it, but odd that no-one ever seemed to discuss it. Yet we all know that the 20s and 30s in Britain was dominated by cowardice: the slaughter of WWI was in the front of everyone's minds, and they did not want a war or reminders of war. Therefore, no defence expenditures, no conscription laws, etc. Baldwin admitted as much: he'd have been turfed out of office if he'd pressed for rearmament. Very rum, what you can say and what you can't.

Rob Jubb said...

I'm not sure no-one said it, but I see what you mean, although I don't think I'd put it quite like that - I think being a coward may rely on thinking that you should do whatever it is you are unwilling to (I wouldn't have liked to call Mohammed Ali a coward to his face, for example, and not just because he might have taken offence, but because as someone who got into fights for a living, he might have taken legitimate offence).

I think that's even more true of Britain in the interwar years. Undoubtedly, the slaughter of the Great War did mark Britain: for one thing, I think every single Prime Minister until Wilson, maybe, either lost children or siblings in it. But that's not cowardice: being aware, and prepared to act on that awareness, of the very real costs of war and the way in which arms build-ups have a kind of self-fulfilling logic, in spite of dulce e decorum est and all that, could even perhaps be construed as a form of bravery. And the conscription jibe is a bit below the belt - Britain has never stood for conscription: it was 1916, I think even after the Somme, before there was conscription in WWI, and it was politically divisive even then.

dearieme said...

The point wasn't to effect conscription, but just to have a law that would allow it. Whether it mattered in practice, I don't know. When war broke out, my father volunteered for the navy and was turned down: "There's plenty with your qualifications but who don't wear glasses".

Rob Jubb said...

I can't see how you can allow conscription: either you're conscripted, in which case you don't have a choice, or you have a volunteer army, in which case people volunteer.

dearieme said...

Oh, the point was to have a law which would allow the govt of the day to introduce conscription when it wanted to without the delay or difficulty of having to pass a law at that time. (Or so I once was told: I'm no authority on this.) I wonder whether such a possibility was left open when we abolished conscription in (approx) 1960.

dearieme said...

Good old Google - "British conscription ended in 1919, but twenty years later was resumed (Military Training Act 1939 [May], superseded by National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939 [September])". I dare say that Hitler was encouraged by the British opposition to conscription in the 30s.

Rob Jubb said...

I'm not sure I'd really want the government to be able to decide to conscript people at the drop of a hat for, amongst others, two rather compelling reasons: firstly, conscription is immensely expensive - you have to pay, feed, house and equip all those conscripts, after all - and I'd like a government to be subject to debate before doing that and secondly, I'd also like it to be subject to debate before coercing entire generational cohorts into spending years doing things they don't particularly want to do, under high risk of death. But then I'm a latte-sipping liberal, doubtless, so I would say things like that.

dearieme said...

Good God, I'm not recommending conscription. I'm just pointing out that with Hitler in power from '33, it wasn't until '39 that we got a conscription law again. This is rather a long way from LBJ, save that it was conscription that the kids were avoiding - either outright, like Cheney and Clinton, or by finding a safe berth, like Gore and W.

Rob Jubb said...

I mostly meant the reference to being a latte-sipping liberal as a joke. Lattes are for wimps, after all: what you really want is an espresso corretto. Really: I'm not getting arsy.

More seriously, the Nazis not only thought of the democracies' aversion to war as a weakness, but appeasement was seen as a confirmation of that, which strengthened their hand domestically: serious opposition to any of the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss, and the partition of Czechoslovakia, as I remember A-Level history, could well have led to a military coup.

I suppose an unwillingness to conscript is part of that, but people had very good reasons to want to avoid war. For one thing, they weren't to know how precarious Hitler's position was with the military, and for another, they weren't to know just how bloody the second world war would be, or what the nazis would do to Jews and other undesirables during it. On the other hand, I'm not sure that being able to conscript without a separate act of parliament would have made that much difference: although it would have probably been formally easier, I'm not sure it would have taken much, if any, of the political sting out of it. People in Britain were generally relieved at Munich, because they didn't want to go to war, and Chamberlain would have been unpopular if he'd gone to war, whether or not he'd needed a vote in Parliament or not.