Wednesday, June 1, 2011

War, Libya and the Blind Spot

In 2003 I marched with 90,000 protesters through Dublin against the imminent invasion of Iraq. I was still in university then, and taken with its centre-left simplifications about the upcoming war. We parroted the posters stuck on college walls by student socialist organisations, blaming the invasion on American neo-imperialism: No Blood for Oil! My opposition to the war was framed in left-wing and moralistic anti-war language.

Three years later Israel invaded Lebanon and once again I found myself erring on the side of peace. This time, though, my language was less moralistic, more pragmatic: after weeks of fighting I can remember remarking on an online discussion forum that both Israel and Hezbollah were still standing, implying that the violence had been in vain for both parties.

Recently I noticed something odd about my response to the Western intervention in Libya. Same as before, I was siding against intervention, against a military solution, yet my language had lost the moralistic tone of my college days. In these new discussions I never bothered to address the moral question at all, framing the debate entirely in strategic terms. That is, I was taking a sceptical line more common to libertarians and paleoconservatives than socialists, by questioning the humanistic justification for the war.

I asked questions often posed by realist conservatives. If Gaddafi continues to destroy the rebels, will intervention escalate? Will we see troops on Libyan soil? Could the rebels form another harmful authoritarian government? Will the arrival of old colonial powers like France and Italy play into the hands of Islamist propagandists, already calling this a Crusade? In online debates I described already overstretched European and American armied getting bogged down in Libya, a civil war escalating into a major conflict like Iraq.

This self-interested rhetoric, concerned more with the strategic wellbeing of Western powers than the protection of foreign civilians, was a radical change for me and a consequence of reading conservative perspectives on international politics. Yet the implication of my argument was the familiar old one: that war should be avoided.

With Libya, as with every single war I had lived through, I advocated peace, even if the consequences of that peace were potentially dreadful. That my justifications had altered while the implication of peace had not, suggested something troubling: that I was deluding myself in all of this, justifying an irrational attachment to peace.

That attachment, so stubborn in resisting compromise, probably comes from my childhood. Raised in a tolerant post-Vatican II Catholicism, where the Fifth Commandment was translated as ‘you shall not kill’, rather than the less equivocal ‘you shall not murder’, I had a strong sense of an absolute moral order which prohibited killing. Even as a child I was bothered by the mixed messages of adults who insisted simultaneously that we Christians turn the other cheek, while retaining armies to defend against foreign invasion.

For me a compromise between the absolute prohibition of killing I understood from religion with the pragmatic need for defensive violence may have been offered, ludicrously, by Saturday morning cartoons. The animated Batman threatened and battered criminals, but Batman never killed. Going back further I watched the A-Team spraying bullets from machine guns at easily-routed enemies who nonetheless always crawled, unharmed, from the wreckage of their vehicles. These shows retained the taboo on killing while embracing cartoonish non-fatal violence, perhaps influencing my own maturing grasp of morality by compromising the need to fight with the aversion to killing.

That was why, years later, I could argue against war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya without considering myself a naïve pacifist. Yet deep down I had simply ruled out killing as an option, so my arguments against war were simply excuses to justify that. An apparent development from naïve moralism to toughened scepticism actually disgusied a paralysis, a deeper stubborness against new ideas.

War and killing were my blind spots. We all have some of these, and it can be useful to introspect a little about it. What are the deeper dogmas you hide behind political justifications?

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