Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Virtues of Peace

I really appreciated this post by Ezra Klein over at The American Prospect, because it articulated some of what had been bothering me about the Kerry flap. Key graf:
I loathe the tendency--by politicians and pundits, liberals and conservatives--to dreamily speak of the great sacrifice, magnificent courage, inspiring intellect, and extraordinary characters of our troops. It's bullshit. And it's bullshit designed to make us feel better, so we don't have to face what we've done to these young people, and don't have to imagine the toll a warzone takes on real humans, rather than imagined supermen.
It's an unhealthy thing for a society to have shibboleths--stock ideas to which everyone is publicly required to pay homage, thereby stifling any attempt at actual thought about the realities underlying the ideas. It seems to me that, in politics at least, we Americans have more of these shibboleths today than at any time in recent history. Every politician of both parties is forced to pretend that he or she subscribes to a whole list of beliefs that, far from being self-evident, range from at least questionable to extremely unlikely. They include:

  • The choices made by the American electorate are never wrong
  • Not only does God exist, but he has a special place in his heart and an historic mission in mind for the United States of America
  • Family values (whatever they are) are the foundation of social order
  • The beliefs and attitudes of the American middle class are unquestionably correct in every detail
  • America is the freest, richest, bravest, kindest, and most generous nation in the history of the world

As Klein dares to point out, another of these shibboleths--the belief that the American military is a repository of every virtue known to humankind and therefore beyond criticism--is, to put it kindly, highly dubious.

One of the problems that results from elevating this particular belief to a shibboleth is that it encourages the infiltration of military values into every aspect of American society, especially into politics. We see it in the constant references to the president as "commander in chief," as if we are ruled by some sort of warlord. We see it in the excessive lionizing of soldiers like John McCain and Colin Powell, whose past military heroics serve to obscure recognition of their massive failures as political leaders. We see it in the imposition of the military code of unquestioning loyalty and group discipline throughout the Republican Party, including in Congress, which has abdicated its duty of oversight in favor of blind support for any policy promulgated by our "wartime president."

Military values have their place. When the nation is threatened, we want soldiers who embody those values on the front lines. But the virtues of peace (or of civil society), including the use of reason to question and challenge our leaders; the diffusion of power and responsibility throughout the citizenry rather than its concentration in a few hands; and (above all) a recognition of peace as the single greatest goal of statesmanship, and of war as the ultimate failure--these virtues are even more important for the health of our society than the military ones.

The founders didn't envision the United States as a new Sparta--tyannical, muscle-bound, imperialistic. What a needless tragedy if we convert it into one.

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