Friday, September 10, 2004

Morality Vs. Necessity

Man... I wish I were as smart as Timothy Burke. (Though I guess I should should just wish for a little more willingness to sit down and blog! Sorry for the silence lately.) This is one of the best, most reasonable posts re: winning the war on terrorism I've read.

If some people feel uneasy about Kerry, it may be because they feel that Kerry's perspective on international affairs will be governed more by the need to be virtuous than to be effective. I don't think this is a fair reading of Kerry or his team, but it is a fair reading of one major lineage of anti-war sentiment. I think it is important for us to act ethically but not just because that's the right thing to do -- I also think it's the effective thing to do. This is to some extent the accident of this particular struggle. If the war we are now engaged in was a conventional war between two armies battling for the control of territory, and the opportunity to gain an important strategic victory through the use of heavy bombardment even at the cost of civilian lives and property destruction presented itself, I'd say that you go ahead and take the opportunity. That is not what this war is about; that is not the nature of this particular conflict.

You don't bring a knife to a gun fight, and you don't act like a clumsy occupier or New Crusader if what you really need to do is marginalize and contain terrorist groups in Islamic societies. But if the necessary approach happens to also look like the most conventionally moral one, then that's just a fortunate coincidence. In this instance, Vietnam is less the appropriate historical sounding board than Hiroshima. (Not, I hasten to note, because the use of nuclear weapons is advisable in the here and now, merely because of the moral questions that Hiroshima raises about how to conduct warfare.) Hiroshima may not have been the right thing to do, but it was probably the necessary thing to do, or to put it differently, one kind of moral principle trumped another in that decision. Not so absolutely that we can be sure, even now, which was which: it remains, legitimately, a case to debate. But I know how I would want that equation solved myself, and should a similarly tough decision present itself, I know which way I want the painful calculus to go.

At least some critics of the war are more concerned with the promotion of national (or international) virtue, and from collective virtue, their own personal virtue. At least some critics of the war worry more about whether they're personally good people than worry about what is good for the United States and the world. The more that Kerry appears to represent that approach, the more than those who believe that our government must do what is necessary in war will feel uneasy or be unable to support him, regardless of the demonstrated incompetence of the Bush Administration in the actual conduct of post-9/11 world affairs.

That's what the subtext of the absurd battle over who was more manly in 1970 is about: not just who can do the right thing, but the necessary thing. If Kerry can't convince more people that he is ready to do the necessary thing with the hope that it turns out to be the right thing as well, he may lose.