Reckless and Cruel Pride
America's Heart of Darkness
Thursday, April 15, 1999
pressure mounts for the U.S.-led NATO to commit ground forces to its war against
Serbia, Americans should recognize that discussion of the moral dimensions of
American military intervention has been inadequate. Both those who favor intervention
and those who, for pragmatic reasons, oppose it agree that "morality" dictates
U.S. military action. But this presumed moral imperative obscures the moral hazards
inherent in the savage war of peace that many clamor is America's duty to wage.
Our crusading zeal no doubt satisfies our image
of ourselves. And explaining away the horror in the Balkans as simply the product
of a nefarious Serbian leader is reassuring, just as believing such evil can be
exorcised by "decisive American action" is comforting. But to indulge in Balkan
rescue fantasies is to play a role fraught with danger to ourselves and to others.
America's missionary impulse--the conviction that
we are obliged to inflict our conscience upon the world--engenders a reckless
and cruel pride. A sense of righteous omnipotence is usually the mark not of a
balanced and enlightened state but of the fanatic and the crusader, from whose
civilizing zeal brutality seems inevitably to flow. If we choose to be morality's
avenging angel in Kosovo, we may at first be pleased to see ourselves, like Kurtz
in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," as "an emissary of pity and progress." But as
warriors for right, faced with those we have demonized, we will eventually succumb
to Kurtz's conclusions as well: "Exterminate the brutes."
Those calling for a crusade in the Balkans forget
that something perhaps necessary but nonetheless terrible happens to Americans
when they make war. They become ruthless. The public's response to the war in
Vietnam is a good example. In 1968, when opposition to that conflict turned fierce
across the country, the number of Americans who favored ending the war by escalating,
even to the point of invading North Vietnam--a move likely to risk war with China
and the Soviet Union--exceeded the number favoring complete withdrawal by a majority
of 5-3. Even though Americans did not see their security threatened by events
in Vietnam, expert pollsters described public reaction to American soldiers committing
mass murder and rape at My Lai in 1969 as "at best bland." Far from feeling moral
outrage, a disturbing number of Americans were crying out for blood. More recently,
although there was initially little public enthusiasm for the Gulf War, once it
became clear that a ground war was imminent, fully half the public favored using
tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq.
War is at best a defensive necessity; it is never
a civilizing exercise. Even--or perhaps especially--a war in the name of morality
brutalizes all. Fortunately, we managed to avoid our worst excesses in Vietnam
and Desert Storm. During Vietnam, America's political leadership, more sensitive
to the apocalyptic dangers of unlimited conflict than was the public or military,
leashed in the dogs of war, much to the public's and military's frustration. The
Gulf War was less restrained since there was no fear of inciting a superpower
confrontation, but it was mercifully short.
Military action against Serbia, however, promises
to be more complex and time-consuming than obliterating Iraqi army units on the
desert floor. Public and military pressure to do quickly whatever is needed to
win "decisive victory" will probably swell once it becomes clear that, as nearly
all military experts believe, only large numbers of ground forces conducting offensive
operations can "persuade" Serbia, and that "enforcing" peace in Kosovo will require
protracted and potentially very bloody pacification operations.
Vietnam and the Gulf War were fought for the same
ostensible purposes that impel intervention in the Balkans: to punish aggression
and to ensure a just and peaceful world order. But these laudable if abstract
ends justified atrocious means. Notoriously, in Vietnam, villages were "saved"
by being destroyed. In the Gulf, international law was preserved--and a virtually
bloodless victory for America purchased--at the price of an estimated 100,000
Iraqi soldiers as well as 170,000 Iraqi civilians who died in the public health
crisis created by America's "antiseptic" air war, a campaign described by a U.N.
report as "near apocalyptic." Given an enemy to hate, a righteous cause and fear
for its men and women in uniform, America--like any country--will treat military
operations not as a delicate and limited means to bring about a more moral world
but as a blunt instrument to inflict pain.
President Clinton has often spoken of America's
moral force as born of this country's "founding ideals." But he should remember
that America's founders warned us to go "not abroad in search of monsters to destroy"
for fear of the monster we might create at home.
Schwarz Is a Correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the Former Executive Editor
of World Policy Journal
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved