Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006
 
Poppies, omelettes and apples.

Mark Steyn writes:

Anyone who supports the launching of a war should be clear-sighted enough to know that, when the troops go in, a few of them will kill civilians, bomb schools, torture prisoners. It happens in every war in human history, even the good ones. Individual Americans, Britons, Canadians, Australians did bad things in World War II and World War I.
I owe my decades-old realistic appreciation of this fact to the left wing press. For years the newspapers I read kept telling me that there was no such thing as a good war. In the early 1980s I knew more about Allied atrocities in World War II than Allied victories.

This post reminisces about trends, so let me say at once that trends are not absolute. In the period I am talking about, the Guardian, the paper I read most often, also provided quite a few articles about World War II from another perspective, written by the sort of left wingers who were just about willing to be told by Studs Terkel that their Good War wasn't all it was cracked up to be, but, dammit, not by any lesser man. Having been designated by fate as the last human being in South London to adopt every trend, I was that sort of left winger until I stopped being one at all and defected back from the Guardian to the Times. But in my Guardian days I had had a bad feeling. My sort of left wing view of WWII was definitely being edged out.

There were different strands of opinion present in the advancing forces: some thought that World War II was the biggest capitalist sham of all, others that it might have been just barely justified, but if so was the only justifiable use of military force in all human history. Unlike these two factions a third, smaller faction got to a similar end point via harking back to a pre-WWII left-wing attitude towards violence, to a time when the slogan "You can't make omelettes without breaking eggs" was not used ironically. This group felt that the Western Allies were lent a temporary respectability by being on the same side in WWII as the Soviet Union, and the war itself, with all its undesirable uniforms and generals, was lent a temporary respectability by having included quite a lot of guerilla warfare that occasionally resembled revolution.

The advancing school of thought concerning WWII disagreed among itself on some issues but all factions agreed that any tendency to national pride in the victory over Nazism must be slapped down immediately. The red poppy should give place to the white poppy, worn to commemorate "all the victims of war". In the Guardian and other papers I read there was a constant stream of articles and letters to the editor saying that Churchill was concerned only to continue to oppress the Empire, the Americans were only in it for the chance to supplant the British in this function, that the alleged "spirit of Dunkirk" or "spirit of the Blitz" were mere phantasms created by propagandist newsreels, and that the atomic bomb was dropped on an already-defeated Japan purely to scare the Russians, And, most relevant here, that allied soldiers had killed prisoners and noncombatants without much compunction.

There is some truth in all these arguments. Churchill was indeed an imperialist; few Britons born in 1874 were not. Nations do not cease to seek national advantage just because they are allies in war. You never did hear on newsreels about the black marketeers and looters. By 1945 the Americans and the Russians were jockeying for best position in the post-war world, and Truman probably did include that factor in his caluclations when deciding to drop the bomb. Surrendering - putting yourself at the mercy of those whose friends you might have killed minutes earlier - was a dangerous business for German WWII soldiers, as it has been for soldiers in every war.

But I knew perfectly well that the line being pushed was that the West never had the right to feel proud of itself. I got so worried and annoyed that when I noticed that there was some controversy about the author of The Destruction of Dresden, a chap called David Irving, being a guest at an SS reunion dinner, I squirrelled that fact away for use in later debate. I had heard that book cited so many times that I was glad of a chance to supply even an ad hominem argument against it.

So the Guardian, the Observer and the odd New Statesman gave me a skewed but not false course of education in the worst deeds of the Allies. Now that I think about it the Times wasn't much different on this issue. I think it was more left wing then. The Telegraph was different, but it had its own distortions. It is as Steyn says. "Individual Americans, Britons, Canadians, Australians did bad things in World War II and World War I." (I haven't dealt with World War I here; the view of the left wing press then as now was that it was undifferentiated slaughter.) Even so, I thought and think, the difference between the sides in WWII was very great - and the need to fight was very great.

I wrote above that there was a time when the phrase "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs" was used without irony by revolutionary communists. What discredited the communists' use of that metaphor was the increasingly obvious fact that they cared no more about cracked human skulls than cracked eggs and the other increasingly obvious fact that their omelette was poison from the very start. Nowadays even the most devoted revolutionary keeps his culinary wisdom separated from his politics, and it's certainly a good thing that the inhuman ruthlessness of the communists has been generally recognised. But as for the metaphor itself, I submit that there are only two political groups who do not subscribe to it in some form: absolute pacifists and those libertarians who say that men and women must never be means but always ends in themselves. Both of these groups are marginal because when wars come along most of their members ditch their teachings and declare for one side or the other. Nearly all of us are willing to crack eggs if the omelette will feed enough people. We may want different omelettes and have different views as to which eggs should be cracked. If we have any humanity we try to always remember that the eggs matter. But to pretend that either side in our present dispute between those who supported and those who opposed the Iraq war are above making calculations in human lives is foolish. I calculated that war deaths were worth it. Others calculated that deaths due to leaving Saddam in power were worth it or that deaths due to "letting the Iraqis fight it out among themselves" would be worth it.

One factor in those calculations was that, to take up another metaphor that is hardly ever used unironically these days, there are a few bad apples in every barrel. Some men in an army of thousands will commit atrocities with the guns they are given. We will hear soon the official verdict as to whether an atrocity was committed at Haditha; but whether it was or it wasn't, there will be atrocities by our side.

This sort of talk makes people angry. When he was secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Reginald Maudling said that he hoped that eventually there would be "an acceptable level of violence" in the province, and Northern Irish people are still angry about it more than thirty years later - but if human behaviour in Northern Ireland or anywhere else is examined it is clear that there are prices (e.g. total clampdown on civil liberties) we will not pay to be free of violence, even if one had any confidence (I don't) that paying the various suggested "prices" would deliver that result.

There are many philosophical discussions of this type of situation, where one's actions, though intended to do good in the end, will have secondary bad results that are forseen but not intended. I started to dredge up memories of what I had read about things like the doctrine of double effect and collateral damage and so forth, but shied away. There is too much to say.

There is no course of action in the case of the Iraq War that delivers the result that there no atrocities. If Saddam had been left in power, there would have been no atrocities by our side. But his atrocities would have gone on. If the Coalition were to leave Iraq tomorrow there would be no future atrocities by our side - but groups with a proven record of exulting in atrocities would have free rein.