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War Watch - December 21, 2003 - Good War and Bad War, Victory and Failure - The Ornery American


War Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card December 21, 2003

Good War and Bad War, Victory and Failure

War is a terrible thing, but not all wars are equal.

One war can be better or worse than another.

A war can be less or more destructive of noncombatant people or of the places where it is fought.

A war can be particularly bloody or relatively bloodless.

A war can be better because it yields a decisive outcome that improves the lives of good people and results in relative peace, or worse because its outcome is not clear and sows the seeds of future hatred and slaughter.

Above all, a war can be morally better or worse because of the motives for which it is fought.

Is our current war against terrorism a good war?

Partly because of our astonishingly precise weapons and careful targeting, and partly because the Afghani and Iraqi people, including most of their soldiers, had no interest in resisting our effort to eject their governments, it is fair to say that so far this is one of the least bloody wars in history, compared to the number of troops involved and the amount of territory covered.

Nor have there been many wars in history where the victorious side has been so careful of the lives and property of the citizens of the nations where the campaigns have taken place.

There has been a lot of press coverage of the terrible mistakes of war that have resulted in civilian casualties. But it is unreasonable and unfair to expect soldiers in combat to be error free. A fair comparison with combat is automobile driving -- in both cases, people are using potentially lethal weapons in extremely dangerous circumstances. We expect them to be highly alert, careful to cause no harm to others and to avoid suffering harm themselves.

On the road, there are accidents, and unless there was malice, recklessness, or criminal negligence, we don't assign any moral blame ... though we do take away the drivers licenses of those who are shown to be predictably dangerous.

We are right to look at civilian casualties with great care, to make sure our soldier behaved responsibly. But we would be morally wrong to start from the assumption that every civilian death in warfare could have been avoided, or to blame our troops for not being able to recognize the exact degree of danger they faced at every moment.

War is an ugly, bloody business, which is why decent people avoid it when they can. Once having entered upon a war, however, we owe just as much of a moral obligation to our own troops, if not more, than to the civilian population of the enemy.

Anyone who claims to "support our troops" but then leaps to the conclusion that all civilian deaths or collateral damage were the result of evil intent or criminal negligence by those very soldiers is a hypocrite.

In fact, one of the terrible ironies of war is the grim innocence of the soldiers who conduct it. The actual combatants are considered legitimate targets of violence, even though they are almost all innocent of having caused the war. Thus we accept that if our enemy attacks and kills our soldiers, it was not murder but war, and the enemy soldiers who may have killed our soldiers are treated decently when they are captured, and we expect the same in return.

And yet individual soldiers can commit murder and other crimes; they are not given a moral blank check to do whatever they want, at least not in our society. It is a complicated moral situation, and in most cases it is between a soldier and his comrades and officers or even between a soldier and his own conscience whether he has crossed the line from warfare into crime. But I believe such things happen rarely in a well-disciplined army of decent citizens -- which is an exact description of our military.

But the morality of war is also judged by the collective motives, of the nations as a whole and of their leaders in particular.

The Vietnam War, for instance, was a morass of complicated and contradictory moral reasoning on the part of the American leaders who decided to wage it -- involving political maneuvering, global strategy, and predictions of probably outcomes.

But for the American people, the overwhelming motive was a fervent determination to try to save the people of other nations from the cruel fate of being ruled over by Communists. There can be no doubt that every nation ruled by Communists has been brutalized and oppressed, with dissenters imprisoned, enslaved, or murdered; the differences among Communist governments have only been of degree, not of kind.

So for the American people as a whole, from the beginning of the Vietnam War, the motive was altruistic -- it was the burden we accepted, to keep the evils of Communism contained within the nations that already suffered from its curse. We did all that was in our power to do.

The same is true of our war against terrorism, with the addition that our own noncombatant people have been attacked on our own soil, as well as abroad. Our enemies have no limit to their cruelty and their murderousness; no American target is off limits to them. The right of national self-defense is absolute.

But our enemies do not threaten only us. It is all of western civilization -- the values of democracy, tolerance, diversity, and freedom -- that they wish to destroy, and they have no moral compunctions about killing anyone they think it is to their advantage to kill. So in waging this war, we not only defend ourselves, we also are trying to protect the whole world from this destructive and evil force.

Our enemy at this time is the enemy of all of civilization, as surely as during World War II or during the Cold War. We are in the right, and when our soldiers die, they die not just to protect Americans, but to protect all human beings who love peace and freedom; and when they kill, it is for that same national motive.

Is there anger and hatred involved in our national motive, too? A lust for vengeance? Of course, in small amounts -- how could there not be? But as a nation we repudiate those motives; they may be privately held by a few, but they are much preached against and most people do not share them.

Is it possible that the motives of our leaders are not as morally pure as those of the American people in this war?

Of course, and the greatest moral burden is upon those who would lead a nation into war. But it is worth pointing out that despite the assumptions and accusations of their opponents, this government showed no tendency to commit our forces to combat or to use our military to bludgeon other nations into compliance with our will.

It is easy to charge America with imperialistic motives, but any rational assessment of our behavior as a nation in the past century, when we clearly stood astride the world as an economic and military colossus, would show that we behaved with historically unprecedented restraint.

And our present government has shown itself to be bound by the same principles of restraint. Only the provocation of the 9/11 assault on our civilian population stirred them to action; and the action they have taken -- war against the nations that sponsor terrorism, against us, other nations, and their own people -- is the only one that showed the slightest hope of improving the long-term peace and freedom of the world.

It is pure fantasy on the part of our enemies and critics to charge that America is the source of danger in the world. If our troops had not spent the last half-century deployed in Germany and South Korea, it is doubtful that the nations that now most savagely denigrate us would have the freedom and prosperity they now enjoy. American blood and American treasure have fertilized their fields and sheltered their cities, and we have demanded little in return. The fact that many of them begrudge us or deny us even the little we have asked -- loyalty, respect -- says nothing about us and everything about them.

Germany, once conquered by us in a far bloodier war than the one we waged in Iraq, should know that being conquered by Americans is the best thing that ever happened to them in their painful history. France, whose own soldiers and government melted away once they were outmaneuvered by Hitler's military, owes its freedom -- both from Nazism and Communism -- to American troops and nuclear weapons that sheltered them in their surly resentment. It was not America that ended the greatness of France -- that was something the French accomplished for themselves -- but it was America that preserved the freedom and independence of France.

Above all nations on this planet, France and Germany should recognize a war of liberation when they see it. It is to their shame, not ours, that they do not.

But apart from a few loud and selfish abstainers or opponents, the majority of the free nations of the Earth are governed by leaders wise enough to recognize that their own future peace and freedom hang upon the outcome of this war against terrorism. That is why, despite tremendous political risk, Britain, Spain, Italy, Poland, Australia, and many other nations have joined with us and shared in the loss of life and treasure in the effort to break the backs of the governments that wage war against the whole world through surrogate armies of terrorists.

What about the outcome of the war? That is impossible yet to judge. The outcome is not yet decisive, because the two worst purveyors of government-sponsored terrorism, Syria and Iran, continue to be ruled by leaders who regard slaughtering our people and the civilians of other nations as a noble goal.

If we declare victory and go home, we will have accomplished less than nothing. An enemy must be completely defeated, or you will simply have to fight the same war later, on less advantageous terms. And our enemy was not Saddam or the Taliban or even Osama bin Laden. Our enemy was and is Islamist terrorism, which is the enemy of humankind and which cannot be defeated if America does not pursue this war with grim determination until we are victorious.

In 2003 we achieved great success on the battlefield -- and also great diplomatic success, in that we were able to utterly shatter the attempt by our enemies to declare that America could not defend itself without the consent of nations that hate us and care nothing for the lives of our people or our soldiers.

But in 2004, we will be making the ultimate decision about whether or not to win the decisive victory. The first campaign will take place entirely on American soil, as we must choose between the current administration, which shows every sign of intending to pursue victory, and the Democratic Party, which so far seems grimly determined to nominate candidates that will undo all our gains so far and leave us permanently exposed to enemies that are emboldened by American weakness.

As a Democrat, I have seen only one candidate of my party who has pledged to pursue the war against terrorism -- Senator Lieberman -- and if current polls can be said to predict the future, he has no chance of being the Democratic nominee. I hope that other Democrats like me, who do not hate American culture and do not hope for American defeat in this good and necessary war, will reject the lunatic fringe that currently dominates our party and nominate someone like Lieberman, so that no matter who wins the election, this good war can be brought to a successful conclusion, to the great and lasting benefit of ourselves, our allies, and, yes, even our enemies.

If we, as a people, vote to end this war inconclusively, then it will have been a very bad war after all, for it will have encouraged our enemies and discouraged our friends, making us even more of a target for every kind of opposition, now and in the future, for decades to come.

Abraham Lincoln faced a similar election in 1864, and his was in the midst of a far bloodier, more costly war, which had been provoked by one issue and one issue only -- the insistence by some states on their right to enslave human beings, and their unwillingness to accept the outcome of an election which elected the candidate most repugnant to them. That was what provoked secession, and secession is what led to war.

Lincoln faced as his opponent a popular -- no, a beloved -- general, George B. McClellan, whose only important platform plank was to negotiate an end to the war, which would certainly mean the continuation of slavery and the division of the United States into two nations with incompatible goals.

A McClellan victory would have resulted in a "peace" that wasted the lives of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides who had already died. And the "peace" would have lasted only a little while, because two American nations, one slave and one free, would have quarreled constantly about western lands, about navigation and border issues, and about foreign policy. The next war would certainly have involved foreign nations as well. And all the gains the Union had made to that point would have had to be regained, at greater cost in life and money.

But it is hard to explain the inevitability of war to people who are sick of it, and many believed that Lincoln was doomed to defeat.

What saved his presidency was probably the votes of the soldiers. They knew better than anyone the cost of war; but they also knew that Lincoln had led them well and that they were on the road to victory. They refused to have that victory snatched away if they, by their votes, could preserve it.

In 2004, George W. Bush is a president just as mocked and vilified as Lincoln was by his opponents, and just as undeserving of the mockery. Whether he has potential for greatness of a Lincoln is unknowable, though I believe there are signs of it -- like, for instance, his proven moral character and a degree of confidence and leadership ability that he can surround himself with underlings with powerful personalities and strong disagreements, and yet remain in control of government.

But even if he were as weak and stupid as the stupidest of his opponents claim, he is the President and his is the administration that led us this far on the road to victory against those who have murdered our and other people here and abroad, and that seems determined to go on until the whole war is won.

This election, more than any other in recent memory, will give us the chance to decide, with greater clarity than in most elections, what the future of our nation and the world will be.

On this point, France and Germany have no vote; Russia and China, Al-Jazira and Al-Qaeda have no influence.

The burden of decision has been placed on this generation of American voters, who have inherited a nation made great by the actions of their forebears. Now we will decide whether America will remain great and good, or wither away like so many other nations that have lacked the will to make the national and personal sacrifices that greatness and goodness require.

Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card.

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