War and the honor of nations
I meant to call attention to this post of Callimachus's when I first read it some days ago. But better late than never.
It's entitled, "Why We Fight," and is the usual thoughtful and wide-ranging rumination on history and present events for which Callimachus is known (and, if he's not known for it, he should be). Read the whole thing, as somebody-or-other says.
Callimachus discusses the fact that wars are ordinarily fought for some combination of fear, profit, honor--and, more recently, idealism. But I was especially interested in his discussion of the concept of honor. It's probably one of the things that was in my mind back here, when I called attention to Bush's phrase in his State of the Union speech: there is no honor in retreat.
Some called the phrase empty posturing, a useless slogan. But I think if they had read Callimachus's piece they might have better understood why it appealed to me. He writes:
The word "honor" itself rarely is heard any more in international contexts, but it lurks under words like "resolve" and "credibility...
Marxist anti-war rhetoric obscured the importance of honor in America's failed bid to create and sustain an independent South Vietnam. A communist victory in South Vietnam would made no dent in America's material interests, nor would it make American measurably less secure. Johnson and Kennedy both knew this. But once committed, our honor was at stake. Bin Laden and his ilk certainly understand this; they continually taunt America's allies in the Middle East with the image of America going back on its word and abandoning its ally in Southeast Asia..."
Callimachus goes on to detail how these different motives have entered into the wars America has fought in the past, including the most recent one in Iraq, in which he says all four motives: fear, profit, honor, and idealism--were at play:
Why did America go to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003? Clearly there was fear. We debate endlessly and frivolously how much the fear turned out to be justified. But the fact remains, no amount of intelligence about Iraq's weapons and controllinging force on Saddam's intentions would have been flawless so long as he remained in power. And in that gap between what we know and what we suspect, always would have been fear.
Clearly there was an awareness of the "profit" -- the riches of Iraq's oil. Despite the angry denunciations of "blood for oil," however, I think the worst the Americans can be accused of is intending to use Iraq's oil to pay for the war and the reconstruction, which hardly amounts to a crime against humanity. It didn't work, anyhow.
And clearly there was a question of national honor. Every day Saddam lived to murder and mock, to rape and preen, was felt as an affront to America. It must have been an especial affront to George W. Bush, Colin Powell, and many others in the administration who had failed to topple the dictator in 1991.
There was, indisputably, the Wilsonian ideal, embodied in the "neo-cons" and the liberal interventionists. There are Little Roosevelts in the mix, too, grumbling about the administration's failure to grasp the hard truths of Realpolitik. And there are triangluations of the positions: "high-minded realists," for instance, who stand apart from the self-appointed champions of global democracy but who recognize that a stated preference for liberty and justice can be a useful foreign policy tool in the fight against global terror.
Honor is a quaint word, and a protean one: it means different things to different people. One of the things it means is to keep one's word, and to enforce treaties and agreements. In this way a reputation is gained for reliability. It is this, among other things, that America lost at the end of its long Vietnam travail.
It was the loss of "honor" in this particular sense that Bin Laden was counting on when he attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11. And it is this concept of honor--and honoring one's word--that is at least part of the reason we cannot retreat from Iraq now.
The specter of Vietnam has been invoked--conjured up, really, as in a seance--almost endlessly during the war in Iraq, whether appropriately or not. But it's time to put that specter to rest, and to drive a stake into its heart.