December 05, 2004

Interesting Reading in the New York Review of Books

When I made a pledge to KQED this year, I got a subscription to the New York Review of Books magazine. I've always really liked some of their regulars, including Garry Wills, who I think is one of the best writers and thinkers around. It's been very nice getting this magazine in hard copy because it then I can go back and read some of the really excellent essays that I missed, including several by Mark Danner about Abu Ghraib and Michael Massing about the state of our media. (Of course, this means that my place has a steadily increasing pile of magazines I've yet found time to read. sigh) Here are a few of the excellent essays that I've found that are worth taking time to read.

Garry Wills reviewed Arguing About War by Michael Walzer and discussed the history and concepts of Just War in What is a Just War? In this essay, Wills tries to answer the question "Can wars ever be moral?" Certainly today we can see that the Iraq war conceived in lies and suspect motives cannot be considered a just war, and I suspect that much of the ugliness of how it is being waged is directly related to the immorality of the people who are running the show. What will the legacy of this war be on us as a people and on those who fought and died there for us? Wills says that Walzer believes that even during just wars, evil is done and although the war may be necessary, the evil must be acknowledged.

Walzer is, in a perhaps unconscious way, very Augustinian in his belief that no theory of justice can free warriors from guilt. They may have to kill, but they give rein to atrocities all the same, since even a just war is a fountain of evil. Augustine puts it this way:

Anyone who looks with anguish on evils so great, so repulsive, so savage, must acknowledge the tragedy of it all; and if anyone experiences them or even looks on at them without anguish, his condition is even more tragic, since he remains serene by losing his humanity.

Walzer, in similar vein, says that all war overrides certain moral rules; but even when they have to be overridden, they remain moral rules: "Overriding the rules leaves guilt behind as a recognition of the enormity of what we have done." "The tradition" often implies that belligerent acts in a just war are themselves moral—which is the basis of triumphalism and patriotic smugness. Walzer denies the right to such self-congratulation. Even a just war, he says, "invites—and then only insofar as it also requires—an immoral response: we do what we must (every legitimate alternative having been exhausted)." Paradoxically, then, a person who tries to act morally in war sees his own immorality.

As we try to make sense of the mess that is Iraq, it helps to have some gifted thinkers provide some context on the morality of war.

This month's issue has two articles I highly recommend. One is by Thomas Powers about the problems with the CIA becoming a political arm of the Bush administration to the detriment of being able to provide realistic information even if it does not fit the preconceived views of the administration. As Powers said, the CIA has two conflicting missions: 1) to answer to the President and 2) to give realistic intelligence no matter who it discomforts in order to provide the best information for protecting our national security. When these two things are badly out of whack (like they are now), the country is not served well at all.

One provocative point Power raises concerns what the President should have done when he received the warnings from the CIA before 9/11. The administration excuse that there wasn't enough information to do anything was foolish. As Powers said, if Bush was concerned or engaged, he would have done something, but he did nothing. (Emphasis in the original)

This is not a stretch. I don't think I am being unfair. Think of the recent battery of big storms in Florida. Every one was anticipated vigorously despite the fact that it was impossible to say precisely when or where the heart of the storm would strike until the final hours. If you wait, it's too late. So the authorities evacuated the Keys—unnecessarily. They evacuated New Orleans—unnecessarily. But they put all the responders on alert, and they evacuated coastlines which in fact were hit, and bad as the storms were, they might have been a great deal worse if everybody had sat back and waited for the connecting of the final dots on the weather map. The same response might have been given to the CIA's warnings before September 11. There are lots of things to do when you don't know exactly what to do. But the President did nothing. It would be hard to find words adequate to describe the full range and amplitude of the nothing that he did. My own preliminary, working explanation is that for reasons of his own the President decided to do nothing. Why? Historians will be occupied for many years before they come to agreement on the answer to that question.

Don't miss Michael Massing's latest indictment of the press. As he says, too many people did not understand how bad things had gotten in Iraq and that much of this is the responsibility of the media who did not tell the real story to the American public. All those who voted for Bush because they worried more about what Kerry would do on national security just did not understand the extent of the catastrophy that Bush has architected and we now are doomed to see this fatal policy play out to its unfortunate end. And Massing believes that our media will continue to censor itself rather than tell the American public what is really being done in Iraq.

Posted by Mary at December 5, 2004 02:00 PM | Recommended Reading | Technorati links |