Tag: war (page 2 of 2)

Olympic Dreams

The 2008 Summer Olympic games kicked off today in Beijing, on the same day as Russia and Georgia go to war. Correlation? Causation?

John Hoberman’s “Think Again” article in the most recent issue of Foreign Policy would have us believe that the Olympics are not only irrelevant to, but actually bad for world order and international cooperation:

“The real genius of the IOC is its ability to create and sustain the myth that it promotes peace. In reality… trapped by its grandiose goal of embracing the entire ‘human family’ at whatever cost, the IOC has repeatedly caved in and awarded the games to police states bent on staging spectacular festivals that serve only to reinforce their own authority.”

I am no expert on the IOC’s history or on any large-N studies that may or may not confirm Hoberman’s claim that the Olympics have a negative or at best zero effect on the frequency or intensity of interstate war. But I am able to see an important conceptual problem in Hoberman’s argument: he treats “internal human rights” as synonymous with “interstate peace.” For example, the first sentence of his abstract begins with the foil: “The Olympic Games were founded to bridge cultural divides and promote peace.” But the article primarily refers to the internal human rights abuses of certain Olympic-hosting states as evidence that this goal has not been met by the IOC. Hoberman derides the IOC’s official policy of political neutrality and Olympic diplomacy as an “old cliche”:

“What the Olympics promote instead is a form of amoral universalism in which all countries are entitled to take part in the games no matter how barbaric their leaders may be.”

But it is precisely this amoral universalism that has the capacity to promote peace – among, not within, countries. It is no different from the political neutrality espoused by humanitarian organizations who, like the IOC, lack coercive instruments and instead peddle universal norms; or by the United Nations, an organization founded on the sovereign equality of states moreso than on a commitment to clean up their internal politics. In fact, the tension between these two noble goals – international stability between states, and human rights within them – underlies many of the key debates about UN reform today. Hoberman treats these two goals as if they are the same and can be conflated, when in fact, achieving one often depends on undermining the other.

Do the Olympics promote human rights? I’ll buy his argument that they can legitimize offending governments. But does the IOC claim to be a human rights organization? No. Its avowed goal of “acting as a catalyst for collaboration between all members of the Olympic Family” does in fact, perhaps, sometimes depend on looking the other way when it comes to internal repression by governments who think of themselves as family members.

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Analogies of War

Political leaders have long relied on historical analogies to frame, explain, and justify important policy choices. The current administration is no exception when discussing its policy toward Iraq—the most recent instance occurring when Tony Snow described keeping US forces in Iraq “as we have in South Korea.” Indeed, Iraq has been a war full of analogies: Bush’s father analogized Saddam Hussien to Hitler in the first Gulf War, Rumsfeld wanted to rebuild Iraq like Germany after World War II, the insurgents in Iraq created another Vietnam, though the US did not want to leave like Vietnam, with Baghdad well on its way to becoming a new Beirut, and now it looks like the US will remain, as we have in Korea.

Analogies are more than just passing references to history. Analogies are caricatures of key moments seared into the country’s collective memory, commonplaces that evoke a particular emotion, triumph, or failure. The specific details of the historical moment in question are less important than the memory it evokes. At Munich, appeasement failed and subsequent Munichs are avoided by leaders invoking the analogy and standing strong against aggressive dictators.

Leaders use analogies because they offer a powerful tool to legitimize policy options. Analogies frame the discussion by identifying the key issues at stake. Historical commonplaces are known for one key moment. Beirut is a once proud city in the chaos of an intractable civil war. Invoking Beirut brings the discussion to civil war and sectarian strife. German reconstruction successfully created a thriving democracy out of a former enemy, focusing the discussion on democratic success. Analogies explain policy by laying out a simple story of how a process works. Each historical moment has a caption, and that widely recited caption gives a logical progression of how a goal can be achieved. Robust deterrence contained the Soviet Union and brought about its downfall. Analogies justify by drawing on widely shared collective judgments on historical events. The unfamiliar situation of the present can be read through a well-understood template on which society’s collective judgment has already been rendered. Everyone “knows” Vietnam was a failure, so avoiding another Vietnam in Iraq is to avoid national humiliation.

When Snow invoked the Korea analogy, he was attempting to legitimize the Administration’s current policy in the face of substantial criticism. Korea frames the policy as a discussion of long term engagement with a partner country in the face of a mutual threat. Korea explains the policy: just as a robust but isolated US presence deters further aggression from North Korea, allowing South Korea to thrive, so too would a sustained US presence in Iraq help ward of future threats from terrorism in the Middle East. Finally, Korea justifies the policy as a successful, sustainable, and affordable price to pay to realize a key national interest.

The problem, as political scientists who study the use of analogies readily point out, is that analogies are a particularly bad way to make decisions and lead to highly flawed policy choices, usually with disastrous outcomes. Analogies are caricatures of history, not history itself, and as a result, this selective memory leaves out the messy, complicated, and contingent details that produced the relevant outcome. The strained comparison between past and present glosses over significant differences between wars and important historical details that are, in fact, essential factors of success or failure. Iraq is neither Germany nor Vietnam nor Korea, and treating it as such is sure-fire recipe for disaster. Trying to win the last war is no way to win the current one.

Quibbling over the accuracy of a historical comparison—Korea, Vietnam, Germany—misses the larger significance these analogies the contemporary policy debate. As historical commonplaces, analogies are rhetorical tools to define a debate and legitimate its resolution. Despite overwhelming public opinion to the contrary—61% of Americans say the war is not worth fighting and 55% want to reduce US forces in Iraq—the Bush Administration has made a clear decision to maintain a substantial military presence in Iraq for the long haul. Deploying the Korea analogy narrows the debate. Discussion moves away from what kind of progress the troops in Iraq are actually able to make and what future outcomes are even possible to hollow choice of Korea or Vietnam. If the administration can shift the debate to a question of what a sustained US presence in Iraq looks like by using the Korea analogy, it will make the point that such a presence is acceptable to the American public. In doing so, it will gloss over the tremendous gap between Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and the Green Zone in Baghdad, and side-step the fundamental question of what now constitutes success in Iraq and what compromises we must accept to approach it. Korea is not a model for the future of the US in Iraq, it’s a justification for a policy that the Bush Administration would rather obfuscate with history than discuss and defend in the present.

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The Remembrance of Wars

Last weekend my wife and kids and I went to visit the National World War Two Memorial that now stands on the Mall in Washington between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. We hadn’t been before, and since both of our grandfathers served in WWII, we though it was kind of appropriate for Memorial Day weekend. I don’t quite know what we were expecting; I’d heard some of the press about the site’s sterility and its nineteenth-century throwback architecture, but if I’d seen a picture of the memorial before I’d managed to flush it from my mind somehow. I know a fair amount about World War Two because of my professional scholarly work, so I was mainly curious to see how the conflict had been memorialized.

My wife, I think, was specifically looking for something that might connect her to her grandfather, who died about ten years ago and was one of the survivors of the 19 March 1945 attack on the U.S.S. Franklin – Big Ben the Flattop – in which 724 people died when the ship was hit by two armor-piercing bombs. Poppa was a gunner, and should have been on deck when the attack happened, but for reasons that he never really explained to us he was below decks doing an extra KP duty shift when the bombs hit. (Presumably he’d gotten in trouble somehow, since people don’t usually volunteer for more KP duty.) Had he been on deck he would almost certainly have been killed. Poppa survived the war, but passed away about ten years ago, and a memorial to the war in which he served might have made a nice symbolic link to his memory.

Both of us were disappointed in the memorial, for reasons that stem from the strategy chosen by the memorial’s designers – a strategy that we might call the “just war” strategy of remembrance. The memorial celebrates a victory rather than calling to mind the sacrifices of those who died in achieving that victory, and as such legitimates the whole operation in decidedly moralistic terms. This is the same legitimation strategy that we see at work in today’s War on Terror, in which a morally “good” goal justifies morally questionable means that involve killing other human beings. And it’s a dangerous strategy, one that we ought to be much more skeptical of than we often seem to be.

The first thing that we found rather disappointing about the memorial was the virtually complete absence of any individual or personal images. There are no statues of soldiers, no images of any specific people at all; instead, there are stark towers inscribed with the names of locations where battles were fought and the twin labels “ATLANTIC” and “PACIFIC,” along with column-like slabs featuring the names of U.S. states and territories. Apparently these are the names of al of the places in the United States that contributed troops to the war effort, but this is not indicated on the memorial anywhere. The overwhelming effect is somewhat daunting; one gets the sense of some kind of massive collective endeavor, but none of the specifics.

The one place in the memorial where individual deaths are directly commemorated is a wall of stars above a reflecting pool. The pool’s border bears the uninformative legend “HERE WE MARK THE PRICE OF FREEDOM,” and apparently each of the 4,000 stars on the wall stands for 100 American deaths. (Again, you’d only know this if you’d read the website of a guide book; the symbolism of the memorial itself is quite opaque unless you have this interpretive key.) But here again, the emphasis is on the collective rather than the individual – the message seems to be that lots of people died, but not that any particular individuals died.

Indeed, the point of the whole installment seems to be that these deaths of nameless, faceless people was justified. The dominant motif of the memorial is the victory wreath; each of the state-and-territories columns bears a wreath, and the two towers each contain sculptures of majestic eagles bringing a wreath as though to crown the winner of the conflict. It’s not a memorial that promotes reflection and remembrance as much as it is a celebratory monument to a good and glorious campaign. People have brought individual remembrances – photographs, letters to dead relatives, etc. – and placed them at various points around the memorial, but they look oddly out of place because there is no obvious location for an individual to fit into. The state from which they came? The name of a battle in which they fought? Although these personal testimonies were to me the most interesting part of the memorial, they seemed overshadowed – both literally and symbolically – by the dominant victory motif.

Now, if there’s a war in the twentieth century that could accurately be classified as a “good war,” the Second World War would probably be it. Fascism bad; fascist Europe and a fascist Pacific Ocean bad; victory for the democracies good. I’m not quarreling with the notion that it’s definitely a better thing that the Allies won; a world dominated by the Third Reich would certainly have been worse than what we in fact got. And I’m not trying to argue that fighting the war was an unwise thing; Hitler wasn’t about to negotiate, and Nazism as an ideology didn’t have much space for peaceful coexistence with liberal democracies. Instead, what I am objecting to is the very notion of a “good war” in the first place. Wars might be tragically necessary, but I’m extremely skeptical of any attempt to legitimate them in terms of some kind of universal morality or “infinite justice” – which, let us not forget, was the name of Operation Enduring Freedom before someone in the Bush Administration finally realized that the original name was almost as offensive to Muslims as calling the War on Terror a “crusade” would have been.

The dangerous part of this “just war” strategy is that it enables precisely the kind of framing that Dan calls attention to in this post: governments around the world keep using notions like “radical Islam” and the transcendentally just character of defending against it as a way to legitimate all manner of repressive tactics. The logic is very simple: because the goal is transcendentally good, virtually anything is justified in pursuit of it. And arguing against such a framing is very difficult, because it puts one into the uncomfortable position of questioning something that is taken to be absolutely good and right.

I’m not sure that there are good wars, or just wars, or wars that are somehow morally right. Any war, even a war undertaken in pursuit of a desirable end, nonetheless involves putting soldiers in harm’s way and causing death, mayhem, and destruction; the “just war” strategy minimizes these inevitable costs by holding up the morally good character of the goal. And that strikes me as problematic – not because we should never fight wars, but because we shouldn’t glorify that fighting, or sanction it in the name of some sort of divine or universal moral imperative. Given the present organization of world politics, wars may well be tragic necessities, but whitewashing them as “good” seems to me as dangerously misleading now as it did to Mark Twain when he wrote “The War Prayer” a century ago.

As for remembering wars, I would argue that we ought to place more emphasis on the sacrifices of individuals than on the presumptive justice of the cause for which they died. I hope that designers of future war memorials take more of a cue from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial than from the WWII Memorial.

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[cross-posted at Progressive Commons]

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