We interrupt this series of “Fraying” essays to address the question that seems to be on a majority of Americans’ minds at this time:
Warning! Spoiler Alert! Yes.
But this leads to a larger and ultimately more important subject: foreign policy and what constitutes the “national interest.”
Undefined and terminally vague phrases have dominated the foreign-policy debates since the formation of NATO. The Gentle Readers of Liberty’s Torch have already seen me froth at the mouth over ”national defense” and “national security.” But the title phrase of this piece is at least as portentous, in part because it lends itself to so many interpretations, each of them a slight departure from the others.
When we speak of an individual’s interests, the matter is acceptably clear: the preservation and furtherance of those things and conditions that make his life survivable and pleasant. That would naturally include his health, his honestly acquired property, the well-being of those he loves, and the overall condition of his neighborhood. While we might haggle a bit at the margins of these things – is the maintenance of the current zoning laws included in that list? – we can generally reach an agreement on his interests with a single clarifying question: Which of these things is he morally permitted to defend by force?
Force is the standard. It divides the moral universe into Go and No-Go zones. It also compels cost-benefit analyses: If I pull my guns, will I come to regret it on net balance? Many a citizen has faced that question in real time, when the answers are most pertinent and painful.
But try to apply that standard to “national interest.” Matters become far slipperier. Agreement is hard to achieve. And rather often, the federal government of these United States will plow right on ahead without bothering to acquire such agreement.
This could become a discussion of the morality of third-party decision-making: in particular, who bears the costs for Washington’s decisions. That’s beyond my intentions this morning. When a politician starts waving “the national interest” in support of his demands, you may rest assured that if he gets his way, someone else will be doing the bleeding for his cause.
“Combat occurs within an envelope of conditions. A general doesn’t control all those conditions. If he did, he’d never have to fight. Sometimes, those conditions are so stiff that he’s compelled to fight whether he thinks it wise, or not.”
“What conditions can do that to you?”
His mouth quirked. “Yes, what conditions indeed?”
Oops. Here we go again. “Weather could do it.”
“By cutting off your lines of retreat in the face of an invasion.”
“Economics. Once the economy of your country’s been militarized, it runs at a net loss, so you might be forced to fight from an inferior position because you’re running out of resources.”
“Excellent. One more.”
She thought hard. “Superior generalship on the other side?”
He clucked in disapproval. “Does the opponent ever want you to fight?”
“No, sorry. Let me think.”
Conditions. Conditions you can’t control. Conditions that…control you.
“Politics. The political leadership won’t accept retreat or surrender until you’ve been so badly mangled that it’s obvious even to an idiot.”
The man Louis Redmond had named the greatest warrior in history began to shudder. It took him some time to quell.
“It’s the general’s worst nightmare,” he whispered. “Kings used to lead their own armies. They used to lead the cavalry’s charge. For a king to send an army to war and remain behind to warm his throne was simply not done. Those that tried it lost their thrones, and some lost their heads–to their own people. It was a useful check on political and military rashness.
“It hasn’t been that way for a long time. Today armies go into the field exclusively at the orders of politicians who remain at home. And politicians are bred to believe that reality is entirely plastic to their wills.”
[From On Broken Wings]
In our time, politicians are often more avid for combat than the men who’d be doing the fighting. One of the reasons, of course, is the one Malcom Loughlin, grandmaster of all things martial, gives to his student Christine. Another is the payoff to the politicians involved in fomenting warfare.
They would never admit to this, of course. Instead they make vague assertions about the “national interest.” The phrase has been used to defend the indefensible on several occasions. Even “good” wars – i.e., the ones we generally agree are against an evil force that should be put down – contain episodes no decent person could justify. Such events have punctuated all the wars since Christ walked the earth.
From the politician’s perspective, that changes nothing. With tragically rare exceptions, he’s thinking exclusively about his bank balance, his prospects for higher office, and his “image.” But don’t you dare question his assertions about the “national interest!” He’ll call you a poltroon, a stooge, a traitor…in a phrase favored by a friend, “everything but white.” What he won’t do is offer a reasoned argument for why a military intervention to inflict “regime change” upon Whackistan or to protect the “sovereignty” of Upyourassov would conduce to any objective gain for the people of these United States.
I rant a lot about the need to use words and language accurately and precisely. It’s in the gravest of the political trenches that the need becomes most acute. These vagaries – “national defense,” “national security,” “national interest” – have been used over and over to insert American forces into places where there was little or no chance that anything good could come of the intervention for Americans. Indeed, some Americans would die. All of us would bleed from the wallet. And other unpleasantries would follow, as foreign politicians, satraps, and tyrants eager to “do business” with President Him or Senator Her strive to induce an American military expedition in their favor.
Granted that decisions to go to war cannot be subjected to a national plebiscite. They will always be made by political bodies. But We the Put-Upon have a duty to ask sharp, clarifying questions about the wherefores of such a decision before the decision becomes irrevocable. Surely Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have taught us that much.