Taking war seriously

For many years, up here in the High Doganate, we had to think about statecraft, about politics & diplomacy, about peace & war, about the problems of peace & the problems of war, & about history, especially current history in which peace & war are often inextricably mingled. As a consequence, we had many thoughts. We, or more precisely, I, were employed as a media pundit, & paid off accordingly. Even today, freed at least from the income, I continue to think about these things. This is perhaps pointless, for I doubt that I will be marked for my political views, on the Day of Judgement. Nor have I found evidence that world statesmen attend to my instructions. On the contrary, I believe they make their own pragmatic calculations. Notwithstanding, old habits die hard.

I have often thought, that in addition to reciting the Nicene Creed, statesmen should swear the Hippocratic Oath. “First do no harm.” The masters of our laws, however they happen to be chosen, should focus their efforts on averting certain evils, not on “doing good” according to their lights. Indeed, I am known for my aversion to “do-gooders,” who always have a plan. Our laws, to my mind, should be as simple & stable as they can be made; they should be enforced consistently & predictably. Those of a non-criminal disposition should be able to live long lives without much worrying about government agents.

The Grand Historian — not of the High Doganate, but rather of Han-dynasty China, Ssu-ma Ch’ien  — took issue with the mystical writings of Lao Tzu. It will be recalled that the latter wrote, “though states exist side by side, so close they can hear the crowing of each other’s cocks & the barking of each other’s dogs, the people of each state will savour their own food, admire their own clothing, be content with their own customs, delight in their own occupations, grow old & die without ever wandering abroad.” This would seem an ideal arrangement.

Ssu-ma Ch’ien claims no knowledge of the remote times of which Lao Tzu is speaking. (Typically he then shows that he is very well acquainted with all surviving documentary & archaeological evidence.) He observes, however, that the people with whom he is acquainted have appetites that go beyond what was wisely stipulated, & that they take some interest in matters beyond their domain. So long, he observes, have pride & habits of luxury permeated their lives, that, “were one to go door to door preaching the subtle arguments of the Taoists, one might never succeed in changing them.”

Therefore, he suggests: “The best kind of ruler accepts the people as they are; the next best leads the people to what is beneficial; the next gives them moral instruction; the next forces them to obey it; & the very worst kind of ruler enters into competition with them.” (My allusions are all to the 129th chapter of the Shih Chi.)

I take this as an early anticipation & rejection of what I call the Nanny State, in which do-gooding descends through layers of compulsion until finally even routine medical care is provided by some central bureaucracy, & no room is left for voluntary acts. Though born in a country which was much freer than it is today, only sixty years later, & now governed by rules & regulations that are rewritten & extended constantly, I continue to adhere, largely, to the voluntary principle: “live & let live.” I consider the Nanny State a growing & ever less necessary evil, & pray that it may be peacefully dismantled. But this does not mean I am an advanced Marxist or Libertarian who believes the state should wither away to nothing. It has several legitimate & irreplaceable functions.

For instance, I hold that “no means no” when it comes to murder, mayhem, rape, robbery, theft, & other discourtesies, commonly labelled “crimes” in most human jurisdictions. I am even well-disposed to the provision of armies, navies, & so forth (within reason) as a defence against malevolent foreigners. And with all such things should come a (reasonable) amount of public ceremony, so long as it is in good taste, fun to watch, & the tone remains good-humoured. We are Homo Ludens, after all. I favour public allegiance to duly-constituted authority, but think “patriotism” a virtue that turns into vice when it strays too far beyond the natural human attachments, to family, neighbourhood, a landscape, tradition — when it stops making conscientious distinctions between what is “our own” & what is “other people’s.” When patriotism becomes aggressive, chauvinist, jingo, imposing, then devils are at large.

My father’s generation knew countries like that were the sort we would sooner or later have to go to war with. Thanks to the triumph of mass democracy, with its attendant conditions of Total War, & Total Peace, one often feels today that the enemy is one’s own state. The agencies of our provincial & “federal” governments operate in a manner inimical to freedom, & in many other ways are perverted & corrupt. But there are still much worse countries than Canada. In fact I have visited several, including Syria, wherein life is cheap & the human soul is regarded as a disposable item of state property.


We live in the world, we have to deal with it somehow. The question of self-defence is constantly arising. It does not always arise in simple ways. Therefore my prescription for a happy life, free of tyranny, cannot be reduced to immutable precepts. They are useful as a guide, but “judgement calls” must often be made as we deal with darkening “grey areas.” There are times when, in our modern expression, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” in the cause of justice, & while I aspire to be peaceful, aloof & chaste, I am not a pacifist. For again, I believe there are real evils that should be confronted & stopped — when it is in our power to do so, without causing a worse evil than the one we would escape. This is a delicate balance, a careful navigation. To every Scylla there is a Charybdis, & war-mongering is as bad as an obsessive & hypocritical peace-mongering. Both lead to slavery & carnage.

Today, as for the last century, & at intervals since time out of mind, we share our world with regimes of monstrous will & intention. Beyond the parameters of the state, though seldom by very far, we have demonically motivated “terrorists” themselves able to commit impressive atrocities. We have “globalization” & the technological means to “project power” at a distance, with many competitors engaged in the projecting. I have never liked large standing armies, but it is understandable why even the lesser sinners would wish to maintain them. In Canada, we live effectively under the protection of a powerful neighbour to our south, whom we judge to be not nearly so bad as her principal competitors for world power, & I find the policy of alliance fairly sound. That we should carry our weight in the alliance, rather than become abjectly parasitical & dependent, also makes sense to me. We should strive to be entitled to our opinions when discussing common interests with our allies.

In the twelve years since 9/11 the question of “rogue regimes” & what to do about them has assumed some importance. This is frankly because technology has improved to the point where the formerly isolated may now project formidable power through “weapons of mass destruction,” “cyber attacks” & so forth. We no longer have the luxury, we discovered, of ignoring psychopaths ensconced in the mountains of Afghanistan, or “hermit kingdoms” equally far away. Although here it must be said that, owing to something like a nervous disorder, we often rank the threats incorrectly.

“Nuclear weapons are only a problem for people with bad nerves,” Comrade Stalin once said. He was clearly a man of robust constitution. I do not actually agree with his assessment, but wish to acknowledge some truth in it. While so-called “suitcase bombs” could make a mess in a city, & ditto the release of nerve gas, toxic powders, biological agents & the like, the greater threat will always come from states like Stalin’s, able to use the nastiest weapons in a more fulsome way, over a prolonged period. Free-lance Islamist jihadis are a confounded nuisance, to be sure; but the threat offered by a fully-constituted Islamist state, such as Iran, is more significant. And even among the free-lance operators, as we saw twelve years ago, box-cutting knives can be leveraged into WMD. The human propensity to shriek at a mouse or a slithery snake — to be abnormally disturbed by one sort of threat in preference to another — is itself understandable. We are creatures of the dream, we have the strangest nightmares. But this does not make it rational, or wise.


Let us take this bull by the horns of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Whether or not the atom bombs dropped on them induced the Japanese to surrender (& the historical evidence suggests that they did not, in themselves), the bombs were not tactically decisive. The Americans had, with “conventional” munitions, already laid waste to sixty-six Japanese cities, through the memorable (at least to the Japanese) spring & summer of ‘forty-five. Hiroshima & Nagasaki were just two more, & the number of casualties was far exceeded in e.g. the fire-bombing of Tokyo the night of Operation Meetinghouse. By any standard measure, the amount of physical damage done by the atom bombs in either city had been surpassed on several other occasions. The Americans themselves were counting on the bombs more for their theatrical than material effect.

Now let us recall Saddam Hussein, whose chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, in which up to five thousand died, was often & is still frequently mentioned in our liberal media. That this was horrible, goes without saying. But consider what is generally overlooked: that after Saddam was deposed, Americans & their Iraqi counterparts uncovered mass graves containing, in aggregate, many hundreds of thousands of corpses from the other violent ministrations of Saddam Hussein, done almost entirely in low-tech ways. (I tried, but could never get any of my fellow “mainstream” journalists interested in this story.) These are still being discovered; the tally is not yet complete. Suffice to say, Saddam’s dread chemical weapons did only a small part of the killing; an estimate of “1 percent” would not be unreasonable.

I am not a numbers man, statistics are too glib, but more exceeds less, & the point to be absorbed here is not about technology, but about murder, massacre. To adapt the common phrase, “chemical weapons don’t slaughter people, mass murderers slaughter people.” And the question we face is not whether this or that weapon should be banned, but what should we do about mass murderers, & the men who do their bidding — the regimes that sustain & can usually replace them should an assassination happen to succeed. This is to look at the whole vexed problem, & not at one corner of it. The question, as I think any mediaeval political philosopher would immediately see, is can we overthrow that regime, at a cost not greater in unwanted consequences?

Once that point is clarified, I think it might become possible to begin making intelligent, as opposed to emotional decisions on the use of military force. Many other factors come into such decisions, including serious questions of international law, which as it stands compels us to explain what the threat is — not only to the subjects of the tyrant, but to us. There is also a moral imperative to explain how we will deal with the fallout to which we would contribute, are indeed contracting to “own.” How, for the better, will we restore order & replace the defunct rogue regime? Anything short of that is toying.

All such questions are necessarily vexed, & not every consequence of an act of war can be foreseen. But the statesman is morally bound to previse what is foreseeable, & in the view of Heaven (as the ancient Chinese would put it), he must weigh with the utmost gravity when human lives are at stake.

This is incidentally why I retain some respect for George W. Bush, & have none for Barack Obama. Bush thought the whole thing through, even if he made misjudgements & miscalculations. Everything about his behaviour suggested that he took very seriously alike the lives of his soldiers & all other lives. He did not act “for show,” nor did he make threats that were empty. At huge political cost, he did not walk away when things went badly. He did, however, foolishly bite off more than the American electorate could chew.

It would be good if we could remove the Assad regime, as it was good to remove that of Saddam. Both, I am prepared to argue, have offered palpable threats to their neighbours & ultimately to us (although Iran was & is a substantially greater threat than either). But as we learnt, or rather were reminded in Iraq — every generation must relearn — the world is very messy, & “doing a good thing” is not without cost, potentially horrific. Nor, in the case of realpolitik, can I agree to apply Chesterton’s maxim that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” For war, in my view, should not be a hobby.