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Is the West too civil in war?
By Cathy Young | August 7, 2006
AS WAR CONTINUES to rage in Iraq and Lebanon, appalling pictures
of human suffering and death fill our front pages and television
screens. Some people who have previously supported the Bush administration's
foreign policy and who are generally pro-Israel are concluding that
the human costs of the war on terror as currently conducted -- both
in terms of direct casualties and human rights abuses -- are unacceptably
high. Meanwhile, others are making the startling argument that we
may have become too soft for our own good when it comes to the human
costs of war.
A recent column by John Podhoretz in the New York Post opens with
``What if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point where
they can no longer wage war effectively because they have achieved
a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any really
cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?"
Podhoretz goes on to ask if Britain and the United States could
have won World War II if they ``did not have it in them to firebomb
Dresden and nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki," inflicting massive civilian
casualties, and he ends with this reflection: ``Can it be that the
moral greatness of our civilization -- its astonishing focus on the
value of the individual above all -- is endangering the future of
our civilization as well?"
In all honesty, the question has occurred to me, too. What if Americans
during World War II had been confronted daily both with reports of
American casualties and with images of dead and wounded German civilians,
including children and old people? What if public opinion had been
as troubled by both American and German casualties as we are by American
and Iraqi (or Lebanese) casualties today? Would there still be a
free world to speak of?
Yet it is all too easy to move from pondering a tragic paradox to
considering acts from which even the most hawkish among us would
recoil in horror. Thus, Podhoretz inquires: ``What if the tactical
mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in
the early going to intimidate them. . . ? Wasn't the survival of
Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency
and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?"
Of course, the targeted slaughter of a population group -- known
as genocide -- would go far beyond anything done by the Allies in
World War II. Indeed, in a blogpost on the website of National Review
magazine, Podhoretz reaches for comparison to the tactics of Saddam
Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria, who quelled uprisings
by wiping out thousands. He also stresses that he is not advocating
such measures: ``I am not upset -- far from it -- that they are closed
off to us." He simply thinks that we should understand that our ``more
civilized approach might represent a form of self-shackling" against
a ruthless enemy.
But such a discussion is a slippery slope. Where one person sees
a need to acknowledge our dilemma, others will argue for cutting
the Gordian knot by abandoning some of our scruples. This has already
happened, to some extent, in the discussion of torture. And some
of Podhoretz's colleagues at National Review have been quite outspoken
about thinking the unthinkable. In June, one of the magazine's columnists,
John Derbyshire, wrote that he had been wrong to support the war
in Iraq because the Bush administration was too wimpy to wage it
``One reason I supported the initial attack, and the destruction
of the Saddam regime, was that I hoped it would serve as an example," wrote
Derbyshire. ``It would have done, if we'd just rubbled the place
then left." Then, he noted, ``we would have been seen as ``a nation
that knows how to punish our enemies . . . a nation to be feared
Most of us, I hope, wouldn't want to be part of a nation seen as
capable of such acts. In fact, it troubles me that we are now part
of a nation where such commentary is not beyond the pale of civilized
In fact, even concerning World War II, there are legitimate questions
about whether some Allied actions were truly justified.
Moreover, as blogger and international affairs specialist Gregory
Djerejian notes in a critique of Podhoretz, the danger we face from
terrorism today is hardly comparable to being at war with Hitler's
If fear makes us squander our moral progress, it will be a tragic