Bernard Finel justifies our crusade in Afghanistan (insufficiently)
Summary: At look at the moral basis of our war in Afghanistan. Are its roots found in Christian theology or western philosophy? No! It lies in our heritage from England, as explained by Napoleon.
Today’s reading about the war
- “The Ethical Case for War in Afghanistan (is Strong but Insufficient)“, Bernard Finel (Senior Fellow at the American Security Project), at his blog, 23 November 2009.
Bernard Finel responds to my mockery (here and here) of our crusade bringing human rights to Afghanistan. Like much of the war’s advocacy these days, I don’t understand his message. So I cannot comment, but only recommend that you read it in full and decide for yourself.
Of course, the hawks run the war — so it will continue no matter what the cost or how flimsy the reasons. Unless, of course, we grow spines and again become citizens (not “consumers”, aka sheep).
However, this part of his essay is striking, expressing a widely cited rationale for the war:
The more persuasive the case that we “broke” Afghanistan, the more compelling the moral argument for remaining. It take an inherently problematic argument about universal human rights and turns into a more narrowly contingent argument about the obligations to make amends for our previous mistakes.
Let’s examine this “more compelling moral argument”.
Describing the War, making it personal for us
We burst into Bob and Alice’s home. Destroy their belongings. Kill their pets.
Seeing the damage resulting from “our previous mistakes”, we feel an obligation to make amends. Rather than apologize and leave a check for the damage, we insist this mistake gives us the right — the “obligation” — to stay. Breaking more things, rearranging their life, redecorating their house, and building a base in their backyard. No matter what they want. We don’t even ask.
It’s for their own good. It’s our duty.
Let’s pause the story while Bob invites their cousins to visit, with AK-47’s. Let’s rest until they arrive (ignore the IEDs under the cushions).
The morality of our War
So we occupy the strategic areas of Iraq and Afghanistan, building vast bases. All to bring human rights to the children and women of those nations. Of course, our efforts have killed many women and children. and stripped the rights the women had before our invasions. But we’ll occupy them until their societies meet our standards. Or we no longer need the bases. Whichever comes first.
It’s our duty. Quoting from Finel’s essay:
“The ethical issues are incredibly complicated. Universal moral obligations compete against practicality. “
We seem to have reconciled both. Practicality in the form of bases from which to project power (and gain leverage to build pipelines and stop drug production) — while fulfilling “universal moral obligations”. We are good!
The source of our moral conviction
Where do the war’s advocates get this kind of moral reasoning? From St. Thomas of Albany? St. Augustine of Florida? No! Its our cultural heritage from England, as described by Napoleon in The Man of Destiny by George Bernard Shaw:
No, because the English are a race apart. No Englishman is too low to have scruples: no Englishman is high enough to be free from their tyranny. But every Englishman is born with a certain miraculous power that makes him master of the world. When he wants a thing, he never tells himself that he wants it. He waits patiently until there comes into his mind, no one knows how, a burning conviction that it is his moral and religious duty to conquer those who have got the thing he wants. Then he becomes irresistible. Like the aristocrat, he does what pleases him and grabs what he wants: like the shopkeeper, he pursues his purpose with the industry and steadfastness that come from strong religious conviction and deep sense of moral responsibility.
He is never at a loss for an effective moral attitude. As the great champion of freedom and national independence, he conquers and annexes half the world, and calls it Colonization. When he wants a new market for his adulterated Manchester goods, he sends a missionary to teach the natives the gospel of peace. The natives kill the missionary: he flies to arms in defence of Christianity; fights for it; conquers for it; and takes the market as a reward from heaven.
In defence of his island shores, he puts a chaplain on board his ship; nails a flag with a cross on it to his top-gallant mast; and sails to the ends of the earth, sinking, burning and destroying all who dispute the empire of the seas with him.
… There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles, and cuts off his king’s head on republican principles. His watchword is always duty; and he never forgets that the nation which lets its duty get on the opposite side to its interest is lost.
About Bernard Finel
He is now a senior fellow at the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, DC. Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the National War College and Executive Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.
He holds a BA in international relations from Tufts University and an MA and Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown.
He posts at his blog about politics, national security, crime, justice, and social commentary.
- Bernard Finel explains “What would you do in Afghanistan? How would you explain it to the American people? And, if you favor more troops, how would you pay for it?”, posted at The Politico, 24 November 2009.
- “Why They Hate Us (I): on military occupation“, Stephen M. Walt (Prof of International Relations, Harvard), blog of Foreign Policy, 23 November 2009.
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