The Sense of Good

American confidence necessary to succeed in a war for freedom.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

The execution of Saddam Hussein should be a moment of celebration for Americans. Because of the blood and treasure of United States citizens, one of the worst dictators in recent history — a psychopathic thug with the blood of millions on his hands, a torturer and sadist eager to magnify the scope of his evil by acquiring weapons of mass destruction — has paid the just price for his crimes. We have shown the world that justice awaits such tyranny and inhumane brutality, that crimes against humanity have consequences. We should be proud.

But, of course, such satisfaction is not the national mood. The fatal failure of nerve afflicting the West — the disbelief in the rightness and superiority of our own way of life, of the values that will not tolerate monsters like Hussein — has left us discontented with the brutal costs of enforcing our beliefs. Spoiled by affluence and comfort, we chafe at the tragic constants of violent action: the unforeseen consequences, the mistakes in planning and execution, the inadvertent deaths, the brutality unleashed even in the good when placed in violent and fearful circumstances. These characterize every war, including what we now idealize as the “good war,” World War II.

But we were a different people sixty-five years ago, more spiritual, more mature, more confident in the rightness of our beliefs, and thus more accepting of the grim truth that sometimes the good must kill some people now so that the evil don’t kill more people later. No more. We are the therapeutic generation that wants to eat its cake and have it, to achieve all goods without risk or cost or hard trade-offs. We loudly profess our love of freedom, rule by law, human rights, and prosperity as goods all people deserve; we weep for the victims of tyranny and oppression and all who lack such goods; and we chastise our leaders for allowing such misery to flourish. But we don’t want actually to pay the nasty, bloody price of acting on those beliefs and destroying those who don’t respect them.

Rather than acknowledging our own achievements in Iraq, then, and pressing grimly forward to complete the task we began, we whine and snipe and complain about our “failure,” basing our judgments on impossible standards of perfection that imperfect humans will never meet. Much of this criticism is driven by ideology, of course. The Democrats and the media have opposed this war from the start, and thus have found partisan advantage in casting its progress as in fact a descent into some Vietnam-like “quagmire,” the pre-selected mythic paradigm that instead of the facts has shaped the judgments of most critics.

But even supporters of the war engage in the same sort of criticism. “More troops,” they cry, yet the point is not the number of troops but what you have them do, and those actions are limited by political constraints, namely our refusal to accept the tragic costs of war. In early 2004 we had enough troops to annihilate Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi militia, but we didn’t, leaving both to grow in power and influence. But consider the outcry that would have attended the necessarily bloody cost of that annihilation — the footage on CNN, the photos on the front page of the New York Times, the speeches decrying American brutality. Had that happened, there’s a good chance John Kerry would be president today, and Congress would be entering its third year under Democratic control.

But worse is the constant assertion that the U.S. has “failed” in Iraq. No one has “failed” yet, and it is a sign of our collective failure of nerve that we want to quit in the middle of the game. But it is not we who are “failing.” Hussein and his WMD capacity are gone, and a lethal threat has been removed. If worst comes to worst and Iraq doesn’t stabilize, a fractured Iraq that looks like Lebanon will still be preferable to a regime controlled by a psychotic Saddam Hussein flush with oil money and ultimately freed, as he likely would have been, from U.N. sanctions and weapons inspectors.

The fact is, it is the Iraqi people who are failing, the Arabs who are failing, and Muslims who are failing. The same cultural pathologies that keep Palestinian Arabs sullen welfare clients, that keep Lebanon a political basket-case, that keep millions of Middle-Eastern Muslims mired in poverty and oppression and ignorance and gender apartheid, are the same forces that are keeping Iraqis in some Road Warrior dystopia — not our blunders, cultural insensitivity, arrogance, or whatever other excuse concocted by self-loathing Americans.

No, Iraq is failing because too many Muslims love sectarian hatred, love resentment and envy of a successful infidel West, and love their belief in their own God-sanctioned superiority and righteousness more than they love freedom, prosperity and human rights. We have spent American lives and money to give Muslim Arabs a chance to create a better life, and they are blowing it, all the while neighboring Muslim nations either sit on their hands or actively support the forces destroying that opportunity.

But a willingness to acknowledge and assert our superiority, despite our flaws, to a culture and religion that validate blowing up and torturing one’s fellows, is sorely lacking even among those who should know better. And that is what emboldens the enemy. He sees our impossible expectations and our utopian standards of action, but to him these are not the signs of the sophisticated, sensitive, “nuanced” sensibility that we fancy we are displaying. Rather, they are the symptoms of cultural weakness and spiritual corruption. So he fights on, confident that more explosions, more grisly footage, more exploitation of false guilt and moral exhaustion will help him prevail.

And if we don’t recover that ardent belief in the superiority of freedom and individual rights — the same faith that conquered fascist and communist tyranny — he just may be right.

©2007 Bruce Thornton

Share This