We are rightly proud of the accomplishments of western civilization over the past 500 years. We have not been perfect – not by a long shot. But gradually, western values and attitudes have permeated the planet, softening the rough edges of civilization, and providing a framework of law where the strong do not always ride roughshod over the weak.
Imperfect, but viable. Flawed, but as a practical matter, better than any alternative.
There is one glaring weakness from which the west suffers in particular that has been exposed time and time again over the last 70 years; our inability to deal with individuals who are determined to act outside the boundaries of “civilized” norms and commit acts of barbarism so profoundly disturbing that they shake our faith in our institutions and belief systems.
This is a consequence of being too civilized. When a Pol Pot, Idi Amin, or a Yakubu Gowon confront the west with the butchery of their own people, we are constrained in our response, stopping short of doing what is necessary to save the innocents from slaughter. It is not a lack of moral courage. Rather, it is the inability to do what is necessary to defeat the evil that is perpetrating such suffering.
It is our refusal to adopt the tactics and ruthlessness of evil in order to destroy it that makes us look weak and helpless in the face of such monumentally uncivilized behavior.
When confronted with evil — the real thing, not the exaggerated, partisan, politically motivated sort of “evil” that right and left believe emanates from their opponents — civilized man freezes like a deer in headlights and fails spectacularly in doing the things necessary to stop it.
It took truly barbaric tactics — including fire bombing German cities and leveling a great many French villages and towns — to defeat Adolf Hitler. Prior to the war, western governments realized in a vague way the threat posed by Hitler’s evil, but refused to lift a finger to stop him until it was far too late.
It took a barbaric weapon to defeat the evil Japanese militarists who literally raped their way across Asia in an orgy of slaughter. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the very cultured and decent Franklin Roosevelt refused to heed the admonitions of his own Japanese ambassador, Joseph Grew, about the threat posed to the world by the unholy alliance of the Imperial Army and corporate war mongers. It took one of the most decent men ever to serve as president – Harry Truman – to order the use of the most indecent weapon ever devised by man and end the militarist’s mad ambitions. We debate the morality of using that weapon and the tactics in Europe to this day.
Since the end of the Second World War, a procession of tin pot dictators, genocidal maniacs, coldly calculating mass murderers, and religious fanatics have marched across the world stage leaving a trail of blood and sorrow so massively beyond the scope of decent people’s understanding, that we failed to grasp the horror even while it was happening in front of our eyes. Pol Pot created a hell on earth in Cambodia and despite desperate cries for help from the lucky few who escaped the mass slaughter, western governments turned a deaf ear and stood by as the Communist butcher depopulated his own country.
The Rwandan genocide — 100 days of unspeakable bloodletting that took the lives of 800,000 Tutsi tribesmen — was known to the entire world and yet, debates raged for weeks at the United Nations whether the mass murder should be referred to “officially” as genocide. The US could have cut off radio broadcasts of the Hutu extremists who were egging on the gangs who were carrying out the killings but failed to do so because it might have violated international law.
Good, decent, civilized people stood by while 800,000 human beings were killed – many of them hacked to death by machete. Our own ingrained sense of civility and virtue prevented the kind of quick action that might have saved tens of thousands of lives.
The problem is obvious; in order to defeat that kind of evil, the tactics used by civilized people just don’t work. One must match evil for evil in order for civilization to win out in the end.
It has always been so. How could we have possibly intervened in Cambodia without causing enormous bloodshed of our own among civilians? The army, government, and population was in such close proximity that massive civilian casualties would have been unavoidable. Our intervention may also have triggered a much wider war with China coming to the aid of their ally. Pol Pot would have been gone, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Cambodians would have been saved, but because our notions of civilized warfare have grown to preclude that kind of mathematical judgment, the west failed to act and nearly 2 million Cambodians died.
Intervention in Rwanda would have been horribly messy. Many innocents would have lost their lives as well as those responsible for the massacres. The Hutu-led government would have almost certainly fought back which would have meant even more civilian casualties. The Tutsis would have resented not being able to take revenge on the Hutus, thus putting them at odds with their putative saviors. The conflict would have degenerated into a guerrilla war with both sides taking shots at the international force sent in to stop the violence. (A similar outcome might have been the case if we had intervened in the Sudan.)
Would it have turned out better than sitting by helplessly and doing nothing? This is a counterfactual where there isn’t enough historical evidence to say for certain either way. But our concern here is why we didn’t intervene. And the answer has to be, in part, that we don’t have it within us to fight evil by being as ruthless and cold hearted as the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity.
The first Gulf War ended after the “turkey shoot” along the Highway of Death horrified Colin Powell and George Bush Sr. to the point that they were concerned that slaughtering Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army would not only be detrimental to America’s image but was inhumane. If we had continued blasting the trapped Iraqis, the massacre of the Kurds in the north and Shias in the south could probably have been avoided, and Hussein himself might have been removed by the military. Our hand was stayed by many factors, but the specter of a bloody march to Baghdad and the prospect of urban warfare with many thousands of innocent Iraqis killed certainly played a decisive role in that decision.
Instead, we gave in to our civilized impulses and not only stopped our attacks, but agreed that the Iraqi military could fly helicopters in the no fly zone for “humanitarian” purposes. This led directly to the slaughter of tens of thousands of Kurds and Shias who revolted against Saddam’s rule.
The results of our overthrow of Saddam in 2003 speak for themselves in this regard. The positive good of getting rid of one of the 20th century’s truly evil tyrants is usually overlooked when an accounting of the human cost of the war is discussed.
Now the civilized world is once again faced with a situation where a madman in Libya is violating every tenet of civilized behavior that the west has worked tirelessly to spread from one end of the earth to the other. There is talk of “no fly zones,” arming the Libyan opposition, sanctions, and other, even less effective ideas to stop Muammar Qadaffi in his insane desire to hang on to power.
But direct military intervention appears to be off the table. The United Nations seems even more inept, more irrelevant at times like this. Not only is it impossible for the world body to make up its mind on even the gravest of threats to innocent people, their collective decisions are so watered down that by the time a consensus is reached, the action recommended is meaningless.
It is left, as it always is, to western governments to take meaningful action. For all intents and purposes, this means the burden falls squarely on the United States of America — the only nation militarily capable and possessing the moral courage to sacrifice its men and treasure in a cause not directly related to its interests. We import only a tiny amount of oil from Libya, nor do we have any trade to speak of with Qaddafi. If we sent in the Marines, it would clearly be an act of self-abnegation.
But we won’t send in the Marines, nor will any western government send a military force into Libya to save the people from their own government. The butcher’s bill would only rise precipitously as Qaddafi’s men would use civilians as human shields to protect themselves. We may indeed rid the world of Qaddafi if we resorted to military force. But at what cost? The minions of evil know well our weakness and play upon it relentlessly.
So the body count in Libya will continue to rise while the world flails about unable to bring itself to ape the tactics and behavior of the evil they are fighting. We may see this as “progress” in the sense that an overly sensitive attitude toward civilian deaths, international law, and the rules of war prevents us, in a grossly rudimentary way, from becoming what we are fighting.
But do the people getting gunned down in the streets of Tripoli see it that way? I wonder.