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Sunday, August 1, 2004
PoliColumn

By Steven Taylor @ 1:57 pm

This is the pre-edited version of what ran today in the Birmingham News-it didn’t make it to the web, and I wasn’t sure it had run until I received an e-mail from a reader.

War: What’s it Good for?

Steven L. Taylor

An anti-war group called “Project Billboard” wants to rent space in Times Square in New York, near the site of the Republican National Convention, emblazoned with a red, white and blue bomb (a cartoon-looking bomb like the kind that the Coyote often used in Road-Runner cartoons) and the slogan “Democracy Is Best Taught by Example, Not by War". However, the owners of the space, Clear Channel Communications, have objected to the bomb imagery and a fight has emerged over the billboard.

This is a situation ripe with various political angles. For one thing, Clear Channel ranks high in the unholy pantheon of corporate devils despised by many on the left (indeed, they are likely second only to the much-vilified Halliburton). Clear Channel draws the ire of many on the political left because many of their radio stations carry a variety of right-oriented talk radio, and many Clear Channel country music stations temporarily banned the Dixie Chicks from their airways after singer Natalie Maines told an audience in Great Britain that she was ashamed that President Bush was from Texas.

However, the conflict between media giants and advocacy groups isn’t the most interesting element of the story to me, rather it is the sentiment in the slogan, which, while well intended, it simply incorrect. Indeed, it would be nice if it were true, but reflects a wishful view of the world which is simply false. It puts me in the mind of another favorite slogan of many anti-war elements in US politics: “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake” (a famous quote from the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Jeannette Rankin). However, like the Project Billboard credo, this one, too, is misguided, even if it sounds good.

For one thing, while war is messy, it is not, like an earthquake which in random in its devastation and does nothing constructive. War, though not wholly controllable, is not such a generalized force of destruction. It is, unfortunately, a sometimes necessary action by nation-states which operate, ultimately, in an international system that lacks, like British philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, a “power able to overawe them all” and therefore able to make wayward state to behave. This situation therefore means that there is sometimes no other recourse for a state than to utilize force to secure its own safety.

Further, regarding the idea that wars cannot be won, or that democracy cannot be furthered through warfare, let us consider the history that many on the left appear to ignore. Looking to our own political history for a moment, there can be no doubt the American War for Independence furthered democracy on our shores (indeed, it helped create that which was, at the time, the most democratic nation ever to exist). Further, the US Civil War, which rid our land of the odious institution of slavery clearly demonstrate how warfare can result in liberating (and therefore democratizing) influences.

The list, from there, is long. Would Hirohito’s Japan, Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy have naturally become democracies sans World War II? It would seem that war can be won, and that they can have democratizing influences. Certainly the peoples of various Eastern European states know that the Cold War ultimately resulted in democratization for their homelands. And while it is not an example of democratization, it is noteworthy that the war in Iraq has had a profound effect on Libya that has furthered the cause of international security.

How about the idea that leading by example is the key to international harmony and democracy for all people? Do the individuals involved in Project Billboard really think that the Taliban would have looked out across the face of the Earth and, seeing model democracies in Europe, would have liberalized their governance of the Afghan people? Do they really think that Saddam would have eventually seen how nice life was in Australia, and therefore would have allowed a transition to democracy in Iraq?

These are, of course specious claims. Yet that is what the slogan would have us believe. It is an idealized view of the world that only exists in chats over coffee or in seminar rooms.

I am not suggesting that war should be the first, or even second or third, option that the United States should pursue in securing its national interest. However, to suggest that warfare never produces ultimately positive results, or that it never contributes to democracy’s growth, is patently wrong.

No, to pretend that war is to be avoided at all costs is to acquiesce, in some cases, to evil and to further insecurity. More specifically: to rely on multilateral institutions and international law as the bulwark that will protect us from the evils of Islamofascist terrorism is to utterly ignore history and reality. One guesses that Bin Laden, al-Zarqawi and their ilk aren’t likely to sit down to chat anytime soon. And slogans and good feeling won’t protect us from their kind.

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3 Comments

  1. There is a quote from . . . I think John Adams . . . that (paraphrased) is the War is a horrible thing, but it is not the worst thing - for essentially the reasons you allude to before. Drat. Now I will have to hunt it down.

    Comment by Steven L — Sunday, August 1, 2004 @ 2:27 pm

  2. Wow. Memory plays tricks - Gool ol’ John Stuart Mill:

    “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

    If I had looked it up first, of course, I could have looked semi-intelligent.

    Comment by Steven L. — Sunday, August 1, 2004 @ 2:31 pm

  3. At least they were both guys named “John”

    Comment by Steven — Sunday, August 1, 2004 @ 2:34 pm

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