The Winners' Curses

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Two gentlemen who write under the monikers "Mr. Radical" and "Mr. Right" have presented the case that peace activists want, at bottom, the United States to lose in a war. As of the time I write this, their piece is on the home page of their Website; by the time you read this, it may have been shifted to their archive, as the March 1 column ("Victory or Defeat.")

The argument they make is at heart a simple one. American peace activists tend to be explained away by their fellow Americans, to the detriment of the current war effort, largely through the efforts of the elitist media. It would be much more clear-cut to acknowledge the truth that the media elites simply want the United States military to have its clock cleaned. The reason why the media class desires this tragedy is because they despise the military, largely on moral grounds. This forms a large part of their class interest. Recognizing this underlying bias will clear away a hobbling domestic obstacle to the United States proceeding towards victory in Iraq.

Arguments of this sort have a certain innate plausibility, because everyone has a worldview of some sort, and it is easy to forget one’s own. So, the claim that the media class has a class interest does ring true. An economist could, with little effort, anchor this posited class interest into a material interest. A sociologist could add in a sociological profile of the typical media employee, a "Mr. Media" or "Ms. Media," and anchor the posited class interest into such a profile. Given the conservatives’ own worldview and biases, the sociological approach would more likely be of interest to them. The typical conservative is close enough to the world of money to see the trees instead of the forest, and realize that the "moneyed class" is too diffuse a category to provide much insight into moneyed people. After all, Grosse Point, Silicon Valley, downtown Manhattan and Beverly Hills all qualify as centers of the "moneyed elite," even if the general worldview prevailing in each locale is quite different from that of all the others. Sociology, which focuses upon common attitudes, lacks this diffuseness.

Unfortunately, like all "process arguments," the focus upon means leaves out the ends at stake. Formally, an analytic type could quibble with the imputation of an equivalency — namely, the matching of "peace activism" to "media [or, more broadly, "intellectual"] class interest" — by noting a mismatch between the two terms. Some peace activists do not have a media or intellectualist background, and there are quite a few intellectuals — specifically, the neoconservatives — who lack any kind of pacifist bias. Some of these neos are, of course, mainstream media pundits, and seem quite comfortable in that world.

This approach, though logical, does miss the question of ends. To assume that pacifism is simply an emanation of the "media class" is to assume away the desirability of peace, except as a product of a certain socio-economic class. Even if there is a rough match between one class and an argument, that match says nothing about the plausibility, or desirability, of the argument in question. If the argument by those two gentlemen is adapted to claim that any peace activist secretly desires the defeat of the U.S. military in war, it says nothing about the underlying reasons for such a wish. It could result from a latent hatred of the military. It could also result from a common-sensical realization that the U.S. government is biased towards waging wars, provided that any such war is quick and goes easy on the majority of voters. A string of victory after victory not only encourages this bias, it also inculcates a certain arrogance about the "next one" due to a reinforced anchoring bias: "We won the Big One, we keep winning, and this war’s just like all the others, including the Big One; hence, we’ll pulverize them." In addition, the tying in of patriotism to victory slowly crowds out the long-term costs of a War State being noticed.

In order to illustrate this, I’m going to use a counterfactual analysis for my own country of Canada, one that starts with wishing away a tragedy etched into Canadians’ memory: the 1942 Dieppe raid disaster. The result of this tragedy is the now-generally-accepted conclusion that Canadian soldiers were merely used as expendable cannon fodder for Britain’s wars, and has led to a general antiwar sentiment in Canada. What, though, would have happened had the Dieppe raid had been called off, and no other disaster had been visited upon Canadian troops during World War 2?

The True North Strong And Free

Had you asked a cosmopolite, back in 1925, whether Canada or the United States was more warlike, he or she would have answered, "Canada, definitely. Ever since 1867, Canadians have shown a real enthusiasm for the wars of the British Empire. This war enthusiasm not only includes the latest Great War, but also the Boer War. The citizens of the United States, despite the recent war hysteria there, have always been suspicious of wars and warmaking, and have never shown the spontaneous enthusiasm that Canadians have." The relevant facts and figures would have backed this argument up.

There was a lot of pride amongst Canadians concerning Canada’s war record back then. The "Peace" in Canada’s national motto, "Peace, Order and Good Government," was generally understood to mean "peace through strength" in wartime. The relevant anchoring bias would have been the "Miracle at Vimy Ridge," where Canadian soldiers won a reputation for doing the impossible in war. Had the Dieppe tragedy not occurred, this anchor would still be in the Canadian mindset; the 1942 Dieppe tragedy destroyed it.

The gradual pull-away of Canada from the U.K. orbit would have proceeded anyway, so Canadian war enthusiasm would have been slowly detached from the British Commonwealth and transferred, in part, to the United States’ battles. Canadian soldiers would have been sent to Korea in far greater numbers than was the case. The same would have occurred in Vietnam. In fact, the Vietnam War might very well have been "won," keeping South Vietnam intact, had Canadian troops enlisted in the proportion that they did for the Boer War. Another "Canadian Miracle" would have been added to the "Miracle of Vimy Ridge." (It might have been a more definitive rollback of the Tet Offensive.)

In fact, it may very well have been the "Third Canadian Miracle," had there not been a Vimy Ridge-style offensive during World War 2. Remember the Bay of Pigs?

Consider the consequences, for the United States, had history taken such a turn:

  • Lyndon Johnson, a man whose boys were not averse to questioning the patriotism of his political opponents, would have ended up looking like something of a war hero. This would have made the Great Society as unquestionable as the New Deal. The unintended consequences of Johnsonian domestic policy, now widely known, would have been an underground secret, if not blanked out entirely. Johnson would have won handily in 1968 had the Canadian government authorized a massive roll-out of Canadian troops after Tet.
  • The hesitancy to launch a war any larger than a skirmish, which prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s, would have not been there. The United States would be far more of a war economy than is the case now.
  • In addition, there would have been no war weariness to help the case for ending conscription. The draft would not only be active, but also today’s American youth would have been inured to it. "Youth culture" would have been seen as a treat for the teens, before their induction. The culture would, of course, be more militaristic than it is now.
  • Vietnam movies would have been entirely different; instead of tragedies or passion plays, they would have been updated WW2-type flicks. Americans would have seen a "Mr. Canada" figure, such as Benton Fraser of the show Due South, in the person of a comradely Canadian soldier, a down-to-earth version of Sir Alec Guinness’ character in Bridge on the River Kwai. ("Diefenbaker" might very well have been a Rottweiler.)
  • Needless to say, President Kennedy, and his policies, would have been all-but-beyond question had Canadian soldiers been added en masse to the Bay of Pigs.
  • Who amongst American would dare claim that the U.S. entry into the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War — not to mention the Bay of Pigs invasion, if massive Canadian military aid had been supplied — was unconstitutional?
  • Take a moment to imaging what Republican "me-too’ing," from the ’60s to the ’80s, would have been had all of the above occurred.

Now, consider the consequences for an alternate Canada:

  • There would have been no Canadian peace movement during the time of Vietnam. It’s all-but impossible that the infamous body-grab of Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson by Lyndon Johnson in 1965 would have taken place, as PM Pearson would not have called for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam at all.
  • Thus, for any "draft dodgers," Canada would have been a cold and chilly place. The only "Underground Railroad" that would have existed would have been the ferrying of any American draft resistors to the American military police.
  • What is now seen by Americans as Canadian diffidence would be interpreted as fatalism.
  • Such "diffidence" that did exist would be less widespread amongst the Canadian public. The average Canadian might very well acquire a taste for claiming to the average American, "We got you into World War 2 [described in The Molson Saga]; we [would have] bailed you out in Cuba, and we saved your ass in Vietnam."
  • This attitude would, of course, creep into negotiations between Canadians and Americans, as well as negotiations between the Canadian government and the U.S. government.
  • Any latent anti-Americanism in Canada would not be of the "squishy Left" variety; it would instead have an undertone of bellicosity. "Creative re-interpretations" of the War of 1812 would likely insist that Canada won it, and that calling it a tie smacked of temporizing.
  • It’s possible that Canada would be a Republic as of this time — but it would be one that would be profoundly unlike the real Canada of today. Most likely, it would be a garrison State. The best that a libertarian could hope for would be a "New Switzerland," but given the government of Canada’s "mainstream" predilection for interventionism, and the occasional resort to posse comitatus measures domestically (see here and here), a quasi-fascist State would be more likely. Concern for individual rights would be scoffed at as yearning for the "rights of Englishmen."

The Moral of the Story

The above scenario uses Canada, a well-known peace-loving nation, to show what bellicosity, rooted in victory after victory in war, can do to a nation’s culture. Few Canadians, in the real world, would like to see a Canada such as the one I illustrated above. The current peace-loving consensus — a genuinely patriotic one — in Canada is a result of the Dieppe tragedy.

Therefore, a military tragedy, such as the 1942 Dieppe one, can have compensatory consequences for a national culture, not all of them bad. If the peace movement in the United States "wishes" for such a tragedy to be suffered by the U.S. military, it could be inspired by hope that the United States will become as peace-loving as Canada is now, combined with despair over reaching that state through activism. Whether or not the United States would become a better nation as a result of that kind of tragedy is a value judgment, but combining patriotism and hope for an end to native (and official) bellicosity is not a self-contradictory mix. Thus, it is possible to be both a patriot and to expect, or fear, an eventual defeat to be suffered by the military of the nation. The simple maligning of the patriotism of a peace activist is thus a non sequitur.

Daniel M. Ryan [send him mail] is a Canadian with a past. He’s currently wearing out his thumb with pen and paper.

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