Entry from January 26, 2003

Anthony Ralston, an American professor of mathematics and computer science now living in Britain, writes in reply to a column in The Times of London by William Rees-Mogg claiming that America is now committed to war with Iraq. Any withdrawal at this point, thinks Rees-Mogg, “would undermine US global influence in a disastrous way; it would be an eclipse of American power, not to be forgiven”. Charles Krauthammer writes in much the same vein in the Washington Post when he says that, having “identified the axis of evil as the single greatest threat to America and the world,” Bush committed himself. “To now admit that he can and will do nothing to meet that very threat would not just leave him without a foreign policy, it would destroy his credibility as a leader.”

Professor Ralston is horrified by this kind of talk, writing that “to go to war for such a face- saving reason” as that outlined by Rees-Mogg “would be deeply immoral.” The professor’s point of view is a common one, I take it. What could be more trivial than “face-saving”? Yet the melancholy fact remains that, deeply immoral or not, it is the reason why most people have gone to war throughout history. Even in the anti-warriors’ favorite war, in which, not coincidentally, America stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Soviet people against “fascism,” our country went to war not because of hostility to fascism, or to save the Jews, or any of the reasons that moralists like the professor would have considered good ones but because she had been attacked by the Japanese and could not fail to respond in kind without, well, without losing face.

She would have lost a lot more than face, of course, but even children on a school playground understand that the other kinds of loss begin with the loss of face. Once an enemy knows we won’t stand up for ourselves, then he can help himself to our lunch money, or our international trade or territories or goods or people, at will. Credibility matters deeply in a world of enemies — and of fence-sitters who must decide which side to choose,” says Krauthammer. “You cannot march up this hill and then march back down empty-handed without undermining American deterrence everywhere.” As General MacArthur put it to the Joint Chiefs at the beginning of the Korean War, “We win here, or we lose everywhere. But if we win here, we improve our chances of winning everywhere.”

Interestingly, the origins of the Korean War and the first Gulf War were very similar. In both cases, U.S. state department officials — Dean Acheson in 1950 and April Glaspie in 1990 — told predatory dictatorships that America had no plans to defend its vulnerable clients in South Korea and Kuwait. When the dictators duly invaded, America suddenly discovered that much more was at stake than she had supposed, and that American “credibility” — what the professor dismissively calls losing face — was a much more valuable commodity than the real estate in danger of being lost. “We lost thirty thousand dead in Korea to save face for the United States and the United Nations, not to save South Korea for the South Koreans,” says Thomas Schelling in Arms and Influence (1966), “and it was undoubtedly worth it. Soviet expectations about the behavior of the United States are one of the most valuable assets we possess in world affairs.”

This is really just military strategy 101. When challenged, you must respond in such a way as to make your enemy respect you, and be sure that you will fight if he does not. Otherwise he will know he can challenge anywhere, at any time, and take what he wants from you. Geoffrey Blainey’s study of The Causes of War (1988) concludes that “Wars usually begin when two nations disagree on their relative strength, and wars usually cease when the fighting nations agree on their relative strength,” which is another way of saying the same thing. The surest way of starting a war is to make your enemy think you won’t fight back. For the same reason, once you have threatened war, to withdraw the threat without gaining the objective for which it was threatened guarantees that loss of credibility that both Rees-Mogg and Krauthammer fear. And not only with the enemy. The rest of the world will regard future American threats of force as mere bluster and take no notice of them.


Judith Shulevitz, the egghead in residence at the New York Times Book Review, looks forward to unforeseen consequences of distributing copies of Shakespeare’s Henry V to the troops. “Henry leads his nation into a dangerous, unnecessary and unjustified war,” she says, just like certain American presidents she could name but doesn’t. And, having done so, becomes a “war criminal” (according to at least one literary critic’s account) by killing his French prisoners “for no apparent reason.” Perhaps Ms Shulevitz’s busy schedule did not afford her the leisure to go back and re-read Henry V, for had she done so, she would have discovered that the reason was very apparent to Shakespeare and his audience. It was that the cowardly froggies had crept into Henry’s rear and murdered the boys who were charged, as was the custom of the period, with keeping a watch on the army’s luggage. “Kill the poys and the luggage!” thunders Fluellen. “‘Tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offert. In your conscience now, is it not?”

That Henry therefore “most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner’s throat” — thereby depriving him of the ransom which was his only object in taking a prisoner in the first place — was perhaps owing to the uncertainty, in 1415, of being able subsequently to hale the guilty parties, like Slobodan Milosevic, before an international tribunal in the Hague. The former Prince Hal also had unenlightened views on the death penalty, I’m afraid. “George Bernard Shaw called Henry ‘a jingo hero’,” writes Ms Shulevitz, “and ‘an able young philistine inheriting high position and authority, which he holds on to . . . by keeping a tight grip on his conventional and legal advantages’,” as if this were evidence against him. But what would she expect Shaw, a lifelong pacifist, to think of a war leader like Henry?

Of course the real matter of interest lies in what our boys in Baghdad will think of the man who said, “if it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive.” Will they be moved by the spectacle of the “jingo hero” to disgust at their profession, or the war in which they find themselves engaged? Ms Shulevitz thinks it possible.”Who knows what American soldiers will make of him?” she concludes. “If the play’s critical reception is any guide, at least some of them are likely to realize that Henry V actually makes something of a case against foreign wars waged by dynastic leaders for less than purely disinterested reasons.” I hate to disappoint her, but this seems likely only in cases where the soldiers have had more than four years’ training in the black arts of literary criticism as it is now practised in the egghead culture to which the New York Times Book Review pays its regular tribute.

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