Entry from July 1, 2010

At the height of the McChrystal affair, Lucian Truscott IV, scion of a distinguished military family and author of novels like Dress Gray and Heart of War about corruption and illicit sex in uniform, wrote an op ed in The New York Times taking the General to task for saying of the men on his staff, “All these men, I’d die for them. And they’d die for me.” This, says Mr Truscott, on the strength of a story told to him by his grandfather, the World War II General Lucian K. Truscott Jr., is mere sentimentality and an indication of General McChrystal’s unfitness for command:

Unless we put generals in command who aren’t sentimental, generals who are willing and able to give the deadly serious orders to accomplish the mission they are given, who know that men die for a cause and not for them, we will get no respect from friend or foe in Afghanistan, and we may as well pack up our stuff and go home.

Well, it’s a point of view, though it has to be said that the historic preponderance of opinion among military men seems to me to come down in favor more of what he calls the “sentimental” view than of his own.

“Sentimental” is also a curiously ill-chosen word. What he means, I think, is a sort of romanticism, but one which is anything but sentimental. Sentimentality implies mere feelings without real-world consequences. Unless he means that General McChrystal and the many other military men who have said similar things are lying and that, if it came down to it, they wouldn’t die for each other, death would seem to be a pretty persuasive real world affirmation of the feeling in this case. I myself think the “cause” more likely to be something people get sentimental about because it is more easily detached from reality. A bloodless idea or concept may inspire strong feelings in intellectuals like Mr Truscott, but not so much in ordinary soldiers. Patriotism for some may be a “cause,” but I think for most it is more concrete than that. It means the people and places they associate with the idea of “home,” and thus it is more akin to General McChrystal’s personal than Mr Truscott’s abstract loyalties.

Anyway, Mr Truscott’s piece came back to me yesterday as I read a curious article about abortion by Antonia Senior in The Times of London — which is about to retreat behind a fee-paying wall. The headline says it all: “Yes, abortion is killing. But it’s the lesser evil.” The obvious answer to that ought to be, “lesser to whom?” But the piece is about a bit of moral evolution on the author’s part which stops well short of that point. She used to be militantly pro-choice, she tells us, but

then came a baby, and everything changed. I think of it as the Anna Karenina conundrum. If you read the book as a teenager, you back her choices with all the passion of youth. Love over convention, go Anna! Then you have children and realise that Anna abandons her son to shack up with a pretty soldier, and then her daughter when she jumps under a train. She becomes a selfish witch. Having a baby paints the world an entirely different hue. Black and white no longer quite cut it.

So far so good. Yet, in answer to pro-life feminism like Sarah Palin’s, Ms Senior claims that “you cannot separate women’s rights from their right to fertility control” —

As ever, when an issue we thought was black and white becomes more nuanced, the answer lies in choosing the lesser evil. The nearly 200,000 aborted babies in the UK each year are the lesser evil, no matter how you define life, or death, for that matter. If you are willing to die for a cause, you must be prepared to kill for it, too.

That passage sort of sums up what is so chilling about the idea of a “cause” as the occasion of death, either the giving or the receiving it. Some causes, doubtless, truly are worth dying and killing for, but once you allow them to replace the emotional and human tie, either between men in combat or between mother and child, the killing part — say, those “nearly 200,000 aborted babies in the UK each year” who are so readily subsumed under the concept of “the lesser evil” — becomes way too easy.

Not entirely by the way, Ms Senior also repeats the old chestnut that “abortion would have been legal for millennia had it been men whose prospects and careers were put on sudden hold by an unexpected pregnancy.” Feminists always think this a killer argument — in more ways than one — when in fact it is as meaningless as are all utopian politics, of which I take feminism to be a subspecies. The stubborn and immovable facts are that men don’t get pregnant, that they wouldn’t be men if they did, and that the social customs by which they have nearly always throughout human history been the dominant sex are inextricably linked to these two facts. That feminism, like abortion, is a rebellion against such hard realities of nature also suggests the ease with which “cause”-mongering can become indistinguishable from mere fantasy — a form, we may say, of sentimentality in its true sense.

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