Response to Michael Walzer

Response to Michael Walzer

Here are five tangential responses to Michael Walzer. (1) Remember, in 1989, the left’s hope that the end of the cold war might bring a “peace dividend,” an economy less dependent on war? Those hopes died in Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Rwanda. And the left-like everyone else-began bickering about which wars we should fight. In this atmosphere, conservative politicians faced little opposition in constituting the United States as a benevolent world policeman. In the panic of the moment, it’s easy to lose sight of antimilitarism as one of the left’s long-term values. But, after September 11, a nascent peace movement is growing among a wide constituency of alarmed U.S. citizens. Some of them are repeating ritualistic gestures of the past and aren’t able to orient themselves to the changes since 1989, but others are actively groping for new ideas. I think we should join in their search for a new internationalism, more reasoned and productive than constant threats of war. We should stand with those people afraid of stray nuclear devices, afraid of our continued reliance on rogue states as our front-line fighters, guilty about the deaths that are usually so far away, and depressed by how each war seems to create the next one. We can, and should, be critical of how these new movements evolve. However, let’s not give any comfort to those who would dismiss an antiwar position as necessarily utopian, naive, anti-American, traitorous, too late, or beside the point. Let’s not assume that calls for other than military solutions are capitulation to terrorism. Terrorists don’t want peace. To them, our pumped-up public panic, our new, exaggerated feelings of powerlessness, and the consecration of what at times seems like the entire U.S. budget to security are all proofs of their success. Isn’t “Peace with Justice” (a call that just now sounds abstract and hopeless) still an idea worth elaborating on and imagining as a thinkable goal?

(2) Let’s insist on a just and immediate Israeli/Palestinian peace. It disturbs me that insisting on the continued urgency of this could be seen as appeasement. If we can’t urge the right thing now because it will look as if we’re doing it for the wrong reason, we are merely accepting another excuse for delay. The urgency of a Middle East compromise is one of the things we should consider as not having changed since September 11. (Another variation on this theme: Imagine if we were to dismiss President Bush’s newfound interest in the rights of Afghani women as merely cynical and manipulative, a right policy adopted for a wrong reason in reaction to terrorism, and therefore not worth endorsing and pushing further.)

(3) In all conflicts, there’s a hidden temptation to marry the enemy, to meet him, in this case literally, on his own ground. They say good sons go happily to their deaths. We agree, arguing that good sons (and now daughters) must accept the risk of death if our nation is to act morally. The enemy uses reductive categories, so we do, too, as if we fear that zero tolerance for terrorism can’t be maintained if we seek to understand the other’s pain or reasons. In a strange slide, trying to understand the complexity of our situation and to imagine the social reality of the enemy leads to “the culture of excuse.” In this unshaded mental universe, each side believes in its own inherent goodness. Each is the light, the opposite of the other’s darkness. I suggest a divorce from the enemy: the best resistance to repressive fundamentalism and to the false universals of jihad is an active resistance to a monoculture of consent to war.

(4) Blaming U.S. foreign policy for September 11 is not only morally obnoxious but also a dangerous simplification of the new difficulties facing a realigning, post-1989 world. Zero tolerance, while necessary, must include zero tolerance for state terrorism and for acts of war with terrorist effects, the displacement and starvation of mass populations. Zero tolerance for terrorism is right, and the logical principle stretches out to include a general critique of most of the wars fought since World War II.

(5) I used to think that it would be good to start forgetting World War II. All those fiftieth anniversaries signaled that the great, just war was receding into the past, the war whose existence has complicated all subsequent efforts to build movements for disarmament. In any discussion of peace, someone evokes the need to be ready for another Hitler. Indeed, movements toward demilitarization must include an account of security, of how a state will perform what Walzer says is its most basic function, protection. But protection of quality of life can never be merely military protection; the left has always wanted more, including safeguards against untrammeled state power. I’d hoped that, as the memory of heroic militarism dimmed, “protection” might come to mean other things, for example taking action against the kinds of disparities in wealth that are the most likely reasons for future violence. Now, though, I want World War II back again as a heuristic device. One reason the cold war was possible was that cold warriors remembered Stalingrad and Normandy, the blitz and Dresden. They had the good sense to be afraid of the bombs they had just seen go off in Japan. The rigid structures of the cold war held because World War II was a mass trauma. Americans, too, suffered. No one was willing to indulge in such widespread devastation again. As we go to press, our dangerous allies, the Northern Alliance, have just entered Kabul in triumph. If our attack on Afghanistan turns out to be another of our little wars (Grenada, Belgrade) followed by the public relations claim of success without much loss, then to remember the devastations of more than fifty years ago will have been pointless. The United States will get away with the war in the court of U.S. public opinion. Once more our might and sense of superiority will seem justified. Once again we will have watched terrible suffering through the wrong end of a telescope. But if this war in Afghanistan is the beginning of our next long-term engagement with a complex and wide-ranging “evil empire,” then we have to ask, does the U.S. have the cultural and economic vitality to survive this time around as a democracy? Can our institutions be sustained through those years of proxy wars among client states, the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, the ever more efficient domestic surveillance? We don’t fear war enough; we should fear war more. Fear is neither cowardice nor capitulation. It arises from a mature assessment of new dangers we hardly yet understand: terrorism, with its reasons, its many different faces, its disturbing instabilities. In this situation, military restraint-along with an urgent quest for other means of engagement-is both strategically sound and morally right.


Ann Snitow, a professor at New School University, is a founder of the Network of East-West Women.


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