Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking about last week’s shootings at the Paris satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. They raise a whole series of issues that I care about, a lot– general issues about free speech in a pluralistic world, and more specific ones about Frenchness. France has been a huge part of my life since I first ventured there at age nineteen, and the Charlie Hebdo story brings forward elements of French life that I want eventually to discuss.
But there’s another angle that I want to start with, namely, the warfare context.
Because like it or not, that is the setting in which these events took place. The killers themselves (we’ve been told) wanted to fight in Iraq; one of them left a posthumous video statement linking his actions to ISIS and its war efforts; in turn, France’s prime minister responded to the shootings by promising “a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” Anyway the French have been at war elsewhere for the last few years. They didn’t sign up for our original Iraq venture, but they’ve been enthusiastically fighting in Libya and Mali, and they’ve pushed for more direct war in Syria.
If two opposing sides tell us they’re fighting a war, we should take them seriously.
And talk of war brings us back to Carl von Clausewitz, the world’s foremost philosopher of war. As I tried to explain in my last post, what makes Clausewitz the top guy in the war-philosophy business is the combination of qualities he brings to it: real life experience in world-transforming battles, faith in the value of war itself, absolute intellectual seriousness, sensitivity to moral complexities.
That last post centered on one of Clausewitz’s fundamental insights about war: he tells us that it’s an infinitely complex social reality, which will always generate unpredictable results and which is never subject to full human understanding or control; it’s the realm of chance and limited information. Another Clausewitz point, which I didn’t say much about last time: there’s also, always, an opponent, who’s trying as hard as we are to win and who wouldn’t be on the battlefield if he didn’t think he had a reasonable chance.
Our responses to the Charlie events suggests how deeply we in the prosperous and protected west have blocked out these realities. We’re stunned to learn that war can actually touch us directly, disrupt the course of our own lives– that the other guy will fight back in ways that hurt. We understand (at least some us– for a counter-example, check out the New Yorker‘s sweetheart profile of America’s UN ambassador Samantha Power) that our military interventions may not go as planned, and that our troops may suffer losses. But the worst we can envision is the failure of our policy objectives– ok, maybe we won’t get the democratic and stable Iraq/Libya/Syria that our leaders promised, maybe there’ll be cost over-runs. The idea of an actual fight that would hit us where we live, in which we mind-our-own-business citizens would actually suffer or die– that’s apparently beyond our comprehension.
Now, at some point in pretty much every discussion of the Charlie events, there’s a moment of obligatory moral declamation. Commentators note that the shootings were horrific, that violence of this kind does not reflect the real nature of Islam, that European and American crimes in Asia don’t justify gunfire in Paris. The Charlie victims were satirists not soldiers, and targeting civilians is a war crime, now matter how just the war. The perpetrators were anti-social misfits, thugs, moved by confused resentments, not the high moral purposes that would justify their claims to warrior status.
Much of that rhetoric is reasonable, but it’s also irrelevant– and self-serving. Irrelevant, because injustice and unmerited suffering are built into the nature of all wars, the good ones and the bad, and we should never go to war without understanding that reality. Self-serving, because we understand injustice and suffering well enough when they befall others. We know that there will be errors and collateral damage in drone bombings and midnight raids. We know that wartime experiences erode everyone’s morals, and that there’s thuggish behavior on every battlefield. We punish some extreme forms of our own wartime criminality, but mostly we forgive and forget. It’s Chelsea Manning who’s in jail because of the Collateral Murder video, not the American soldiers that it shows machine-gunning rescuers. What we can’t seem to make sense of is the idea that collateral damage like that might befall us, as we go about our own basically decent, basically peaceful lives.
Until we can widen our moral focus enough to take in that truth, we’re not going to understand what’s going on around us. Strangely, it’s the amoral Prussian tough guy Clausewitz who’s there to teach us that fundamental moral lesson.