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Remembering The Obvious
Clichés of war.


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Jonah Goldberg

If you subscribe to the central insight of conservatism, that there’s nothing new under the sun, it only make sense that certain adages always have some utility. But truisms aren’t scripture. Substituting clichés for actual thinking is almost always a bad idea — in much the same way that ideology is good when it’s a checklist of accumulated wisdom to apply to reality and is always bad when it’s cookie cutter you try to impose on reality.

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For example, America is full of people who revel in their own profundity when they say something along the lines of “better ten guilty men go free rather than one innocent man die.” Now, of course, the principle is right, but the fact remains that sometimes it is better that one innocent man die rather than ten guilty ones go free. Let us not forget that had we killed 19 “innocent” men on September 10th the world would have been much better off. Similarly, torturing any one of these men on September 10 would have been the right and moral thing to do if it would have saved the lives of 6,000 innocent people.

During wars, when the complexity of the real world is its most daunting, intellectuals seem especially eager to use clichés as a crutch.

When we’re actually at peace, nobody ever says “give peace a chance.” But once somebody else breaks the peace, it becomes a catchphrase. Well, we gave peace a chance, and they blew up the World Trade Center. Now it’s time to give war a chance, and over 90% of Americans agree. Still, it’s worth revisiting some of the more prevalent cliched intellectual crutches so many in the remaining 10% rely upon to get through their days.

”Violence never solves anything.” At best this is the triumph of hope over reason. At worse this is simply knee-jerk stupidity. Either way, violence has solved all sorts of things. Violence — judiciously applied by police or armed citizens — often solves the problem of madmen on killing sprees. Indeed, if violence never solved anything, police would never have guns in the first place. Violence used by “peacekeepers” must solve something, otherwise so many people who so often say “violence never solves anything” wouldn’t love them so much.

As Victor Davis Hanson — NRO’s phenomenal in-house historian — has pointed out:

The three greatest scourges of the 20th century — Nazism, Japanese militarism, and Soviet Communism — were defeated through war or continued military resistance. More were killed by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao outside of combat than died in World Wars I and II. War, as Sherman said, is all hell, but as Heraclitus admitted it is also “the father of us all.” Wickedness — whether chattel slavery, the gas chambers, or concentration camps — has rarely passed quietly into the night on its own. The present evil isn’t going to either.

If we change our way of life, ‘they’ will have won.”

If this were true, Osama Bin Laden would have said in his taped message yesterday, “And I say this to my Muslim brothers and sisters: We Won! Airports across the United States have cancelled curbside check-in! Yes, Lovers of Allah, lines at John F. Kennedy airport are twice as long, even for domestic flights! Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York, has declared that commuters must carpool in the Holland Tunnel on Thursdays and Fridays. Therefore I am hereby calling off the jihad. You may return to your families and villages, secure in the knowledge that the Great Satan will never allow silverware at airport Pizza Huts ever again.”

The fact is that if we don’t change our way of life, in at least a few significant areas, “they” will win. And “they” won’t be high-fiving when Bill Maher loses his job, as Arianna Huffington has suggested. They will be celebrating victory over the corpses of more Americans.

Siding with the government is simply “war fever” or a “herd mentality.”

This is the sort of thing people who are wrong say to comfort themselves. Writers in The Nation, the Village Voice, Salon and elsewhere love to refer to themselves as “dissidents” as if the majority opinion were somehow corrupt or totalitarian. It is difficult for them to comprehend that maybe, just maybe, their dissent isn’t morally or intellectually superior, it’s just wrong. After all, “dissident” is a morally neutral term. Osama Bin Laden was a dissident in Saudi Arabia. David Duke has the same claim to the adjective as Ralph Nader or Leonard Peltier. If you steadfastly insist that 2+2 is a banana you may be a dissident, but you shouldn’t wait by the mailbox for your Profiles in Courage award.

David Talbot, the editor of Salon, writes “Truth is not the only early casualty of war. So is rational thought. War breeds hysteria and a rush to conformity. The herd, under attack, instinctively groups together and seeks assurance that everyone is trustworthy and loyal, everyone is primed for defense.”

Isn’t it possible — just possible — that the majority of Americans are right and the dissidents are wrong? Talbot, along with Katha Pollit, Susan Sontag, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Moore, Jesse Jackson, a host of jabberers at the Village Voice and the London Guardian et al, take great pride in breaking with what Talbot calls “the herd.” But there’s nothing in the world of biology, zoology, or logic for that matter which says the sheep who wander out of the herd are any smarter than the ones who stay in it.

In fact, everything we know says the exact opposite. Carrying Talbot’s very inapt metaphor to the point of asininity, forming a herd is an intelligent response to obvious danger. That’s why the behavior evolved in the first place. It is the blind and dumb sheep who wander off toward the wolves to make friends with them, who put themselves at risk and make the whole herd weaker in the process. I don’t question the motives of these rogue sheep, but I don’t revere them for their independence either.



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