If ever there was a surefire “heads you win, tails I lose” proposition in the course of human affairs, it’s got to be the tactic of preemption. With preemption, either way, you get it in the neck. It’s just a question of whether what you get in the neck is fatal or merely painful.
As anyone who’s ever been in a threatening confrontation knows — especially against a bigger and stronger adversary — whoever strikes first almost always ends up winning. But he’s forever tarred with the tag of the aggressor (“All right, who threw the first punch?”), even if he might have been anything but.
I’ve just seen the wrenching film Lone Survivor, which recounts the diabolically existential Sophie’s Choice type of situation that confronted four of our finest fighting men in Afghanistan. It resulted in the needless death of three of them because their consciences (or at least the conscience of their leader), not to mention a realistic reading of contemporary mores and pieties (which is not even to mention the current stifling rules of engagement), prevented them from doing the one thing that would have saved their lives — kill, and thereby preempt from divulging their whereabouts to the enemy, the three unarmed but likely Taliban civilians who’d stumbled onto their position.
Obviously, had Marcus Luttrell, the eponymous lone survivor, together with his buddies, done the prudent — indeed, wise — thing by taking the requisite preemptive action, they would have ensured for themselves a lifetime of moral censure, not to mention almost certain imprisonment. So instead they found themselves forced to act in a way that hugely increased their chance of death.
They had to choose virtually certain opprobrium or losing their lives. They chose the latter, and many observers (including this one) can’t help but ruminate, from our comfortably lard-butted spectator’s distance, that “in retrospect, wouldn’t it have been better if . . .” In fact, in a 20/20 interview, Luttrell himself allowed that, looking back now, he would rather still have his mates around, even though that would mean he had “eliminated the compromise” and would have to ask forgiveness for doing that.
The terrible decision that faced Luttrell and his mates got me thinking about the greater moral conundrums caused by other uses of preemption, not just in personal choices but in national policy.
Clichés become clichés because they tend to be true, and none is truer than the one about 20/20 hindsight. Any student of history knows that the human story is really little more than one long, dreary, and depressing recital of “Gee, if only they’d known.” But the fact is, in most cases, they did know. “They” knew perfectly well what the “smart” thing would have been to do, but “they” were also aware of the paralyzing paradox that if you take an action that averts disaster you will never get credit for it because no one will be 100 percent sure that your action did, in fact, avert that disaster. Trying to prove the imminence of a catastrophe that never materialized is one of life’s more fruitless and thankless pursuits.
I suppose that, in recent history, the starkest example of the use of preemption while disregarding the risk to public esteem was the Israeli strike against the massed military might of its hostile Arab neighbors in 1967. With Jordan and the Soviet-backed forces of Egypt and Syria poised to gobble up 19-year old Israel from three sides, she struck first and, six days later, had secured one of the most comprehensive and decisive victories in modern military history. With that act of preemption Israel kept itself alive. But holy Beelzebub, has it ever been paying for it ever since.
Today we gaze apprehensively at Iran, and anyone who’s on the housebroken side of Glenn Greenwald or Noam Chomsky knows full well that those millenarian mullahs are hell-bent on nuking up. Furthermore, anybody with a sensible molecule between his ears knows perfectly well that it would be better — morally, tactically, and strategically — to preemptively blow that nuclear-weapons project away before the mad mullahs find themselves in a position to existentially blackmail the entire Middle Eastern region, not to mention the entire world. But will anyone — we or the Israelis — ever be thanked for doing so? In a pig’s ear we will. And yet, as I say, we all know it’s the right thing to do.
The venerable George Shultz, who had the distinction of being Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Treasury and of State, once wisely observed that “it is better to use force when you should rather than when you must; last [resort] means no other, and by that time the level of force and the risk involved may have multiplied many times over.” True enough, but he neglected to add that you will invariably end up paying dearly for your wisdom. Nobody likes a smartass — and certainly not a decisive one — any more in international affairs than in the schoolyard.
I’m pretty sure there’s no happy way out of the preemption damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t conundrum. It’s just one of those unsatisfactory facts of life.
But the least we can do, the next time one of our soldiers or statesmen is faced with the agonizing, existential decision of preempting or not, is not be so quick to condemn. And perhaps even to give a second thought to the what-might-have-been, and to be grateful that it never was.
— Jack Jolis is an American businessman and was an Army officer in Vietnam.