War and Its Moral Equivalent

Last week, in a decision that everyone except conservatives agreed was a defeat for the Bush administration, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the inmates of Guantanamo Bay could sue in federal courts to challenge their imprisonment. 

For the
Washington Post the decision was a "cool assertion" of "an essential role for the judiciary." For Newt Gingrich, appearing on Face the Nation, the decision was "a disaster, which could cost us a city."

Conservatives were also disappointed last week on energy when Republican presidential nominee appeared on NBC's Today Show and called not for the release of federal lands and the outer continental shelf for oil and gas drilling but instead for a plan to expand nuclear power and develop battery technology.  In response to his plan, McCain seemed to imply, oil prices would stop going up.

And so it goes.

Whether or not the present detainees at Guantanamo Bay are released or not is a minor question.  The larger issue is: what happens down the road?  Have we now set a precedent that will force a future president to give every prisoner of war a government lawyer?  Have we prevented the president from defending the United States from attacks by enemy combatants?

The energy question is a matter of faith.  Some people believe that energy prices are determined in the global energy market.  Other people believe that the oil companies set the price of oil at whatever price they like.  Still other people think that OPEC sets the price of oil.  But energy policy also depends on judgments about the recent increase in global temperature and an accompanying a rise in carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere.  Some people believe that there is a direct connection,  that increases in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have caused a global rise in temperature.  Other people think that the simultaneous increase in temperature and carbon dioxide proves nothing.

But there is a big difference between the issue of the Guantanamo detainees and the problem of energy prices and climate change.  It is the difference between war and the moral equivalent of war. 

Ever since philosopher William James invented the concept of the "moral equivalent of war" our liberal friends have wanted to regard almost all conflicts between nations as misunderstandings that ought to be resolved by negotiation and diplomacy.  But in situations not involving conflicts between nations they prefer to declare the moral equivalent of war and mobilize the nation into the moral equivalent of an army in order to defeat the forces of evil.

This seems to conservatives to be upside down.  But it makes perfect sense if you take a look at James's understanding of the moral equivalent of war.

Writing in 1906 William James worried about what to do if pacific socialists like him ever got to stop war and militarism.  "A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy."  There would still be hard work to do in this "only partly hospitable globe. We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings."  James wanted to replace military honor with civic honor, to transfer patriotic pride from military victories to civic triumphs, from shame in weakness to shame in anything that is "vile" in the community.  He wanted to conscript young men to battle social evils, not foreign foes.

What James neglects to realize is that when you conduct domestic politics using the moral equivalent of war metaphor you do not just conduct a War on Poverty or a war for Energy Independence.  Wars are not conducted against an idea but against people.  You end up making your fellow Americans into a hated enemy.  You declare, in other words, a "moral equivalent of civil war" against people who disagree with your call to fight wars on poverty or who fail to grasp the Inconvenient Truth of the need to save the planet.

Our liberal friends are quick to worry about the dangers of "nationalism" and are ultra-sensitive about anyone questioning their patriotism.  But they have no problem in questioning the motives of anyone that dares to oppose their militant campaigns for universal health care and gay marriage.

All this is rather unfortunate.  Pace William James, we have a rather effective system to engage the martial enthusiasms of young men without setting blue staters against red staters.  It is called American business.  And the good thing is that when the captains of industry battle each other for market share they are not firing the opening shots in the moral equivalent of a US civil war.  There's no need in business to stigmatize half the nation as racists, sexists, or homophobes-or as mean-spirited Republicans. 

It is true, of course, that the losers in the corporate wars may be bitter, and may seek solace in God and guns.  But that is better than the stew of hatreds and resentments that bubble up out of real wars-and the wars of moral equivalence that liberals inspired by William James have stirred up in the US over the last century.

Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his roadtothemiddleclass.com and usgovernmentspending.comHis Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.
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