Commentary Magazine


Real-World Effects of Anti-War Activism

I was too young for the Vietnam War to have been a formative influence on my political views, but I do recall how the aftermath of the war revealed something to me both quite revealing and disturbing about contemporary liberalism.

In the wake of the victories by the North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge, many liberals simply ignored what followed their ascension to power. Progressives believed the leadership of these countries were comprised of enlightened agrarian reformers who would improve the everyday lives of people in both countries. What the South Vietnamese and the Cambodian people got instead was unimaginable brutality and horror — and what we heard from many on the left were excuses and indifference.

I was reminded of this in reading Max’s post, which quoted a tribal elder in Afghanistan, commenting on President Obama’s decision to withdraw more than 33,000 troops by next September. “This drawdown will embolden the morale of the Taliban, and actually it has already emboldened them,” the tribal elder said. The Taliban are saying to the elders not to support Americans or you will be killed, and now they say the Americans are leaving and your lives will not be spared. ”

Yet we have figures like the liberal evangelical Jim Wallis urging the United States exit immediately, without even a single reference to the hellish future that would face the people of Afghanistan if that were to happen. Wallis argued something similar in Iraq, urging the United States to withdraw rather than support President Bush’s surge strategy. If America had followed the counsel of Wallis, Iraq would have descended into civil war and mass death.

None of this is surprising for Wallis or those who shared his worldview. After all, in September 1979, Wallis wrote of the Vietnamese “boat people”: “Many of today’s refugees were inoculated with a taste for a Western lifestyle during the war years and are fleeing to support their consumer habit in other lands.” (See this profile on Wallis.) Wallis’ words were disgraceful, a slander of innocent people who were fleeing a repressive government. And in Cambodia we didn’t see the emergence of social justice (a favorite phrase of Wallis’); what we saw instead was forced labor, slavery, starvation and the extermination of roughly one-quarter of the Cambodian population.

I recall my cognitive dissonance: Why weren’t those on the left –who took great pride in advertising their compassion for the poor, the dispossessed, and the downtrodden and who took special pride in their multicultural sensitivities — the least bit horrified by what happened and their complicity in it? Didn’t the mass graves, the genocide, and the killing fields bother them? Why weren’t there more liberals like Joan Baez, who supported the North Vietnamese until she became horrified at its human-rights violations (she eventually published a full-page newspaper advertisement describing the horror that had descended on Vietnam). Conservatism might not be perfect, I thought at the time, but it could do a good deal better than this. Call it a young man mugged by hypocrisy.

Indeed, it dawned on me then that for some on the left — not all, but for some — the expressions of concern for the suffering and oppressed was an affectation; what mattered to them was ideology, not justice and human dignity. And if great numbers of innocent people had to die in order to defend The Cause, that was the unfortunate collateral damage that needed to be buried along with the bodies. Liberalism, after all, was too important to be harmed by the stain of genocide, even if genocide was the unwitting result of its policies. We have seen some version of this play out many times since the wars in Southeast Asia, including in Iraq and now Afghanistan. Withdrawal and surrender are endorsed without seemingly a moment’s thought to the wholesale slaughter that might follow.

Here I want to add several important qualifiers, including this one: the first priority of American policy is America’s national interest, and if one believes war is undermining that interest, or the war itself is simply not winnable, then it might be prudent to withdraw. In addition, humanitarian concerns cannot be the sole, or even the major, factor in determining which hostilities America chooses to become part of. The suffering in the world is endless, and America cannot hope to put an end to anywhere near most of it. And when it comes to Afghanistan, the views of Wallis are extreme in their recklessness. There are liberals, and increasingly some conservatives, who believe a counterterrorism strategy is wiser than a counterinsurgency (COIN) one and entails significantly fewer troops to execute the strategy. Which is another way of saying while I think General Petraeus’ COIN strategy is quite clearly the best one for Afghanistan and has shown demonstrable progress since it has been in place, it is not self-evidently the only workable one.

My point is simply this: the human suffering that would follow in the wake of a premature American withdrawal, and a subsequent American defeat, has to be taken into account by anyone, of any philosophical stripe, who endorses such a strategy. To ignore that dimension, or to deny the facts when they are no longer in dispute, is dishonest. And those who like to strut about how devoted they are to the most vulnerable members of society — who take great pride in identifying themselves as activists for ethics in public life and place themselves in the “prophetic tradition” — need to be held accountable for the real-world effects of their policies. Bumper sticker slogans, like War No More, aren’t serious; and they need to be examined in terms of their human consequences. In this instance, it won’t be pretty. But for many anti-war activists on the left, it won’t really matter. They will have turned their attention to new efforts to promote social justice, to inspire hope, and to free the captives, even as those they leave behind will suffer, will bleed and will die.

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