Mark Helprin’s novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow, tries to articulate as noble as possible a justification for the tragic violence of war. The novel is set just after World War II, so it is not surprising that the rationale is based in the Churchillian mind-set of the campaign to defeat Hitler. In the novel, an older veteran argues: “How many millions have to die, Harry, before we stop worrying about unintended consequences?”
Harry, a younger vet, responds: “What if all nations decided to kill off what in their eyes was mortally dangerous leadership? It would become a Hobbesian world.”
“The world just lost 50 million dead. Is that Hobbesian enough? Politeness can be a form of collaboration, or suicide . . .You have to play it by ear, as you know, as you must know, having fought your way through Sicily, France, Holland and Germany, your responsibility is not to be morally pristine, but to preserve the maximum number of innocent lives. How many men have you killed?
“Yes, and probably most of them were as innocent as you. . . . You know that, and yet you had to kill them, and you did, because all in all, in the gross and scope of it, scores of millions are alive now who would not have been, or who would have been enslaved, had Germany not been defeated. Children by the millions, Harry, they are the reason you killed men. Now you are forever morally impure, but Harry, if only by the weight of the flesh and blood in the balance, you’re purer than those who refused.”
This interchange strikes home because it is just how we might imagine our nobly impure presidents and generals think, conveying a sense of what allows them to sleep at night as our drones sleeplessly patrol—allows them to shed tears for children in Newtown but not for those in the dusty, half-starving villages of Afghanistan or Yemen. Prevention rationalizes preemption, and its inevitable collateral damage.
Even the difference between the civilian-encompassing firestorms of Dresden and the surgical precision of modern destruction fails to quiet our unease. Nor, surely, does the technological line of progress that says we can deploy a drone to assassinate, so why not, even if we fray the tenuous bonds of law and moral decency.
Nobly impure intentions enforced by drones are no longer enough. If they were, Afghanistan would not be the war-weary, corrupt, drug-saturated place it has become today, and we would not be seeing so many suicides among our vets. Our campaigns to bring democracy to Vietnam, or to preempt a potential Hitler in Iraq, did not turn out so nobly.
The doubts troubling Helprin’s young veteran have gradually magnified between 1945 and the present to the point where we can no longer avoid seeing our complicity in the Hobbesian totality. Our own carbon footprint helps the sea rise over low-lying Pacific atolls, or floods impoverished Bangladeshis. It is our own country that possesses the most nuclear weapons and sells the most conventional weapons and has the biggest military budget and occupies the most bases overseas.
The unintended consequences that the older veteran in Helprin’s novel might wish to disregard for the sake of his vision of the greater good can no longer be set aside as worth the price of war. Instead, we have become disagreeably familiar with blowback, where the “solution” makes the problem worse—as seen over decades of Western interference in Iran and Iraq, or Soviet and American meddling in Afghanistan. The blowback from targeted assassinations is already occurring as innocents are killed, resentments mount, and fresh recruits offer themselves for further mayhem.
And as more and more nations possess nuclear weapons, any modern conflict, even one provoked by stateless entities, could lead, as it almost did lead in 1962, to global apocalypse. Above the endless cycle of violence loom ultimate unintended consequences, like nuclear winter—the mother of all blowbacks.
The answer is not merely “soft power,” which still involves, by gentler means than war, co-opting others to do what we want. One possible model, one that could bring some balance into our overwhelmingly militaristic foreign policy, might be called “good power.” Rotary International provides a model of what this power for good might look like. Rotary has 32,000 clubs in 200 countries. It’s based in people-to-people relationships. It sets high goals and plods stubbornly toward them, like their worldwide and almost achieved anti-polio initiative. It makes friends and elicits the sincere gratitude of those to whom it provides crucial aid. Why is it not “realistic” to deemphasize our ironclad military fist in favor of a helping hand, with the understanding that an increase in the security of any nation increases our own?