»  National Review Online

October 16th, 2001

  Kinder, Gentler Warmaking


But the experience of the twentieth century indicates that self-imposed restraints by a civilized power are worse than useless. They are interpreted by friend and foe alike as evidence, not of humanity, but of guilt and lack of righteous conviction.
               — Paul Johnson*, Modern Times

In the fall of 1939, during the early weeks of what in England was called "the phony war" (the Germans called it sitzkrieg — "the sitting-down war"), there was an illuminating exchange in the House of Commons. Some Members of Parliament were putting pressure on Sir Kingsley Wood, the head of the Air Ministry, to bomb German munitions stores in the Black Forest. Sir Kingsley was shocked. "Are you aware it is private property?" he protested. "Why, you will be asking me to bomb Essen next!"  Essen was the home of the famous Krupp munitions factories.

Four years later the Royal Air Force fire-bombed Hamburg, completely levelling eight square miles of the city and slaughtering 40,000 people — most of them civilians — in one night alone. Six months later came the destruction of Dresden, a joint operation with the USAF, in which 135,000 people were incinerated or buried alive. The children of Dresden were in carnival costumes, as it was Shrove Tuesday. From Sir Kingsley Wood to "Bomber" Harris (Arthur Harris, Churchill's wartime chief of RAF Bomber Command, a strong proponent of massive aerial bombing), you see the coarsening effect of war, the moral slide that always occurs, especially when people come to feel that the existence of their country is at stake.

I'm not sure it can be plausibly claimed that the USA's existence is threatened by the Taliban, but I am sure that as the war proceeds and our own casualties mount we shall see — and, indeed, experience in ourselves — some of that moral coarsening. At the moment we are still in the Sir Kingsley Wood stage: taking care to drop one food package for every bomb, terribly concerned that our enemies and "coalition partners" understand that in spite of being driven to do some moderately unpleasant things we are, none the less, still really, really nice people at heart. Chances are this won't last. If Paul Johnson is right, as I believe he is, we should hope it doesn't. Nice doesn't win wars.

The folly of this kinder, gentler war-making is already being pointed out by a few dissidents bold enough to put a boot through the sheetrock wall of Emotional Correctness the media have been busily erecting since September 11th. Did you see The O'Reilly Factor last Friday? O'Reilly himself was off, and the program was hosted by John Kasich — a capable presenter, but one who punches well below O'Reilly's weight. One of Kasich's guests was Leonard Peikoff of the Ayn Rand Institute. Clearly and forcefully, yet politely and reasonably, Peikoff put the case for total war. War, he pointed out, is a violent conflict between two nations, which comes to an end when one of those nations has brought the other to its knees and stripped its people of any will to continue fighting. You do that by the severe application of brute force, not by dropping food parcels. It wasn't food parcels we were dropping on Tokyo and Berlin in 1945, he observed. Sir Kingsley Kasich was plainly shocked. What about the root causes? he asked indignantly. Didn't this whole situation arise in the first place because America had failed to share her bounty with the rest of the world? Peikoff swatted this down with the scorn it deserved. America's bounty, he pointed out, was created by Americans, who are under no moral obligation to share it with anyone else, especially since that sharing can only be accomplished by letting our government impose ever more taxes on us.

Peikoff — who, as far as I am concerned, could run for mayor at this point — did not add, probably just because he didn't have the time, that a massive and ruthless application of force, breaking the enemy's will as swiftly as possible, is actually the more humane policy in the long run. Recall the story about the man who decided to cut off his dog's tail. He thought that a single one-time blow with the cleaver would be too traumatic for the poor creature, so instead he adopted a policy of cutting off a half-inch from the tail each day. That is pretty much how Lyndon Johnson conducted the bombing of North Vietnam — sparing the cities, sparing the dykes, approving targets personally. That ended, let me remind you, with the USA losing the war, run out of Vietnam with her own tail between her legs, and with those who had trusted in the might and goodness of America hanging on to helicopter skids, or left behind to be hustled off into concentration camps … and with all the people of Southeast Asia stuck under the rule of corrupt Leninist gangsters, bereft of liberty, law and property, down to the present day.

It would, of course, be grossly politically-incorrect of me to refer to the United States of America as a Christian nation. I hope no-one will mind too much, though, if I state that she is still, even in this hedonistic age, a Bible nation. Now the Bible gives us such insights as we are permitted to have into the mind of God; and the mind of God, like pretty much everything He created, turns out to have two sides. There is the thundering, irascible, vengeful yet ultimately just God who is most visible in the Old Testament; and then there is the embracing, forgiving, loving God who is more in evidence in the New Testament — yang and yin, the Daddy God and the Mommy God. (Yes, yes, I know that is an outrageous over-simplification. Just let me make my argument before you fire off that angry email setting me straight on points of theology.)

Americans have, at various times, favored either one or the other of these aspects of the Almighty. In wartime, the Old Testament God tends to get more of a hearing, for obvious reasons — there are rather a lot of wars in the Old Testament. One of the small blessings we have received in this terrible time has been to hear The Battle Hymn of the Republic being sung in public, full throat. Just listen to the words, the imagery, of that most stirring of all America's patriotic songs: "Trampling"… "wrath"… "fearsome"… "terrible." This is not Oprah's God. This is the God of the Old Testament, the God of Joshua and Judges; the God of Ehud and Jephthah; of Samson, who, in his war against the Philistines "smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter"; of Gideon, who, let it be well recalled in this context, when the men of Israel begged him to become their king, said: "I will not rule over you … the Lord shall rule over you"; of Saul and David, of whom the chronicler recorded with bleak simplicity that: "Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands."

These are early days yet, though. We are still in New Testament mode at the moment, giving over valuable air-cargo space to food packages to be dropped to people who, supposing they ever receive them, will gobble them up with the sole intention of making themselves strong enough to join the ranks of our enemies. We are singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic but we are not hearing the words. The sword has been wonderfully swift, but not very terrible. I predict that, if there are further attacks against U.S. territory on the scale of the September 11th outrages, this will change. We shall turn to the God of the Old Testament, and narrow down our focus to a single war aim: victory, regardless of how much that victory might hurt the feelings of our enemies, or even of our friends. Then we shall smite those enemies hip and thigh, laying waste their cities and fields with our most terrible weapons. When we have won, we shall, of course, do all we can to help rebuild what we have laid waste, in the spirit of magnanimity and foresight that created two stable, prosperous nations out of post-WWII Germany and Japan. But first, we have to win.

* I am sorry to have quoted from two different books by Paul Johnson on two successive Tuesdays. The only excuses I can offer are (a) he is exceptionally quotable, and (b) there are not many conservative historians to quote from.