Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sharing the Burdens of War

There’s no denying that even the most bellicose liberals tend to be fair-weather hawks. Lots of them started out as staunch supporters of military expeditions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, only to have second thoughts as the casualties mounted. I’ve tried to explain this recurring phenomenon by pointing to liberals’ reflexive reservations about the distributive inequity inherent in the decision to wage war. Whatever national security benefits waging war generates will be distributed equally across the population while the costs are ruthlessly concentrated on military personnel and their families. Liberal hawks are less resolute than conservative hawks because they can only suppress their reflexive aversion to that distributive injustice for so long. At least part of the reason that conservative hawks are more steadfast is that they don’t see that as an injustice in the first place.

That raises a question that I alluded to in my earlier post, but didn’t really address: why do smart liberals periodically put themselves in the position of supporting military exercises that they’re morally unprepared to sustain? The answer, I suggested, can only be a deficiency of moral self-consciousness. The best evidence of that deficiency is the frequency with which smart liberals say indefensible things about sharing the burdens of war. Here are some examples from the debate over the war in Iraq.

One of the many ruckuses Bill Clinton raised on the Democratic presidential primary campaign trail during the last presidential election surrounded this statement: “Even though I approved of Afghanistan and opposed Iraq from the beginning I still resent that I was not asked or given the opportunity to support those soldiers [by paying higher taxes].” That was red meat to Obama supporters. They remembered that, if Bill Clinton had really opposed the Iraq war before it started, like Hillary, he’d been awfully discreet about it. Yet that didn’t mean that liberals couldn’t sympathize with Clinton’s profession of moral anxiety over the fact that rich people have been enjoying their expanding incomes while mostly lower-middle and working-class enlistees are being torn to shreds in Iraq.

In this case, however, his anxiety was ludicrously misdirected. Snide conservatives were happy to remind Clinton that, if he found not being taxed at a higher rate in a time of war was so oppressive, the Internal Revenue Service would be happy to accept contributions from him and other beleaguered liberals in excess of their tax liabilities. It’s hard to sympathize with Clinton’s resentment at not having been compelled to make a contribution to the war effort that he could have made voluntarily.

Discerning egalitarians might have added that, although there are many good reasons for raising tax rates in the upper brackets, the fact that rich people are enjoying themselves isn’t one of them. Making rich people worse off doesn’t, in itself, do anything to make the troops better off unless they’re envious enough to take intrinsic satisfaction in the reduction of rich peoples’ well-being. Yet if they were, they wouldn’t have enlisted in the armed forces understanding that they’d be called upon the bear burdens unknown to the rest of us. If liberal egalitarianism were really just about narrowing the enjoyment gap between rich people and enlistees, liberals who couldn’t succeed either in ending the war, or in passing a tax increase on the rich, should’ve been willing to consider alternative means of making rich people less happy.  Would a law providing for a mandatory monthly-full-body waxing for every adult family member with a yearly household income of over $400,000 have done the trick?

The same moral anxiety about the war’s distributive implications moved Charlie Rangel to propose reinstituting the military draft shortly before the war started. He thought that an exemption-less draft would not only distribute the burdens of national security policy more equitably, but would make public decision-making about matters of war and peace more responsible by giving elected decision-makers with draft-age children and friends some skin in the game. Rangel hoped that reviving the draft would imbed liberal values into the decision-making process respecting matters of war and peace that hadn’t been upheld by substantial majorities in congress authorizing the war the previous fall. "I truly believe,” he said, “that those who make the decision and those who support the United States going into war would feel more readily the pain that's involved, the sacrifice that's involved, if they thought that the fighting force would include the affluent and those who historically have avoided this great responsibility."

Here too, liberals can acknowledge the normative potency of the impulse to which Rangel was responding without endorsing his reasoning. There were good liberal reasons for worrying that the war was imposing too high a burden on our military personnel. Perhaps some of those reasons are powerful enough to justify the tradeoff of national security for distributive equity that might result from reforms, like a reinstituted draft, that most experts agree would impair the military’s effectiveness as a fighting force.

But is distributive justice really promoted by shifting the burdens of military service from people who want to assume them to people who need to be drafted just because they don’t? That looks like recipe for making all potential draftees and every consumer of national security worse off without necessarily making the targeted beneficiaries, voluntary enlistees, any better off. If liberals think the war is distributively unjust they shouldn’t have voted to start it in the first place (and to his credit, Rangel didn’t).

Finally, liberals’ ethical preoccupation with the war’s distributive consequences helps explain why they so often get themselves into trouble by portraying military personnel as victims, driven to bear the costs of the war less by their own patriotism than their substandard education and limited career options. Once again, Rangel provides a good example: "If a young fellow has an option of having a decent career or joining the Army to fight in Iraq,” he insisted, “you can bet your life that he would not be in Iraq." It wasn’t only conservatives who took this as one more reminder that many liberals can’t fathom, much less experience, the patriotism that moved ordinary Americans to fight for their country.

Rangel’s words are somewhat understandable in light of the fact we normally think that people who readily consent to being treated unjustly are lacking in elemental self-respect. Liberals, but not conservatives, succumb to the temptation to condescend to military volunteers because only liberals seriously entertain the thought that this war is distributively unjust in the first place.  Yet that’s another mistake in ethical reasoning.

Liberals shouldn’t need to be reminded that American culture has long encompassed a distinctive military subculture that celebrates devotion to duty, honor and country over the mercenary ambitions of civilian life. The military community holds its members to a higher standard of public-spiritedness than most other citizens apply to themselves. Military volunteers ready to risk life and limb to advance national interests willfully undertake an obligation to perform supererogatory acts of citizenship. That’s a good thing for the rest of us because no democratic polity in a hostile world can do without people willing to execute the dangerous commands issued by its civilian leadership even though those commands will sometimes be ill-advised. Accordingly, our only reasonable responses to the exemplary public-spiritedness of our military personnel are heartfelt expressions of gratitude and respect.

That doesn’t mean, however, that worrying about whether our military personnel are paying an excessive price to secure other people’s well-being is another act of condescension toward the troops. What could be more perverse than taking the fact that people are willing to lay their lives on the line for our benefit as an excuse for being indifferent to the burden’s our collective decisions about national security impose upon them? If anything, our good fortune at having such people in our midst makes our obligation not to overburden them by starting unnecessary wars all the more stringent.

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