Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Hidden ironies of the War on Terror: Part II

The Mark Steyn column that I discussed in part I makes another interesting point with an unintended irony. The point is made in the context of Sir Arthus Conan Doyle's novel "The Tragedy of Korosko":
Don't bet on it. In my forthcoming book, I devote a few pages to a thriller I read as a boy -- an old potboiler by Sherlock Holmes' creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1895 Sir Arthur had taken his sick wife to Egypt for her health, and, not wishing to waste the local color, produced a slim novel called The Tragedy of the Korosko, about a party of Anglo-American-French tourists taken hostage by the Mahdists, the jihadi of the day. Much of the story finds the characters in the same predicament as Centanni and Wiig: The kidnappers are offering them a choice between Islam or death. Conan Doyle's Britons and Americans and Europeans were men and women of the modern world even then:

"None of them, except perhaps Miss Adams and Mrs. Belmont, had any deep religious convictions. All of them were children of this world, and some of them disagreed with everything which that symbol upon the earth represented."

"That symbol" is the cross. Yet in the end, even as men with no religious convictions, they cannot bring themselves to submit to Islam, for they understand it to be not just a denial of Christ but in some sense a denial of themselves, too. So they stall and delay and bog down the imam in a lot of technical questions until eventually he wises up and they're condemned to death.

One hundred ten years later, for the Fox journalists and the Western media who reported their release, what's the big deal? Wear robes, change your name to Khaled, go on camera and drop Allah's name hither and yon: If that's your ticket out, seize it. Everyone'll know it's just a sham.
Glenn Greenwald's post criticizing Mark Steyn's article uses the chickenhawk accusation as part of its critique (hat tip to The Daily Dish):
The ironies of this disturbed war dance are virtually infinite, the most obvious one being that the Steyn Warriors can never point to any sacrifices they make or risks they incur.
An interesting point of irony to be observed here is that, in these quotations, both Mark Steyn and opponent Glenn Greenwald are arguing for exactly the same thing! In both cases, the authors are arguing that a society in which most citizen's actions conform to the strength of their convictions has practical advantages over a society where this is largely not the case. In Steyn's article, he points out the propaganda advantage that the West receives when Western Christians are seen as being willing to die for their faith. In Greenwald's case, he points out the propaganda advantage that the West receives when its governing elites display personal sacrifices equivalent to those of its military membership. The real difference between the two authors in this respect is that each has a different solution to the long standing problem of "liberal malaise" that has been afflicting the West for at least a century if not longer.

Steyn's article briefly argues that one solution to the problem of liberal malaise is Christianity. This simply springs from the fact that the Christian component of Western societies -- familiar to any student of the Roman Empire -- often exhibits more civilian morale than the non-Christian component. In the context of American society, the political program implied by this approach is usually refered to as conservatism: "conserving" the institutions of the American founding that made the United States the amazingly successful nation that it is today.

The solution to the problem of liberal malaise that the chickenhawk accusation implies is more ambiguous. The general conservative critique of the term "chickenhawk" is that the "Ich bin der erste Diener meines Staates." ruling ethic that radical Leftists expect Dick Cheney to adopt has exactly the kind of totalitarian connotations that the Left is presumably trying to avoid. More realistically, it seems to me that the chickenhawk accusation is simply an appeal to another solution to the problem of liberal malaise, namely, communism.

The whole point of communism is discipline and morale for everyone in society. The distinction between civilian leadership and military membership that is at the heart of the chickenhawk accusation would quite simply not exist in the ideal communist society. The civilian leadership, by definition, would be expected to adhere to the same stringent code of communist discipline as everyone else: if the Communist leadership decides that "Comrade X must die", Comrade X is expected not only to die but to happily die in order to make one final contribution to the success of the Revolution. On the other hand, the military membership would be as indistinguishable from the civilian population as possible; the ideal communist society's morale would be so high that its population would simply spontaneously organize into an effective fighting force to confront any military threat.


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