I just finished reading Arthur Koestler’s 1940 anti-Stalinist masterpiece Darkness at Noon. It’s about a former high-level Russian Communist who is jailed by the Party when things do not turn out as planned and reactionary forces take over. The novel grapples with the big moral question of how people can commit heinous crimes in the pursuit of utopian dreams.
In many ways it is a question as old as humanity itself. Groups that promise a new “golden age” are almost always willing to engage in the most barbarous acts in order to get there. These utopias can be religious or secular, they can lead their followers to the Crusades or to communism and fascism. No matter how much the brutality escalates, believers are always assured that the end is just around the corner and things will get better; they will make good on their promises and all will be forgiven.
The book’s main moral lesson is the rejection of the doctrine that “the ends justify the means”. Western Civilization is premised on the exact opposite precept: that individual liberties are inalienable rights, and are not to be trampled on and sacrificed in the name of some distant utopia.
But the urge for utopia is not confined to the great outrages of religious crusades and Russian communism; it also found in the history of colonialism and in its most recent incarnation, the Iraq War.
Colonialist history is filled with accounts of massive brutality waged against indigenous peoples in the name of making them more civilized. Without fail, the perpetrators of these crimes always cited the best interests of the natives; the colonizers convinced themselves (and tried to convince their victims) that the barbarity of the present would be rewarded with the stability and prosperity of the future.
Before I draw this analogy to the Iraq War let me make it clear that the goal of having a democratic Middle East is a noble goal, and in no way am I equating the Bush Administration and its supporters with the icons of communism and fascism. In addition, I believe that the American military has gone to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties and not engage in the “scorched Earth” policy that was common in previous wars.
But that is largely beside the point.
The invasion of Iraq has diminished if not destroyed the life prospects of an entire generation of Iraqi mothers, fathers and children. More than two million Iraqis have been displaced and may live out the rest of their lives in the squalor and second-class citizenship of refugee camps in foreign lands. Virtually no Iraqi families have escaped unscathed; almost all have had family members brutally murdered. The country’s infrastructure is in a shambles and daily life is miserable almost everywhere (except in the Kurdish north, which was stable even before the war).
But, we are told by the war supporters, in words eerily reminiscent of Darkness at Noon, that this is a “generational effort”; when we look back from the vantage point of history 50 years from now, Iraq will be prosperous and free; all of the death and destruction will have been worth it.
What they are saying is that the ends justify the means (and even these ends are not in the least guaranteed).
This is an immoral proposition that runs counter to the foundations of Western democracy and liberty. No Western power has the right to sacrifice an entire generation of Iraqis for some far-off and uncertain objective. It is not our choice to make. It is the Iraqis’ choice, and they did not ask to be guinea pigs in our grand experiment to remake the Middle East.
What we did have the right to do was protect ourselves, which after 9/11 legitimately included getting additional weapons inspectors into Iraq and even taking offensive action against Saddam Hussein if he didn’t cooperate. It did not include the right to invade and endlessly occupy the country, which led almost directly to the chaos and carnage that we now witness.
Utopian fantasies are always dangerous and immoral, even if they come wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy and freedom. This is a lesson that we have not learned, despite the fact that history is littered with examples.
P.S. As if on cue, there is a great piece in the NYT magazine that examines how Iraqi exiles are coming to grips with the failures in Iraq. The piece touches on many of the themes in this piece and also shows once again that Al Qeada has been a peripheral factor in the war, not the central actor as the neocons would have us believe.