July 26, 2007

Moral Cowardice

Matt Sinclair discussed my post on Chickenhawks on his blog and suggested that I had made an error in my analysis and that it is acceptable to deem someone a coward for not supporting a war. The key paragraph in which Matt makes this claim is here

However, most people who call their ideological opponents' foreign policy stance cowardly are not accusing them of physical cowardice. Gracchi appears to have over simplified the nature of accusations of cowardice in foreign policy. The accusation is that the pacifist is morally cowardly. That they are unwilling to face the moral risk of war, the risk that the war will turn out poorly and we will be morally implicated in the ensuing problems. That they are saying, in effect, "people may be killed but it's okay so long as we don't have to do any killing".

Matt is right- there are types of moral cowardice around- however lets be careful about implying them only to pacifists. Part of the problem here is that Matt glossed over this at speed- completely fairly given that his post was about the concept of a Chickenhawk- without defining completely the concept of moral cowardice in politics.

He says and I would agree with him that moral cowardice is about an 'unwillingness to face' in this case the consequences of war- that people die. So a moral coward will be willing to say don't go to war because of the moral cost. But its important to realise what moral cowardice is- its that unwillingness to face the reality of a situation- so for example to advocate war without realising the cost is a moral crime- Williams speaks so to Henry V in Shakespeare's play- a speech I think is worth quoting

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of

The moral responsibility of war is something that Henry V in the play feels a great deal as well- we should remember Henry's agony before the battle- and that he is the ultimate brave king on Shakespeare- Henry wonders to himself

What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!

Henry and Williams both realise the cost of war- both understand what war is about- its about legs, arms and bodies cut up, wives screaming their pain out, children without fathers and lives broken and mashed up by force. Part of the problem with the US Conservative movement is the sense that I have that they are willing to propose war at any moment, without thinking about the moral cost. Effectively the hawkish argument is often though not always callous towards soldiers and civilians in the areas they wish to invade- they are not haunted as anyone who advocates a war should be (and I realise this is mostly commentators not politicians) by the bodies and blood.

The accusation of a chicken hawk is something that may be ridiculous but it captures that callousness- that moral cowardice amongst the hawks when proposing wars is viewed as a clinical costless operation, when its viewed as the easy option instead of as traditional just war theory makes it the last option. The Chicken Hawk accusation though means something because it is hurled at that portion of the American conservative movement who are unwilling to serve or notice the consequences of what they do- symbolised most effectively by the fact that George Bush has not attended the funeral of one US soldier and that the media has been forbidden from covering them. Those severed limbs and lonely children do not haunt the Michael Ledeens of the world enough- that's why their lack of military experience is relevant.

Matt is right there is a moral cowardice in pacificism as well- but the most moral cowardice demonstrated recently has been from the advocates of war who imagine that war is costless and benificent- it isn't and we should remember and honour the soldiers, and remember that when we go to war, for myself and Matt we are advocating that people take the supreme risk without ourselves being willing to take that risk. It is moral cowardice to face up then to the deaths and distress consequent upon our policy- that is what the word Chicken Hawk means to me.