How Not to Make Iraq-Like Mistakes Again

In the movie Quiz Show, which is about the quiz show scandals of the 1950s (and a wonderful period piece), there is a scene at the end of the movie which has always stuck with me. Van Doren, the disgraced upper-class professor who cheated, gave a teary mea culpa in front of Congress. The gallery applauded, but was shocked into silence when a congressman called him out, and noted that he doesn't get credit for admitting his wrong doing--he still did the wrong thing.

Last week, Matthew Yglesias wrote a post about how he came to support the Iraq War (which he later renounced). Some have called this post "admirable." More about that in a bit. Yglesias:

You can, however, always get more psychological. I was 21 years old and kind of a jerk. Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country's power elite. My observation is that this kind of fake-dissident posture is one that always has a lot of appeal to people. The point is that this wasn't really a series of erroneous judgments about Iraq, it was a series of erroneous judgments about how to think about the world and who deserves to be taken seriously and under which circumstances.

To his credit, Yglesias has recognized his mistake, and hasn't engaged in the reflexive "Punch a Dirty Hippie in the Face" response. He also hasn't gone into the silly mode of "Ever since 9/11, I've been against the New Deal."

But what I want to know is why he felt, if he truly believed that the Iraq War was just, that he shouldn't go to his nearest recruiting station and join up. I don't mean this in a "fuck you" sort of way, but I remember, around that time, many people who were definitely of fighting age (and had no discernible impairments) who supported the long as someone else fought it.

When I asked myself if supported the war, one of the criteria I used was the simple question: would I be willing to volunteer to serve in this war?* And I wasn't just thinking of the obvious issues of death or serious injury, but also would I be willing to kill for this? Would I be willing to spend time away from friends and family? To put my life on hold, possibly for years? Would I want to live in a combat zone for an extended period of time? Were all of those things worth the supposed benefits?

Yglesias probably doesn't read my shitty blog, but I would be interested in hearing how one concludes that we should fight a war when you, yourself, are unwilling to serve.


*Being drafted raises a whole different set of issues.

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You can be in favor of a war and yet not strongly enough in favor of it to think that you should join up and fight it. Like say I thought the Kosovo war was a good idea, and I'm generally supportive of the various peace-keeping efforts of the UN around the world - but I haven't signed up go to Darfur.

When you have a military like that of the US, you can take alot of military actions that have a big effect in the world (for good or bad), and yet are much more limited then a WW2 style total war involving the entire nation. Whether that is overall a good or a bad thing is debatable - you can certainly point to examples of both.

My observation is that this kind of fake-dissident posture is one that always has a lot of appeal to people.

See also: Confederate flags, Christians being oppressed and many other examples of pseudomartyrdom.

By natual cynic (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

A similar phenomenon occurred with NPR's Scott Simon, then host of their Weakened Edition show, who practically broke both arms patting himself on the back for his own courage in supporting the Bush-Cheney war agenda after 9/11 despite being a (nominal) Quaker.

I have no idea if SS ever figured out, as did Yglesias, that the wind is now blowing the other way.

And a metaquestion on the question posed: what do we gain by trying to figure out how the slow learners think?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

...I'm generally supportive of the various peace-keeping efforts of the UN around the world - but I haven't signed up go to Darfur.

Coriolis said what I was thinking when I read this. Using personal courage as a proxy for whether military action is justified is foolish. All it really says is how much you have personally invested in the cause. It says little about whether the cause is just.

" Using personal courage as a proxy for whether military action is justified is foolish."

So it's OK to say that a particular cause is worth someone else giving his life?

I couldn't agree more with John Danley @2. This is consistently one of the most interesting of all the Science Blogs. Thank you for it.

Mark P,

So it's OK to say that a particular cause is worth someone else giving his life?

Why not? There are people suffering and dying all over the world from political violence that most definitely deserve outside help that they aren't getting. Coriolis's Darfur example is just one of them.

The true hipocrisy is to witness oppression and suffering but then be unwilling to do anything effective within your power to stop it. No, we don't have the resources to intervene militarily everywhere it would be justified on basic human rights grounds. Nor would it be practical to intervene with force in every one of those situations from a diplomatic point of view. But much of the time, the lack of will to take action that involves personal sacrifices is more about people feeling that it just isn't their problem, rather than whether the cause is actually worthy of personal sacrifice. (That sacrifice doesn't have to be putting yourself in harm's way, either. Putting economic pressure on state actors of oppression can have negative effects on our own economy, for instance.)

I'm with JasonTD. Those who join the military do so not necessarily because they support a particular war cause but often because it is something they want to do. I don't know how many people in the military you've spoken with but most I know saw it as an opportunity. Many were eager to face action and test their courage, many others were looking forward to the learning, travel and world experience gained.

I think we should all eat fresh fruit and vegetables whenever possible. It doesn't mean I'm willing to go work on a farm doing very hard labor. I think our cities need a police department to protect against crime. It doesn't mean I'm willing to go be a police officer. I think uncontrolled fires burning down buildings is bad. It doesn't mean I'm willing to go be a full time firefighter for the rest of my life. We (as a society) make decisions about what is morally best for us all the time. We often ask our citizens to put their lives in danger for the "greater good." I did not support going into Iraq to begin with, but I think asking every single war supporter if they were willing to be an active duty member of the military is a strawman.

FrauTech pretty much nailed it, but I'd add my own little analogy. I am supportive of single-payer healthcare, and allowing all people irrespective of their wealth to have access to healthcare. But I'm not willing to take say 60% of my income and donate it to free healthcare charities. Does that make me a hypocrite? Do I have to be a doctor who works for a healthcare charity to support expanding health care access to the poor.