In my post on torture the other day, I noted:
I think that for some people in what one might call the anti-anti-torture faction, this is a moral issue rather than a pragmatic one. They’re offended by what a few of Stephen Green’s commenters call “moral preening” on the part of those denouncing torture. They think the absolutist opposition to torture comes from weaklings who don’t have the fortitude to do what needs to be done, and who would rather allow a lot of innocents to die than dirty their hands (not literally, but by having nasty things done in their name).
I strongly disagree with that position, of course. As I say in my post, I think that we must take a firm stand against torture in the same of our self-respect.
And yet … and yet.
There are times when I wonder if our insistence on keeping our hands clean, and on a high degree of openness about what our military is doing in our name, may seriously hamper our ability to win wars that are essential to our national security.
It is often said that we were able to win World War II and the Cold War without resorting to torture. True enough. But in both instances, we did things that, by purely moral standards, shock the conscience. Even leaving aside Hiroshima, there was the bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands of civilians, including children, died. And there was our alliance with Stalin, a dictator as murderous as Hitler, into whose bloody hands we ceded Eastern Europe after the war. During the Cold War, we allied ourselves with some very brutal right-wing dictatorships and supported some resistance movements that, to put it mildly, did not fight by gentlemen’s rules (Jonas Savimbi in Angola and the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, to name two).
In both of these conflicts with the twin evil empires of the 20th Century, could we have prevailed if we had not made all these rather serious moral compromises? I’m not sure. Jean-François Revel, the French political theorist, used to argue in the days of the Cold War that Western democracies had grown too self-critical and squeamish to survive the historic confrontation with communism. That time, we won, mainly because communism crumbled from the inside. Now, we’re facing an enemy that is less powerful, to be sure, but in some ways more dangerous because more amorphous and more flexible. Are we going to have to face, at some point, a choice between either fighting dirty, or accepting either defeat or mind-boggling civilian casualties on our side?