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Thoughts for Memorial Day


I hesitated about saying anything in particular here for Memorial Day, this most cheerfully depressing or depressingly cheerful of American holidays, on which we’re expected, simultaneously, to remember those killed in wartime, and to fire up the backyard barbecue in pursuit of a fabulous time. But I decided to. I thought I’d keep things relatively simple.

Here, as a reminder, is why the Afghan war was fought. Here’s why I think we ought to have left Afghanistan earlier. (An email I sent to the author of the book a few years ago produced a jeering response to my suggestion that we leave Afghanistan, but no argument for why we ought to stay.)

Here’s what the Iraq war was (supposed to have been) fought about. Here’s why I think we ought to have left Iraq years ago, and never to have conceived of “liberating” it. Here’s the CIA’s report on what the CIA actually found while looking for WMD in Iraq. I wouldn’t repeat any clichés you may have heard about Iraqi WMD until you’ve read the whole report through. It’s more than 1,000 pages long.

Here a summary of why we’re currently engaged in drone warfare in Pakistan. Again, read the whole thing through before rushing to any kind of judgment. And this summary, of course, is just that—a summary, not an exhaustive catalogue of what you need to know in order to make an informed judgment.

Here’s the American casualty count. You might, on looking at it, find yourself asking: was it worth it? As of course you should—but be clear in your own mind about the referents of “it” and the meaning of “worth.”

Since most of us will never actually fight in the military, Memorial Day is for most of us an exercise in cognition. It demands something in the way of remembrance, but at least as much in the way of belief-formation. I don’t quite agree with each and every claim in W.K. Clifford’s “Ethics of Belief” (e.g., his deontology, the appeal to altruism), but I agree with the spirit of the essay as a whole. (Incidentally, it’d be a worthwhile task to produce a fully egoistic defense of Clifford-type evidentialism.) If I had to summarize in a few paragraphs what it is that we should have learned from the last decade or so of war, I’d want to say something like this:

[Belief] is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer; to add a tinsel splendour to the plain straight road of our life and display a bright mirage beyond it; or even to drown the common sorrows of our kind by a self-deception which allows them not only to cast down, but also to degrade us. Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his beliefs with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away.

It is not only the leader of men, statesmen, philosopher, or poet, that owes this bounden duty to mankind. Every rustic who delivers in the village alehouse his slow, infrequent sentences, may help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race. Every hard-worked wife of an artisan may transmit to her children beliefs which shall knit society together, or rend it in pieces. No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe.

It is true that this duty is a hard one, and the doubt which comes out of it is often a very bitter thing. It leaves us bare and powerless where we thought that we were safe and strong. To know all about anything is to know how to deal with it under all circumstances. We feel much happier and more secure when we think we know precisely what to do, no matter what happens, than when we have lost our way and do not know where to turn. And if we have supposed ourselves to know all about anything, and to be capable of doing what is fit in regard to it, we naturally do not like to find that we are really ignorant and powerless, that we have to begin again at the beginning, and try to learn what the thing is and how it is to be dealt with–if indeed anything can be learnt about it. It is the sense of power attached to a sense of knowledge that makes men desirous of believing, and afraid of doubting.

This sense of power is the highest and best of pleasures when the belief on which it is founded is a true belief, and has been fairly earned by investigation. For then we may justly feel that it is common property, and hold good for others as well as for ourselves. Then we may be glad, not that I have learned secrets by which I am safer and stronger, but that we men have got mastery over more of the world; and we shall be strong, not for ourselves but in the name of Man and his strength. But if the belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence, the pleasure is a stolen one. Not only does it deceive ourselves by giving us a sense of power which we do not really possess, but it is sinful, because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind. That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from pestilence, which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town. What would be thought of one who, for the sake of a sweet fruit, should deliberately run the risk of delivering a plague upon his family and his neighbours?

Some musical selections for Memorial Day:

Saxon’s “Broken Heroes” for the metalheads.

Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon” for the classic rock crowd.

And one for the more old-fashioned, by the US Military Band.

P.S., 2:15 pm: This article of mine clarifies my view on the Iraq war in somewhat more detail than the one I excerpted in the post itself. I think it was written in May 2004.



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