It’s cool from a safe distance
The internet is full of tough guys and gals. I’ve heard it said that the first casualty of war is the truth. I content it’s humanity. Nothing encapsulates our moment like gross, comfortable slobs on social media calling for genocide of this group or that, usually conflating some foreign fighting force for their domestic political opponents, when the hardest physical conflict they’ve faced in life is a mouse chewing the wires in their air conditioning unit which, to be fair, sucks.
But yeah: scratch an enlightened American, find a bloodthirsty weirdo. Their motto: lets you and him fight for some cause that doesn’t affect my life but makes me feel important.
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So maybe dignity is the first casualty and not humanity. To-may-toe, to-mah-toe. A function of this specific form of digital bloodlust is the idea that one is right no matter what, and will never, ever move from this position. It usually happens when arguing about some foreign conflagration. People treat actual, literal war with bombs going off, women being raped, children being murdered, and limbs flying everywhere, like a spectator sport/video game. It’s disgusting but inevitable, a consequence of the society we’ve created where every single thing is a means by which your team (which is always right) can score political points against the other team (which is always wrong). Didn’t you see that Hamas and/or Israel is just as bad (but actually not quite as bad, lol, nothing is) as 1/6/2021 rioters and/or MAGAts and/or white people?1
No, I’m not making that last bit up.
People pay lip service to things like “accountability” and “ownership,” but when things get real, we double down and dig in. Nobody ever backs down and nobody admits they might be wrong, not just because of the facts on the ground, but because other people are watching.
Think about any public figure who makes an error: factual, personal, financial, whatever. They are called on to apologize, to admit fault, to back down. What happens if they do? Their career is usually over, or at least harmed.2 They lose support and supporters. Now, what happens when such individuals not only refuse to apologize, but double down? Approval skyrockets among their supporters, and they may, in fact, pick up more. They’re seen as tough, as a fighter, even if they’re wrong. Better to be a fighting liar than a truthful cuck.
Never give the other side the satisfaction of being right about anything.
And I get it (more on this later). It’s just that this attitude, society wide, is bad for us. Because what if admitting wrong is the right thing to do, the thing your conscience and ethics demands . . . but it’s good for “the other side”? Ladies and gentlemen, this is the American moment.
Imagine a defense attorney whose client clearly messed up. Whether it’s an individual or an organization, whether it’s a personal injury case or a business matter, let’s say there actually is ample fault to lay at the feet of the defendant, or that the plaintiff’s allegations have merit. The situation is one ripe for settlement. But if you settle this case, what about the next one, and the next one, and the one after that? Better to fight, spending time and money and energy, to stick it to the other guy.
Think about the poor attorney: if he counsels settlement, very often that’s seen as caving or capitulation. Responsibility is for losers.
Let’s use war as an example. I’m sure you can understand why it’s on my mind.
“What if we threw a war and nobody showed up?” That’s what the hippies liked to say back in their heyday, when the vast majority really weren’t anti-war per se, they were just anti-them personally fighting a war because they were scared shitless, and they also preferred to keep having promiscuous sex and dropping acid in the safety of their own country, thank you very much. The problem is, when you throw a war, there always many, many takers. Death is big business. Just ask the defense contracting industry.
Leaving aside military recruitment goals, there is rarely a shortage of human fuel to put into the war machine.3 Still, leaving aside the death and carnage and ruin of war-qua-war, what are the objectives? What’s the purpose of a war? What are your victory conditions?
War is the continuation of politics by other means.4 In other words, war is what can happen when negotiations break down, when words prove to be an inadequate weapons and something a little more stabby or bomby is needed. So let’s look at some possible reasons talking might not be enough.
Is a war a defensive war? Is a war an attempt to wipe out an enemy for some reason? Is it to acquire a certain amount of land? To aid an ally in some such struggle? Is it a war for resources? Is it a war of conquest?
Related questions include: What is the end goal? and, Does the outcome of fighting this war benefit my country?5
These are important considerations made by people better qualified (I hope) than me. Here’s a question that doesn’t get bandied about too often: What happens if we lose?
Related: what if we’re losing? How do we get out of this. What’s the exit strategy?
Maybe the US extricating itself from Afghanistan was the right move, albeit executed poorly. There are some who will always see it as shameful capitulation, even had it been orderly and casualty free, but such is life. The fact of the matter wasn’t that the might U.S. was being bled of men and treasure for 20 years with zero discernible benefit to the homeland: the fact was they were there, dammit, and no religious fanatics were going to kick us out of their country. Why? Because screw you, that’s why. We’re the top dog. And the world is watching. It’s easy to treat armed conflict like a dick-swinging contest when it’s not your dick on the chopping block.
Geopolitics is a repeat game. Everyone is watching. If you back down now, or if you reverse course, you will be perceived as weak. And weakness is death. To wit: Taiwan must be defended to the last, and it doesn’t matter how many Taiwanese—or potentially Americans—die in the process.
I get it. Geopolitics in large part depends on the projection of strength and willingness to use force. If you make everyone afraid that fighting you will be costly, they’ll behave themselves around you. However, if you are tested, you’d better be in it to win it. If you brandish your stick and then won’t, or can’t, use it, you expose yourself. So say you have a war and everyone shows up, and you’re getting your ass handed to you. The body bags start coming home by the chopper-load. You’re getting nowhere and there’s no end in sight. What do you do?
In a repeat game, turning tail and running might make logical sense in the short-term, but there are long-term consequences. Everyone’s perception of you changes with each action. What you do now will still matter a decade from now. You could also move against the domestic opponents keeping you from persecuting the war in question in the manner you’d like, but that presents a whole host of other problems.
I’m no pacifist. Some wars are justified. Some wars are popular. And some just wars are popular! But wars involve a lot of people dying, including non-combatants just trying to get on with it, and I am not one to cheer on death and destruction, especially when my country isn’t directly involved but seeks to stick its nose under the tent and get involved either directly or by proxy. People will die, courtesy of the red, white, and blue.
I learned in grad school circa 2004-2006, where I studied political science with a focus on the Middle East, that an outdated stereotype held that Arabs only respect strength. I see this not as outdated, but as too narrow: all people only respect strength. This is why I understand the conundrum of never backing down over anything.
You can only bow out gracefully if all players are honorable. If all sides keep their words. If you taking the high road will result in your opponent doing the same. Without this, nobody will ever back down, change course, or admit mistake, because there’s no incentive to. Why be the “good guy” if you’re gonna get kicked in the balls for it?
In a house divided, this goes for residents of the same piece of land as well. Maybe when your grandparents were kiddos, politics involved honorable people acting honorably to solve a set of problems for the benefit of the many.6 Now, that seems as fantastical a thing as unicorns or attractive Antifa. No quarter can be given because no quarter is expected. It gets to you after a while.
And back to the point I made above, being the bigger person is actually a detriment when your opponent will gladly ruin, impoverish, or kill you without hesitation. Am I really supposed to feel bad that a NYC far-left weirdo who loves black criminals and in all likelihood would love nothing more than for me and my children to be killed by black criminals was killed by a black criminal? It’s a serious question because the Christian part of me says “Of course,” while the worldly part of me says “Ideas have consequences.” I think both sentiments can coexist but it’s hard.
The truth is that every ideology ultimately beclowns itself due to intransigence. Progressives will rabidly defend murderers as long as the victims are white and the perpetrators are not, while rightists will claim that the only path to “saving the west” is defeating the Jews by debunking the “Holohoax” and rehabilitating Hitler. Libertarians will dig in on the belief that legalizing sex work, drugs, and importing more immigrants will solve all of our problems. And so on.
And here it is, at long last: the point, or denouement if you’re nasty. If you’ve made it this far, I salute you. Ready? Here goes:
Reality is Twitter + about six months. This digital bloodlust, in all likelihood, will spill over into the real world, and far closer to home than the killing fields of Ukraine or the Gaza Strip.
I am aware that these are generalizations. However, they’re based on observations where I see the vast majority of influential people never apologizing for anything.
Although, with military families advising their children not to sign up, and the degraded state of the human capital left over, maybe there is.
You can thank Carl von Clausewitz for this particular bon mot.
As an American, all I can say about this is HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA*huffhuff*HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
Shoot, man, I’m too tired to laugh . . .