Cady, Duane, “Personal Reflections on the Persian Gulf War,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring 1991).
“War is a test of might and is, therefore, inherently incapable of settling questions of right.”
–Jenny Teichman, Pacifism and the Just War
1991 has been a hard year for philosophers concerned for peace. War critics have been silenced or marginalized as Americans celebrate the US coalition’s destruction of Iraq after Saddam’s takeover of Kuwait. American euphoria and gloating have left me feeling increasingly estranged from the dominant culture. We have finally put Vietnam behind us as war returns to its WW II glory. (Never mind that 57,000 American deaths in a decade was our tragedy while 100,000 Iraqi deaths in six weeks, most from aerial bombing and many from strafing as they retreated, was just “kicking butt.”) Jingoistic patriotism is rife; flags and desert camouflage form the marketing motif for virtually all consumer goods. All of this has given me new appreciation for Plato’s observation that “practically never does anyone act sanely in public affairs” and that genuine philosophers, “being unwilling to join in wrongdoing and not being strong enough to hold out against the fury alone” are advised to “take refuge under a small wall” (Republic 496cd). But questioning what is usually taken for granted is doing philosophy, and CPP offers us company in holding out against the fury.
This war has left me alternately depressed and angry, challenged and discouraged, hopeful and beaten. I have found it hard to work and I have felt both envigorated and overwhelmed by a variety of concerns, many with interesting and significant philosophic aspects. I look forward to the work of colleagues applying philosophic skills to a myriad of related problems. What does the future hold for diplomacy now that the war option has been resurrected? What are the implications for the arms race, first, for replacing spent weapons supplies, second, for marketing high-tech weaponry showcased worldwide, and third, for nuclear proliferation, now that conventional weapons have proven insufficient to deter superpowers? How will developing nations position themselves to preserve independence from major-power domination? Will peace be anything more than the absence of open hostilities? To all the unsolved problems in the Middle East left over from before the war we must add many new problems created by the war: refugees, reconstruction costs, environmental disaster, military occupation and others. What institutions can solve these problems and minimize future wars? What are sources of hope for peace, for those in developing nations as well as in dominant nations?
All of these concerns reinforce my inclination to think that modern Western culture is itself trapped in what I have called a warist system: we simply accept war morally. A few do so through careful deliberation, but most just take war for granted as the normal thing for nations to do when sufficiently at odds with other nations. Little or no thought is required. The system itself provides the conceptual framework or paradigm within which we operate; so few in the culture have recognized and distanced themselves from the dominant conceptual framework that they tend to be considered crackpots and are usually relegated to the margins of society. Trying to expose and begin dismantling this warist structure has kept me out of or into mischief, depending on your perspective. As insignificant as it is, this activity has saved me from deep despair over what Rick Werner has called the moral surd of our culture: a fifth of the world’s children quietly starve while we spend trillions preparing for civilizational death in the name of peace.
This conceptual situation, being caught in a system which restricts understanding, is familiar to philosophers. It is the point of Plato’s allegory of the cave (Republic Book VII). It is also the situation of feminist philosophers, philosophers of color, critics from the underclass and others as they work in our profession. Genuine philosophers have always found themselves questioning what is usually taken for granted, and have generally found it exciting work, albeit underappreciated and sometimes dangerous (this danger comes in more forms than hemlock, as department chairs, deans and tenure committees can attest; I wish I meant to be joking).
There is important and difficult work to do in applying our professional training and our teaching skills to the range of issues involved in the Persian Gulf War. Perhaps the most difficult step is in claiming the legitimacy of our doing so. Professors are not expected to profess much of anything anymore, and we are invited to articulate and defend the status quo. Our professional lives would be much easier if we stuck with Copi’s Logic, the ontological argument, Bishop Berkeley and G. E. Moore. But many of us cannot accept the given.
The Persian Gulf War is (sort of) over. The war option has new vitality. War itself is what we need to get over. Understanding our situation and finding our way out may be beyond each and every one of us, but that doesn’t excuse endorsing might where only right will do.
Duane Cady served as CPP President in 1990