I’ve been reading a lot about the New York intellectual and anarchopacifist Dwight Macdonald recently. I’m posting a link to the Wikipedia page about him because I’d like to remind everyone he once existed. One reason I want to bring him up beyond any other, though, is that his anarchopacifism seems positively civilised compared to what passes for that political viewpoint today.
One of the reasons I want to share my opinions about Macdonald has to do with the recent news stories about how bomb squads had to defuse a bomb discovered near the main train station in Berlin. That’s a bomb from World War II we’re talking about. There remain possibly thousands of unexploded bombs from the days of World War II, mostly located in Germany and Japan. In 2010, in fact, three people in a bomb squad died trying to defuse a bomb in the city of Göttingen, Niedersachsen, Germany. That particular bomb might have been dropped either by the British RAF or the American Air Force.
Dwight Macdonald made a name for himself as a radical writer primarily as a consistent critic of precisely the kind of bombing campaigns that took the lives of those three completely innocent Germans a full 65 years after the end of the war against a less innocent German regime. Though he later wrote that his opposition to World War II was a “creative mistake” – and indeed also found himself supporting the actions of the American Air Force during the Berlin airlift and the Korean War (Macdonald was a determined and principled anticommunist) – he never recanted his opposition to the kind of overkill bombing campaigns for which he is principally remembered today. Nor should he have – his writings offer today’s generations some considerable insights.
In all of the screeds written today about the horrors of drone bombing campaigns (whether real or imagined), we rarely see any acknowledgement of the very real horrors of our past bombing campaigns, even in countries where, it is generally acknowledged, the cause for which we were fighting was just. We owe Dwight Macdonald a lot for focusing attention on that.
I want to acknowledge Macdonald’s writings, more than anything, because I recognise in him a kindred spirit in so many other respects. This was a guy who was not afraid to take on left-wingers he thought were part of the problem rather than part of the solution. “Anyone who has been through the Trotskyist movement…as I have,” he remarked in 1946, “knows that in respect to decent personal behavior, truthfulness, and respect for dissident opinion, the ‘comrades’ are generally much inferior to the average stockbroker.” He had a special contempt for the relentless blather of Henry Wallace supporters in 1948, and what he had to say about them still makes me giggle today: “Wallaceland is the mental habitat of Henry Wallace plus few hundred thousand regular readers of The New Republic, The Nation, and PM. It is a region of perpetual fogs, caused by the warm winds of the liberal Gulf Stream coming in contact with the Soviet glacier. Its natives speak ‘Wallese’, a debased provincial dialect. Wallese is as rigidly formalized as Mandarin Chinese. The Good people are described by ritualistic adjectives: ‘forward-looking’, ‘freedom-loving’, ‘clear-thinking’, and, of course, ‘democratic’ and ‘progressive.’ The Bad people are always ‘reactionaries’ or ‘red-baiters’; there are surprisingly few of them, considering the power they wield, and they are perversely wicked, since their real interests would best be served by the Progressive and Realistic policies favored by the Good people. Wallese is always employed to Unite rather than to Divide (hence the fog), and to Further Positive, Constructive Aims rather than Merely to Engage in Irresponsible and Destructive Criticism.”
Today’s criticism of drones may owe something to Dwight Macdonald, but probably not much, because so little of Dwight Macdonald’s personal decency seems to motivate today’s anti-drone campaigners. The point of the anti-drone movement today seems inseparably linked with the kind of lock-step “comradely” behaviour and Wallaceite bland self-assurance about the nobility of one’s own motives that Macdonald spent a lifetime condemning.
Yet both, properly, remind us that every bomb dropped in the wrong place is an atrocity. War is not some kind of easy game where one can easily disassociate oneself from ethical responsibility for the means used to defeat a foe. It may be true, for example, that defeating Germany required us to bomb various locations within Germany. But any one of those “extra” bombs dropped on Germany in the 1940s could have been that one that killed three completely innocent Germans in 2010, and yes, we are responsible for that. This does not mean that I want to find some representative British or American person and send them to The Hague for this. But it _does_ mean that I want our current military to assume responsibility for its past actions, learn from what happened, and place itself under some ethical limits – because anytime someone dies because of a bomb that explodes where it is not supposed to, it incurs real – and if we’re honest about it, justified – hatred for our military.
It also provides aid and comfort to our enemies. It should go without saying that today’s Germany, for example, still has a handful of Nazi sympathisers (like the National Democratic Party of Germany, known as the NPD, which still elects people to state governments in some German states), and those neo-Nazi elements would love for there to be more stories about bomb defusing accidents in Germany so they can prove to everyone that there really was no moral difference between the Allies and the Axis. That’s an argument that serves the purposes of Nazis very nicely.
The same is true in today’s Middle Eastern context as well. You want to give a boost to Al-Qaeda? Drop bombs willy-nilly all over the place, so people honestly can’t tell the moral difference between a democrat and a theocrat. There’s nothing the theocrats want you to do more.
All of this still does not mean that there may not be cases where the reality of self-defence and the defence of others does not require the use of bombs. (I don’t know if Dwight Macdonald would have put it that way, and I’m not putting those words in his mouth, but that is certainly what I think.) But we can’t allow ourselves to pretend that it is a simple argument between those who hate bombs and those who are too naïve to do what is needed.
I have spent more time castigating those who whip up a shallow argument about how much they hate bombs and how vicious and immoral those of us who, presumably, “love bombs” are. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get that an over-reliance on military hardware can also be both counterproductive and rise to the level of immorality.
One of the best points Dwight Macdonald ever made was that nuclear weapons, in particular, may be so destructive that their use would overwhelm any positive purpose…in other words, even if one believes that ends may justify means, this particular means, the use of nuclear weapons, would overwhelm any end.
I’m not sure I agree that’s true about Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and indeed, I think we often forget that the conventional bombing of Japan was far worse than these comparatively small-scale nuclear bombings – even factoring in the long-term effects of radiation (because the unexploded ordnance problem is just as bad or worse). But the point is not at all lost on me, particularly as the destructive power of nuclear weapons has increased exponentially.
With great power does come greater responsibility. “Their” side may need to be defeated, but “our” side properly bears the burden of the great responsibility for the use of weapons of great power. We cannot afford to just fling bombs around as if any number of them are justified by whatever causes we serve.