Means and Ends

Drawing Che Guevera into the earlier conversation about Irish terrorists, Arab terrorists and counterfactuals, Larison writes:

Lincoln, Wilson and FDR-each of them was responsible for far more deaths and far more destruction than Che Guevara or any of a number of Arab nationalist figures ever was, but two important things separate them in the eyes of the general public: they did not personally kill anyone, and the causes for which their armies killed and destroyed are widely considered to be the just and right ones. That is to say, the exact same moralizing, or rather anti-moralizing, that the ends justify the means that Che used in rationalizing revolutionary violence is employed to praise and sanctify approved figures who authorized much larger slaughters for the "right reasons." [emphasis mine - RD] Not only have sympathetic, shoulder-shrugging, anti-moralizing stories been told about these men, but we have built large physical monuments to them (or at least to two of the three mentioned above), which is rather more troubling in its way than silly people who wear T-shirts or directors who minimize the moral failings of their main characters.

But of course in just-war theory, the ends often do legitimize the means, in some sense at least. Not all means, of course: Some forms of violence are intrinsically immoral, whatever the ends in question. But to employ criteria like "proportionality" and "right intention" in judging a war's justness is to recognize that the morality of a given military campaign depends (among other things) on the objectives it seeks to accomplish, and the context in which it takes place. The consensus surrounding the moral legitimacy of Lincoln and FDR's warmaking flows, in part at least, from precisely this issue of intentions. So does most contemporary criticism of Che Guevera and the Cuban Revolution, which tends to focus on the tyranny that Che and Castro ended up establishing in the revolution's wake, not the moral legitimacy of the revolt itself. And so, for that matter, does the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which each side is judged, not unreasonably, on their ultimate intentions. Do the Palestinians want sovereignty and self-determination, or do they want to see Israel destroyed? Do the Israelis seek security and a recognition of their nation's right to exist as a Jewish state, or are they still invested in the dream of a Greater Israel? These are not the only questions to keep in mind when assessing the justice of each side's military operations, but they are real and important questions nonetheless.

Of course there's a slippery slope involved whenever you judge means in light of ends, and it's certainly the case that Americans, like most peoples, are too quick to absolve our leaders for wars entered unwisely and prosecuted immorally so long as they seem to work out "in the long run." But the American memory isn't just shaped by a mix of jingoism and consequentialism: The Lincoln-FDR consensus may be mistaken (as Larison obviously believes it to be), but the fact remains that it's driven, at least in part, by a real attempt to make moral distinctions about the conflicts that we've fought, rather than just a rank chauvinism in which our wars are always justified and other people's wars aren't. There's a reason that Lincoln has an enormous memorial and, say, James K. Polk does not; there's a reason that the Washington Mall has a Museum of the American Indian rather than a monument to Philip Sheridan's Plains campaigns; there's a reason that the Spanish-American War and the First World War don't enjoy the kind of "good war" reputations that accrue to the Civil War and World War II; there's a reason that the Korean War is remembered as a more heroic affair than Vietnam, and that our Filipino counterinsurgency isn't remembered at all. The American reckoning with the moral questions that surround our wars is incomplete at best, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist - or that the attempt to distinguish good wars from bad ones on the basis of the ends that we sought isn't a legitimate way to go about making moral judgments.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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