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War and Morality

By Fred Russell.


I happened to see Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July a few nights ago on cable TV and was surprised by how good it was, by the acting, the direction, the drama, the sheer power of it. It was in fact superb in every respect other than in its understanding of the Vietnam War.

The film is based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic. Tom Cruise, as Kovic, goes off to Vietnam as a gung-ho Marine and comes back paralyzed from the chest down. In the interval his unit accidentally wipes out a Vietnamese family and Kovic accidentally kills one of his own men during a Vietcong attack. Back in the States he is still a patriot but his conscience and his condition wear him down and in the end he becomes an antiwar activist. That is the story. Kovic and Stone thus have two things to say about the war in Vietnam: that it was terrible and that it was wrong.

Almost all war films show the horrors of war, but not all war films say that war is wrong. World War II films, for example, all say implicitly that the war was just, just as the Vietnam films say explicitly that it was not. This is undoubtedly true. One was a good war and one was a bad war, though the people who got America into these wars believed that both were good.

America’s wars have in fact always been represented, in films and novels, in the media, in the protests, in terms of their morality as much as in terms of their horror (or their glory). This manner of representing wars is very much like putting the cart before the horse.

For the one question that must always be answered before any other question is asked, and certainly before actually going to war, is whether a war can be won. If it cannot, if its prosecution is ruled out on practical grounds, the matter of its morality becomes completely irrelevant or at best academic. It is when the high ground of morality becomes the focus of public debate from the outset that the issue of practicality is shunted aside and the advocates of war are able to advance their own moral arguments and thereby shift the focus of debate away from the real question, which is America’s military capabilities and preparedness. There can be no doubt that the Vietnam war was prolonged by years because it was attacked on the grounds that it was wrong instead of on the grounds that it was unwinnable.

Certainly the makers of the war believed they could win it. They were of course mistaken, but no one was equipped or inclined to argue convincingly that the United States was unequipped to conduct an irregular war against an ideologically motivated enemy, just as it is currently unequipped to conduct its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though the United States has had at least 25 years to understand that the next world threat was going to be Muslim fanaticism, it has in fact done nothing to prepare for it. I mean to say that the United States has done nothing to develop a military and political doctrine suitable for fighting terrorism and insurgency at its source, or developed a cadre of Arabic speakers who understand the Muslim world, which is the basis for developing such a doctrine. Only then, when the United States is ready to fight and win such wars, should the question of whether they should fight them be considered. Until then, the greatest service that the opponents of these wars can do is to point out why they can’t be won.

Oliver Stone thus does a great disservice to his own cause. He does not clarify the misguided military thinking that led to the Vietnam tragedy, namely the belief that the will and spirit of the North Vietnamese people could be broken by massive bombing. He does not point to the ignorance of the enemy that is at the core of this thinking, just as it is at the core of the failure in Iraq, which was an adventure that the United States undertook without the slightest idea what it was getting into. It is precisely this ignorance that should be exposed before the issue of morality is debated.

Fred Russell is the pen name of an American-born writer living in Israel. His novels Rafi’s World (Fomite Press), dealing with Israel’s emerging criminal class, and The Links in the Chain (CCLaP), a thriller set in New York against an Arab-Israel background, were both published in 2014. His stories and essays have appeared in Third Coast, Polluto, Fiction on the Web, Wilderness House Literary Review, Ontologica, Unlikely Stories: Episode 4, The Satirist, CounterPunch, Gadfly, Cultural Weekly, Ragazine, etc.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 8th, 2015.