June 29, 2008

Niebuhr Predicts the Iraq War

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 12:15 pm

I’ve started reading Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr. it was written in 1932, but I am amazed at how incredibly relevant he is to the events of our day. Niebuhr writes*:

The economy of nature has provided that means of defense may be quickly transmuted into means of aggression. There is therefore no possibility of drawing a sharp line between the will-to-live and the will-to-power. Even in the emotions, attitudes of defense and aggression are so compounded that fear may easily lead to courage, and the necessity of consolidating the triumph won by courage may justify new fears.

[The U.S.], seeking to maintain her hegemony in [Iraq], speaks with monotonous reiteration of her need of security. She typifies the human spirit with its curious mixture of fear of extinction and love of power. Power, once attained, places the individual or the group in a position of perilous eminence so that security is possible only by the extension of power. Thus nature’s harmless and justifiable strategies for preserving life, are transmuted in the human spirit into imperial purposes and policies. So inextricably are the two intertwined, that the one may always be used to justify the other in conscious and unconscious deception.

As you may have gathered, Niebuhr was not actually speaking of the U.S. and Iraq, but of France and Europe in the period between the two world wars. But when we look at the original decision to invade Iraq, the Bush doctrine of preemptive attack, or Bush and McCain’s desire to maintain U.S. bases and troops in Iraq indefinitely, Neibuhr’s observation fits like a glove.

So what is Niebuhr’s solution to this human tendency to pursue aggression in the name of self-defense? I don’t know — I haven’t gotten that far yet. But it seems to me that awareness of the problem is the first step towards healing.

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* Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 42

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