Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hermann Hesse, Iran, and the future

On page 50 of Consciousness and Society, The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930, H. Stuart Hughes writes, “. . . despite the seriousness of their scholarship and the dignity of their personal situation, the German professors were the prisoners of their own exalted station. The public treated them with a respect and followed their abstract debates with a passionate interest that may strike us as a little short of miraculous, but, like most of the state government that employed them, it expected of its professors a thoroughly conformist attitude toward the national community. And the professors were not too loath to conform: some of them might criticize with violence the internal character of the regime, but in the realm of foreign policy virtually all remained within the nationalist frame. . . .”

In earlier times there were ample examples of Barons opposing Kings, but those working on a Baron’s land could not hope to oppose the Baron with equal impunity. It isn’t until we move forward into the era of Democracy that such an act becomes practical, that is, that a person can oppose their nation’s foreign policy and expect not to end up in jail or worse. Germany in the time-period Hughes is interested in wasn’t there yet. Hermann Hesse was “there” as an individual. He supported the war effort at the beginning of World War One, but nevertheless in 1914 wrote an essay entitled "O Friends, Not These Tones" ("O Freunde, nicht diese Töne") urging a recognition of Europe’s common heritage. Hughes describes Hesse as moving to Switzerland because he was disgusted by the growing militarism.”

We can assume along with Hughes that the militarism of Germany in the two World Wars was unjustifiable, but we cannot build a principle from that and apply it to all nations. France as we know was not nearly as militaristic during this period. We can read about France in Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years. It was deeply influenced by anarchistic and pacifistic arguments. While it was right for Hesse to oppose Germany’s militarism, the pacifists and anarchists who opposed French militarism were (and I suspect few would disagree with me here) wrong. Had the French been supporting their military at the time the German’s were building theirs, World War II could, many historians argue, have been nipped in the bud, that is, reduced to a minor altercation.

At this point I propose a simplistic principle: It is good to support just wars but not good to support unjust wars. I assume here the rejection of the pacifistic argument. Few who lived through the conclusions of that argument during the Vichy period in France would wish to live it again.

A more serious objection to this principle has to do with its definition: How do we go about distinguishing just wars from unjust wars? If we are heirs of the Enlightenment we can argue that wars for humanistic and “enlightened” reasons are more likely to be just than those which are not. But some consider themselves “heirs” and take a Marxist viewpoint. Others reject the Enlightenment and think all points of view equal. Therefore these latter argue, the tyrannies of Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il must not be opposed militarily because all regimes, all governments, all people are equal.

In this, as in struggles of the past, the victor will get to write the histories. If Francis Fukuyama is correct and Liberal Democracy comprises the end of history then none of the objections from Socialists, anarchists, Islamists, Revolutionaries or any other political viewpoint will stand against it in the long run.

Moving up the mountain and standing above it all, if Fukuyama is proved right and every form of government opposing Liberal democracy is eventually converted; then in looking back at the various wars we fought or are about to fight, the arguments may hinge on whether it was better to fight a war or let matters play themselves out. We haven’t fought a war with Iran yet; so is it better for Liberal Democracies to fight against Iran and prevent them from using nuclear weapons, or is it better to let them have their weapons because in the long run they will become a Liberal Democracy and it won’t really matter what they do now? Think of Vietnam for comparison. Millions were killed during the war so those opposing the war could later say “I told you so.” But Millions of people were killed by the Communists after the war so those favoring the war could say “I told you so.” Since then Vietnam has been slowly mellowing. The day may come when historians write that nothing that went on during that war really mattered in the long run. Will it be possible to one day say that about Iran?

A difference between Vietnam and Iran is that the former admired Communism, a political philosophy that has been discredited in almost everyone’s eyes; while the latter is devoted to Shia Islam which is not likely to become discredited in a comparable way. Shia Islam has fought against Sunni Islam for hundreds of years. Perhaps they will fight against Liberal Democracy for as long? At the end of those hundreds of years (we are still sitting on our mountain) we may argue that we should have had a war in 2012 to deny them nuclear weapons. But if we do have that war, it may be (from our mountain perch) that some argue that it took a few hundred years longer but in the end Iran was just like Vietnam.

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