The Consequences of Nothing
questions, on multiple channels, nearly
24-7, assault the senses like machine gun fire. Do we have the right strategy?
Are Iraqis happy? Sad? Mad? Do we care? Will the U.N. share in the peacekeeping?
What about weapons of mass destruction? Are there enough forces on the
ground? Does Iraq want freedom? Were we right to proceed without U.N.
approval? Will prisoners of war be treated fairly? Should we have raised
our flag? How long will war last? Is it about
oil, WMDs, revenge, freedom, world security? Does
Before it began, one local teen asked a different sort of question, “Why
don’t we bring democracy to lots of other countries too, like in
Africa?” Maybe now, with fighting underway, the answer to that question
will be more obvious. For all those who lived through Vietnam, the difficulty
of “bringing democracy” to a nation invokes memories of the
high price in lives lost, in families torn by bitter dissent, of ongoing
protests, and the worst memory—the possibility of failure.
For many these are the only memories, and for today’s youth the
only visual connections are manufactured by Hollywood in countless movies
that tell a simplified story of a most complex world event. But the context
of Vietnam should never be forgotten—the Cold War and the persistent,
often ruthless advance of communism at that time in third world countries,
funded by the U.S.S.R. or China.
The lesson should be that world events of this kind are never simple.
Wars are more questions than answers. Wars are multiple missions, twisted
emotions, complex goals, and absolutely unknown conclusions.
Meditating on Lincoln’s tortured soul as he contemplated engagement
in the Civil War—uncertain of its final outcome—it seems likely
his thoughts turned more to the consequences of inaction than to the outcomes
of action. Because in any crisis, the “first question” that
must be answered, before deciding when to fight, how to fight, where to
fight, must be: what happens if we do nothing? The most significant questions
for Lincoln centered on the impending dissolution of the world’s
greatest experiment in freedom and self-government, and on the likely
continuation of and persistent arguments over slavery—both of those
being very real consequences
Lincoln could not be certain of victory; still he
pursued war as though victory was the only option. Lincoln’s overriding
goal, which he stated repeatedly, was to prevent the consequences of inaction,
to save the union.
In WWII the consequences of inaction were obvious. Apply the “first
question”—what would have happened if we did nothing? The
outright murder of millions and Hitler’s march across Europe never
would have been halted had the U.S not finally acted. Even our delayed
entry into Europe may have cost more lives. Few second-guess our decision
to act in WWII, and few criticize the rectitude of our actions through
the war. The consequences of inaction in hindsight were so horrific. But
how many young people are aware of our inaction up to the bombing of Pearl
Harbor? Ask, and see how many think WWII began at Pearl Harbor.
In Iraq, stated administration goals are to prevent the use and spread
of weapons of mass destruction, to stop aid, training and harboring of
terrorists, and to remove from power the despot Hussein who has murdered
his own people in a brutal, repressive,
regime. The consequences
of inaction in Iraq were and still are clear: mass destruction
with unimaginable weapons, increased terrorism aimed at the United States,
and the murder
What of the consequences of action? These are the continuing questions.
And war was not embarked upon without deliberating fully over other options
and alternatives, potential losses, right strategies, and post-war settlements
But the “first question”—what happens if we do nothing?
Asked and answered. For George W. Bush and for Tony Blair and for 45 other
nations the consequences of inaction are unthinkable, and they pursue
war as though victory is the only option.
The majority of Americans and British give our president and Britain’s
prime minister credit for answering that “first question”
on a sound moral basis, with the best interests of their nations at heart.
The alternative, that the decision was based on an activist agenda of
power seeking, profiteering or vengeance is abhorrent—an insult
to both nations. As war proceeds the questions about day-to-day actions
and decisions will continue, as they should. Mistakes may be made. Strategies
may prove ineffective. Soldiers may blunder on the battlefield. But if
we have answered the “first question” on a sound moral basis,
we are on the right course.
An anti-war proponent was recently overheard to say, “Bring back
the days when the worst mistake the president made was to have sex in
the Oval Office.” Well yes, eight years of lurid misdeeds and international
inaction by that administration lulled us through the ’90s with
a false sense of contentment and peaceful prosperity. But reality has
a way of rearing its ugly head.
Those years of inaction had consequences—
inaction over the embassy bombings and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole,
inaction over stolen military secrets and inaction on intelligence about
the dangerous Osama Bin Laden—which resulted in the proliferation
of a terror network that eventually brought down the World Trade Center
When the consequences of inaction involve the security of the country,
when lives and freedom are at stake, there will always be those who consciously
choose inaction, thus whose errors will be mostly those of omission. That
is the safe way, the easy way. If one never takes responsibility, one
can’t be blamed for mistakes. There’s a reason that in their
time Lincoln and other great wartime leaders have been both loved and
loathed, but always have been uniquely lonely in their commitment to their
cause. Having answered that “first question” with the best
interests of their fellow citizens at heart, having accepted that great
responsibility, the rest of the questions that inevitably follow place
them at risk of being wrong, wrong, and wrong again.
Only in hindsight do we usually see that the “first question”
is really all that mattered, that freedom, peace and security really do
have a price—and they’re worth it.
BrainstormNW - April 2003