FGF Op-Ed
The Reactionary Utopian
January 14, 2016

War and Moral Novelty
A classic by Joseph Sobran
fitzgerald griffin foundation

[Classic: April 2003] — The pro-war movement reminds me of the pro-abortion movement. It isn’t just that both favor killing, important as that is; it’s that both are informed by fanatical moral arrogance.

The pro-war movement reminds me of the pro-abortion movement.

 

Like the pro-abortionists, today’s hawks refuse even to admit they are taking what reasonable people might view as a morally dubious position. The pro-abortion movement, of course, accuses its opponents of religious fanaticism and of seeking to “impose their views.” But the fanaticism is really on the other side.

I can imagine feeling that laws against abortion are futile or outmoded and should be repealed. But in that case, I hope I would be candid enough to admit that I was asking a lot. I would be asking for an abrupt adjustment, if not a reversal, of deep-seated moral standards that have endured for centuries. I would respect the natural reluctance of millions of ordinary decent people to accede to what they regarded, after all, as a form of murder. I would accept the burden of persuading them to see the matter in a new light, and I would try to understand and respect their motives. Every abortion, after all, does kill an incipient human life. In a sense I would think it was healthy that much of society resisted a moral innovation — even if I considered that specific innovation an improvement.

Yet this is not the way of the moral innovators. The pro-abortion movement concedes nothing to its opponents. It condemns them for refusing to acquiesce overnight in what they can only see as homicide. This is a peculiar form of “progressive” bigotry: demanding that your opponents reach your conclusions from their premises; demanding that people make impossible alterations in their convictions; demanding that they recognize what has always been treated as a crime, and a particularly ugly one, as a right. For liberalism, moral fads are moral duties. Liberals won’t even admit that destroying a living, growing organism is “killing.”

In the same way, today’s hawks — allegedly conservative — are demanding that we accept a serious moral innovation. They want to legitimate what has long been recognized as aggressive war by calling it “preemptive,” and they condemn those who refuse to be rushed into it.

 

War is the most destructive, disruptive, and unpredictable — not to say expensive — of all state enterprises, and zeal for war is anything but conservative.

Iraq hasn’t attacked the United States — there is no evidence that it had any hand in the 9/11 horrors — and you can’t reasonably argue that it intends to, or is even capable of doing so. If the hawks were candid, they would respect the feelings of those who consider the current war as unnecessary, unjustified, and therefore criminal. It is a sharp departure from long-standing American and international standards for just warfare.

Instead, the hawks are damning the millions who oppose this war as “appeasers,” “leftists,” “hypocrites,” and even “dupes of Saddam Hussein.” Their abuse of the anti-war French — “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” for example — is especially puerile and vitriolic. They are furiously trying to shift the burden of proof from those who want war to those who want peace.

If conservatism means anything, it means upholding moral norms against the perennial temptation to erode or discard them.

 

In order to do this, they are willing to stigmatize the normal human desire for peace. To the hawks, this war isn’t just a regrettable or tragic necessity, but a positive good; and those who have reservations about it aren’t even entitled to a presumption of decent motives.

According to President Bush, who calls himself a “compassionate conservative,” those who don’t support his war policy are on the side of the terrorists, as he (very loosely) defines them. But war is the most destructive, disruptive, and unpredictable — not to say expensive — of all state enterprises, and zeal for war is anything but conservative.

If conservatism means anything, it means upholding moral norms against the perennial temptation to erode or discard them. It’s a sign of our times that nominal “conservatives” now represent that temptation, and are assailing those — including some liberals — who are trying to conserve those norms.

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This column is among 117 others in a new collection of Sobran essays titled Subtracting Christianity: Essays on American Culture and Society (fgfBooks, 2015). It was printed in the April 2003 edition of Sobran’s: The Real News of the Month newsletter, published by Griffin Communications.

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Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio and archives of some of his columns.

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