In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, I found myself in the awkward position of defending the war to my liberal friends and family. I was majoring in International Relations at the time and I argued with ferocity typical of a college student who thought he knew far more than he really did.
The geo-political significance of the region, the teetering balance of power between the Sunni and Shia countries, the proxy war of economic hegemony to stymie the onslaught of the Euro against the dollar – on and on it went. The reasons may not be obvious, but our government did this for our benefit, to preserve our way of life. I presented my case in stark intellectual terms: whether we realize it or not, they’re representing our interests, and we should be proud.
In the 10 years since those (wince-inducing) arguments, I’ve traveled to 43 countries and lived in anywhere from six to ten of them, depending on your definition of “live.”
And what struck me is that everywhere, in all of them, people, on the whole, are not concerned with national interests or geo-politics, but rather the day-to-day necessities we all have in common. This is one of those truths that seems stupidly obvious once you witness it.
Nor does anybody seem to feel particularly well-represented by their governments. In fact, I believe every country I’ve been to hates their government and views them as their own local horde of bureaucratic vandals, if not far worse.
In Russia, China or Colombia, the people show no overt interest in geo-politics, national interests or any sort of regional prejudice. No matter how American I am, they judge me based on my character, not an arbitrary flag or where my taxes go. I came to believe the vast majority of people on this planet are good, and if placed in a one-on-one interaction, that will eventually shine through.
With news reports coming out claiming Israel is on the precipice attacking Iran and an inevitable war will once again drag the interests of major powers tumbling into the Middle East, I can’t help but think that the personal interests of the people on the ground of both countries are not being clearly represented. That if you could somehow magically line up every Iranian and every Israeli and give them a couple hours with each other each, that they all wouldn’t come away from it thinking the whole thing is a bit ridiculous, and hey, let’s have some more falafel.
Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all of the others.” Governments, in general, seem to be a necessary evil – bumbling monolithic entities, which ostensibly communicate the needs and thoughts of millions of people to each other. There’s an ignorance gap. Governments are middlemen between populations and this causes individual priorities and values to get lost in the distance.
And I realize now my grand obfuscations of geo-political priorities and national interests, of economic hegemony and vital state interests – although these were sound intellectual arguments, they don’t suffice morally. An Arab man I’ve never met on the other side of the war should not die to fulfill some interest of a social structure which portends to represent me. I think if you asked any American, “Here’s a gun, shoot an Iraqi and save 10% on gas for the next five years,” no one would do it.
Not that Iraq was about oil (it wasn’t). And not that there aren’t ever moral justifications for war (insert obligatory Hitler reference here). But I think if we lived in a world where information was perfect and instant, the vast majority of inter-state warfare would never get off the ground. See: Democratic Peace Theory.
But despite my recent moral birth as a pacifist, I understand it’s totally unrealistic. Game theory dictates that it only takes one aggressive nation to spawn a population of aggression. In India, they are extremely proud that they’ve never initiated a war in their 6,000 year history. But they’ve also been steamrolled by empire after empire. Coincidence?
So while I understand the necessity of Why Things Are The Way They Are, I can continue to exercise my personal right to stand against violence whenever possible. It’s all I can do.