Slippery Slopes

Posted by Mike

As individuals we have all kinds of slippery slopes.  We say to ourselves, “It won’t really make any difference.  I’ll just….” Most of us can fill in the blank for ourselves; could be an addiction, dishonesty, cheating, lying.  It always becomes easier the second time, and by the third time we don’t notice it at all. Governments have slippery slopes too. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was seen as the slippery slope that led to the United States’ involvement in the disastrous Vietnam War. In actuality the slippery slope was a long series of covert operations in South Vietnam and propping and and support of corrupt South Vietnamese governments for the ten years preceding the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Our war in Iraq was not a slippery slope. The Bush Administration planned the war, justifying it on the basis of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. It is ironic that at the time of the invasion, Saddam Hussein had been reined in: there were “no-fly” zones in the north and the south. Iraq was a danger to no country in the Middle East at that time and certainly no danger to the United States. I wonder what our response to Saddam Hussein would have been had Dick Cheney and George W. Bush served in Vietnam and observed first-hand the damage, destruction, and heartbreak that war did to both sides. 

A major current slippery slope is our involvement in Afghanistan, a country much more isolated from the West and even more enmeshed in values, mores, and loyalties that we understand less than we do the Middle East. Will and Ariel Durant published a thin volume in 1968, following the publication of the tenth volume of their opus, The Story of Civilization. The book was titled, The Lessons of History, and it was made up of what the Durants had learned from their study of history that might be of help in illuminating “present affairs, future probabilities, the nature of man, and the conduct of states.” They included a section on history and war and indicated that, “War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy.” The Durants avoided a clear declaration of their own perspective on the use of war to settle conflicts within or between nations by including an imaginary dialogue between “the philosopher” and “the general.” The general believed that it was now [in 1968] up to the United States to fully take up the mantle assumed earlier by Great Britain to serve as the protector “of Western civilization from external danger,” the danger being the Soviet Union and the other communist countries. The philosopher made a case for challenging the “evil precedents” of history by boldly supporting solving the conflicts that lead to war through negotiation and learning to understand and appreciate the difference in perspectives among nations. At the end, the Durants clearly have the general win the argument, saying, “Some conflicts are too fundamental to be resolved by negotiation; and during the prolonged negotiations…subversion would go on.” The general saw that the only possibility of a “world order” being established was, “…not by a gentlemen’s agreement, but through so decisive a victory by one of the great powers that it will be able to dictate and enforce international law.” The Durants were clearly not optimistic that the pattern of the past – war as a “solution” to conflict between nations – would ever be supplanted.

Iron CurtainLooking back at the Cold War, it can be seen as a kind of insanity, in which nations and populations got caught up in a paranoid rhetoric that had the potential of creating mass destruction, should the paranoia have been acted upon ultimately by the use of atomic weapons. The slippery slopes that initiated the Cold War are now obscured by the veil of history, but occurred primarily right at the end of the Second World War and related to both sides being unable to perceive the fear beneath the saber rattling. Some compromises were made at that time; but even they (e.g., the divided Berlin) served to intensify the conflict.

The slippery slopes of the Cold War period led to our involvement in Vietnam and the Vietnam War, which cost our nation much in material resources and human lives, and which destroyed much of the economy of Vietnam and devastated a generation of their people. Psychiatrists call the kind of paranoia that was present in the Cold War “shared delusions,” reflective not of individual psychosis, but of the indoctrination of people with a kind of delusional “group think.”

Have we learned from the lessons of history of the past 40 years? Have we learned from our slippery slopes of the past? Are we more willing and able to continue to negotiate our differences until we are “blue in the face,” and then begin negotiating again the next day, without resorting to military action? Remarkably we have been able to do that at various places in the world, with North Korea, for example. Despite our differences and the perceived “threat” of Kim Jong-il, we have not lost our rationality and invaded North Korea. But we remain on the slippery slope in Afghanistan, seemingly unwilling to understand that Western values hold no weight in that culture, and that the solutions that we seek are not necessarily the solutions that the Pashtun and other ethnic peoples of Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan would choose. Unless we are to continue the heartbreak of further death and destruction in Afghanistan, we must finally come to understand that there are no satisfactory military “solutions” to the conflict there. Increased understanding of the other, rather than demonization, is necessary; and protracted discussion and negotiation between parties, with resolution of areas of disagreement piece by piece until final peace is attained.

We need to be vigilant, not only in the present, but in the future, for once a course of action is initiated by a “slippery slope,” it becomes harder to change direction the further down the slope we fall.

One is left with the horrible feeling now that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one.                

                        -Agatha Christie (1890-1976)

 The stateman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforseeable and uncontrollable events.

          – Winston Churchill (1874-1965)


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