Moral Equivalence

2843176-6349053279-fl_agEvery day, there are lessons in the newspapers that Mr. Trump should benefit from.  For example, this morning I was perusing the Sunday New York Times Book Review, coffee in hand, when my eyes ran across the following opening paragraph from a book review by Scott Shane of A Great Place to Have a War, America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, by Joshua Kurlantzick:  “Speaking last September in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, Barack Obama mentioned a staggering fact: that the United States had between 1963 and 1974 dropped two million tons of bombs on the country, more than the total loosed on Germany and Japan together during World War II. That made Laos, which is slightly smaller than Michigan, the most heavily bombed nation in history, the president said. More than four decades after the end of the war, unexploded ordnance is still killing and maiming Laotians, and Obama announced that he was doubling American funding to remove it.”

And further on:

“In his first presidential term, Richard M. Nixon escalated the bombing from about 15 sorties per day to 300 per day. ‘How many did we kill in Laos?’ Nixon asked Henry Kissinger one day in a conversation caught on tape. Kissinger replied: ‘In the Laotian thing, we killed about 10, 15’ — 10,000 or 15,000 people, he meant. The eventual death toll would be 200,000.”

 Before reading that review, I could have told you about the American incursion into Cambodia during the Vietnam War, or the bombing of North Vietnam, or the faked Tonkin Bay attack used to justify American involvement.  I could have given a reasonable brief on US involvement in Indochina.  But I had missed the part where we dropped more bombs on Laos than on Germany and Japan combined, and thereby killed 200,000 people.  Somehow I missed “the Laotian thing” which, if it was reported on at all at the time, was understood to refer to covert aid given to “Hmong Tribesmen”.   I’m going to bet that I’m not the only one that missed it.  I’d also be hard pressed to tell you what good came from those bombs.

When I read that review, I’d been thinking about Trump’s recent comment, during an interview with Bill O’Reilly, that Trump continued to admire Vladimir Putin.  As reported by ABC News, the exchange ran as follows:  “When O’Reilly said, ‘Putin is a killer,’ Trump responded, ‘A lot of killers. We got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?'”   That statement by Trump brought the self-righteous critics charging – who was Trump to suggest that we were morally equivalent to the vicious, violent, and corrupt regime of Putin and the Russian Oligarchs?

Hopefully, their outrage adds to the public’s repugnance with Trump.   However, Trump is right that Americans are not innocent, even if  we do not, as a matter of course, like Putin, assassinate our dissident citizens.  We have plenty to answer for, both historically and in recent years, in our meddling across the globe.   Given that we also employ covert operations on a large scale, our moral standing may even be worse than I think.

 But what Trump said was nonetheless problematic because what Trump meant by his comment, and  by his admiration for Putin, is that to be a killer or aggressor like Putin is okay; it’s what the big boys of the world have to do.  For men of that ilk (see Henry Kissinger’s offhand remark above about killing 10 or 15 thousand people in the “Laotian thing”), there’s a lot of room for killing before they worry about being morally responsible.  There is little evidence that the malice of these men, men like Putin annexing land from neighboring countries, assassinating dissenters, and routinely  using military power as a substitute for diplomacy, makes the world a better or safer place.  What America got for the two million tons of bombs dropped on Laos was moral culpability for the 200,000 deaths at the time and for the continuing damage those munitions cause.

Simply put, we should use diplomacy first to maintain world order and to obtain diplomatic goals.  Trump and his adviser Steve Bannon, on the other hand, can’t wait to be like Putin and Kissinger and exercise the reins of power.



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