Victory changes everything

Many Indians (including me) are outraged that the USA is ignoring the UN and world opinion on Iraq. Yet do not be surprised if the same Indians (including me) lose that sense of outraged morality if the US wins a quick victory in Iraq. History is written by the victors, and global morality adjusts with astounding flexibility.

Apart from a small committed minority, the world accepts the new reality and forgets the heated moral debates that preceded it. The most obvious example is the US attack on Afghanistan in 1991. Activists the world over protested against bullying by the world’s only superpower, demonstrators in Muslim countries protested that the US was applying one standard to the Taliban and another to Israel, and Osama t-shirts sold like hot cakes.

Learned historians wrote that Afghanistan had entrapped the British Raj, then the Soviets, and would now entrap the Americans. But when the US won a quick victory, the moral fervour of anti-US demonstrations evaporated, sales of Osama t-shirts fell to zero, learned historians switched to other topics. Victory changed everything.

The Vietnam war had a very different outcome. But don’t be naive enough to believe that the morality there was very different. The victor was different. The US went into South Vietnam to contain global communist expansion. Unable to win a decisive victory, it signed a peace agreement with North Vietnam, took its troops back home, and secured Nobel Peace Prizes for the signatories of the accord. Shortly afterwards, North Vietnam violated the peace agreement, invaded and took over South Vietnam. Did anybody (except the Americans) really care that Hanoi’s victory had violated a solemn peace agreement, enshrined in a Nobel Peace Prize? Did anybody hold street demonstrations against unilateral military action, or violation of international law by Hanoi? Not at all. History was rewritten by the victor, and the world fell in line.

What if the US had retained troops in Vietnam, deterring any attack by Hanoi? Nobody knows. But conceivably South Vietnam could have become another tiger economy of South-East Asia, and the sort of comparisons made today between North and South Korea might have been made between North and South Vietnam. But, as in other historical episodes, victory changed everything.

In 1971, India broke Pakistan in two. The excuse was that India could not take the burden of 9 million refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), but the real aim was to permanently break Pakistan and wreck the two-nation theory. World opinion strongly opposed India’s aim of dismembering a neighbour, and the UN urged a peaceful solution. But once India won the war, the world fell in line. Today the BJP estimates illegal Bangladeshi immigrants at many more than the 9 million that came in 1971. Nobody suggests that war is the solution. Yet when that solution was put forward in 1971, the world went along with the victor’s version of morality.

Subhash Chandra Bose sought Hitler’s help in World War II. He failed, Hitler lost the war. Suppose Hitler had won, and had helped install Subhash Chandra Bose as India’s new ruler. Our history books would have been written very differently. So would Europe’s. What light does this throw on Iraq today? If the US achieves a quick victory, Bush’s critics will, after some expostulation, fall silent.

A victory will doubtless unearth evidence of Iraqi biological or chemical weapons, and ridicule will be heaped on Hans Blix, France, Germany and the UN Security Council. The new regime in Iraq will condemn Saddam as a mass murderer, and the world will nod agreement. But if the war goes badly for Bush, moral attitudes will be very different. Suppose thousands of US soldiers and Iraqi civilians are killed, and that terrorist reprisals on US cities with biological weapons kill thousands more. I suspect the US public will turn against Bush, and blame him for unwarranted deaths in an unwarranted military adventure.

Members of the Democratic Party (discreetly quiet so far) will condemn Bush as a war-monger who failed to comprehend the consequences of an unnecessary war. Bush will be voted out in 2004, and maybe even withdraw ignominiously from the contest (as Lyndon Johnson did in 1968). Bush will write a book on why the war was necessary but mismanaged by Rumsfeld, Powell and Co. The world will adjust effortlessly.

Dear reader, pick the scenario that you deem most likely. But if you search within your heart, I suspect you will admit that, whatever moral position you take today, you will adjust to the military outcome. Call me cynical, but victory truly changes everything.

What do you think?