revert to principle
This is Louise-Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, Marquis de Saint-Veran. A French war hero, he was the most successful of their generals fighting in the French and Indian war. Montcalm was a man of his time, back when imperialism was waged unapologetically, and my reading of his life doesn’t seem to support any notion that he was conflicted with imperialism on ideological grounds. The man was one of history’s many, many tools of imperial reach.
And yet I have always had an affection of Montcalm, since I began to learn about him. He seemed genuinely to hate the war, wrote to the French crown about its uselessness and intractability, and tried unsuccessfully to leave it behind. He was disgusted by the notorious behavior of the (French-allied) Algonquins at Fort William Henry, and put a stop to it as much as he was able to, when he became aware of it. He was known to be deeply uncomfortable with the great inequality in Quebec, between the French merchants and aristocrats on the one hand and the often desperately poor common settlers on the other. (It wouldn’t be long before this French great inequality came to have rather unpleasant consequences for the aristocrats at home.) He seems, on the whole, to have been the kind of gentleman soldier we would like our military commanders to be, educated and thoughtful, who wage war skillfully (and Montcalm was a distinguished general) but regretfully.
Mostly, though, I feel sorrow for a family man who wanted to return home and leave behind a war of imperialism that proved futile, in the long run, for both sides. Montcalm was a devoted father, whose letters home were constantly preoccupied with his daughters. Despite his marriage being driven largely by the expectations of the aristocratic times, his union was exceptionally close. He wrote to his wife, after his request to return home to France was rejected by the French government, “I think I should have given up all my honors to be back with you, but the king must be obeyed; the moment when I shall see you again will be the finest of my life.” But Montcalm never saw his wife again. He was shot in battle and died.
The degree to which Montcalm or any officer, or any soldier, is responsible for the imperial mission he undertakes is complicated. Surely we can generate sympathy for anyone ordered by his government to undertake even an immoral mission, to a degree. But my point is simply that there are many Montcalms, many millions of people who have been ground into dust by the never-ending vogue for mastery over other countries. Not just French generals but Americans and Iraqis and Nicoraguans and Iranians and Vietnamese burned to death in a delta of the Mekong river. Our desire to impose our will on other countries has victims, untold thousands of them. I clearly am not one to ever question the validity of a good deep think, nor do I want to refrain from talking about the deeper philosophical nature of what exactly these terms and ideas mean. But we risk, when we crawl too deeply into the weeds– with machete in hand or not– losing sight of the awful tactile reality of every mass grave in villages in Java.
Here is what imperialism is: we come to your country, and we exert our control over it, and if you try to stop us, we kill you. Our justifications, real and professed, are always changing. Our means are always evolving, and every new military technology carries with it the promise of its use to subjugate more people, a little better, a little faster, a little more shock-and-awe inspiring. We want what you have, or we don’t want someone else to get it, or we want a “presence” in your region, or we want to move your country’s poor pawn to check the king of our rival. We want to make your life and your country a means to whatever particular end we happen to have at that time.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about when to argue from a moral vision and when to argue from a practical standpoint and when to do both. Does reverting to practical arguments undercut moral ones? That’s been a question raised about torture, and health care, and bailouts. I don’t know the answer to that general question. Surely, the efficacy of American overreach can be questioned; you only need to read Timothy Weiner’s meticulously researched Legacy of Ashes to see that. But if we must keep moral questions solely in the realm of morality, I find that imperialism (so called or otherwise) is simply contrary to our consensus moral vision of what America means. You don’t have to agree with the Freddie deBoer vision of morality; you only have to agree with the American conceptions of democracy, self-government and the right to be left alone.
Weighed against this, the supporters of imperial power have only the broad and long but infinitely thin shield of hypothetical threat, the vague and purposefully shifty idea that, without the constant projection of American power, the world will collapse into chaos and darkness. It’s the monster-under-the-bed of American foreign policy, and the constant crutch of hawks everywhere, imagined-because-imaginary calamities that are weighed every day against the lives and deaths of non-hypothetical people.