With news that Iraq is being ground up in the ISIS time machine, with a time-target of the 7th century, the usual partisan finger-pointing is beginning. The DemProgs blame Bush for getting us there in the first place (conveniently ignoring their own rhetoric and votes), while Republicans blame Obama, pointing out that he not only pursued a course of conduct he was warned would create a power vacuum in Iraq, but that he’s been in office for five-and-a-half years now, so he pretty much owns what’s happened in Iraq recently. All of these arguments have some merit, whether primitive or sophisticated.
However, the fact that arguments have merit doesn’t mean that anyone should be making them. James Taranto, in today’s BOTW, says that the real voice of reason is coming from Stephen Carter, who has an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune (which is behind a pay wall). Taranto quotes the pertinent part of Carter’s analysis:
It isn’t that figuring out who’s to blame doesn’t matter; it’s that blaming shouldn’t be our first instinct. We have difficulty, in these polarized times, distinguishing two questions: (1) How do we respond to this crisis? (2) How did we get here in the first place? The answers almost certainly overlap, but in the short run, deciding how to respond is more important than deciding on fault–and our partisan efforts to apportion fault often obscure our frantic efforts to choose a course of action.
Especially because, in a true crisis, apportioning fault is hard.
How hard? Consider: The Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor occurred Dec. 7, 1941. The historian Roberta Wohlstetter’s authoritative study on what went wrong that day was published in 1962–more than two decades later. In the intervening years, the U.S. managed to fight and win a huge war and rebuild its armed forces almost from scratch–all without knowing for sure whose fault the whole thing was.
The words are Carter’s own, but the principle sounded remarkably familiar to me. I finally tracked it down in Winston Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech, which he delivered to the House of Commons on June 18, 1940, almost exactly seventy-four years ago today. Churchill made the speech in response to the fall of France and the evacuation at Dunkirk. The latter, of course, while a military debacle, was also an important propaganda victory for the British.
Churchill opened his speech by reciting in blunt terms the various disasters that had overtaken the allies in June. He then went on to make a point that should resonate as strongly today as it did seventy-four years ago:
I am not reciting these facts for the purpose of recrimination. That I judge to be utterly futile and even harmful. We cannot afford it. I recite them in order to explain why it was we did not have, as we could have had, between twelve and fourteen British divisions fighting in the line in this great battle instead of only three. Now I put all this aside. I put it on the shelf, from which the historians, when they have time, will select their documents to tell their stories. We have to think of the future and not of the past. This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments-and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too-during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.
Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future. (Emphasis added.)
The entire piece is a rhetorical masterpiece. Whether one agrees with Churchill’s decision-making during the war (many feel that more men died on his watch than would have happened with a less pugnacious, dramatic leader) there is no doubt that this was the kind of stirring speech that girded a nation’s loins for the long battle ahead. Explicitly casting off recriminations, he went on to describe in detail Britain’s strengths and, at even greater length, its weaknesses, only to pull back at the end and remind his listeners that a war is only over when the final battle is fought and that the British had the moral and physical courage to see a terrible war through to a victorious end.