The Magazine

No More Vietnams

This time, let's finish the job.

May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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All these lies are present symbolically in the Vietnam wall near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Many other memorials, in Europe especially, have commemorated fallen soldiers by listing every name. The soaring (yet knotted-up, anguished) Thiepval Memorial Arch at the Somme, by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1924), is the most extraordinary and celebrated instance of the list-every-name school of memorial design. Our own wall is different, for one, insofar as it stands in a scraped-out hole in the ground; a symbolic open grave. Some day we will tear down that wall and fill up the open grave, and rebuild the wall above ground and re-engrave every name, and add two more words at the end. Two words the designer did not see fit to include. Thank you. On that day we will finally have gotten over Vietnam.

IN THE ARGUMENT OVER IRAQ we can see reflected (like ominous headlights in a rearview mirror) one of the central disputes of modern times--between a traditional "morality of duties" and a modern "morality of rights." Philosophers like to argue that these two worldviews are complementary. In fact they are contradictory. Each of these two worldviews yields an all-inclusive blueprint for society, with no room for further contributions.

Granted, it's convenient to speak of one's "duty" to help the poor and one's "right" of self-defense. No contradiction there. But think it over and you will see that, by laying out everyone's duties explicitly, you lay out everyone's rights implicitly; and vice versa. You have a right to self-defense--or, to put it differently, a duty to use no violence except (among other cases) in self-defense. Both formulas reach the same destination by different routes. By means of the "morality of duty," you shape society the way a sculptor carves stone; by the "morality of rights," you shape it the way a sculptor models clay. Two different, contradictory techniques.

The morality of duties originated in Judeo-Christianity, the morality of rights in Roman jurisprudence. The Hebrew tradition knows about rights--but only in the context of covenants, where two parties each acquire rights and responsibilities simultaneously. America's Founders and Framers spoke of rights, but might well have had this Judeo-Christian idea in mind.

But the modern preference for rights over duties has nothing to do with religion or covenants. And your choice between these two worldviews is important. Morality deals, after all, with how to conduct yourself--whereas a right ordinarily confers an advantageous position, to put it formally; having a right means that your will is favored over someone else's. It's therefore conceivable that the morality of duties is the one and only kind of morality; that a morality of rights is a contradiction in terms. It's conceivable that a "morality of rights" actually rejects morality in favor of some other way to organize society--I'll call it "rights-liberalism." Rights-liberalism might be better than traditional Judeo-Christian morality, or worse, or neither, but in any case I believe it is not morality. In fact, proponents of rights-liberalism seem to believe (though they rarely say so point blank) that it is the next step beyond morality.

Even if you don't care about religion, you might still choose the morality of duty, with its focus on an individual's obligations, over rights-liberalism--which focuses not on your duty but on what is coming to you. Many Republicans and conservatives do prefer to discuss duties; many Democrats and liberals would rather talk about rights.

Now when you assign someone a duty, he is responsible for carrying it out; when you assign him a right, someone else is responsible for guaranteeing it. Rights-liberalism is a worldview that centers on "make way for me"--and some find it unattractive for just this reason. "Ask not what your country can do for you," said JFK, "ask what you can do for your country." In other words: Don't ask for rights, dammit; ask for duties. Nowadays Kennedy's most famous line is dismissed as a routine call for good citizenship. But there is more to it than that. The statement was taken up with amazing enthusiasm. Every schoolchild knew it. The enthusiasm was partly because the line is catchy; it might also have reflected a deep-lying sympathy over the rising call for civil rights. But it's also true that America in 1961 was just on the point of seeing traditional morality swamped by rights-liberalism. People felt what was happening. No doubt some felt, too, that Kennedy was sticking up for an older, better worldview that was on its way out.

We find this same deep disagreement over Iraq. Should we talk about America's duty to protect itself, and do its best to protect other, weaker peoples? Or should we talk about Saddam Hussein's right to develop weapons so long as they aren't "weapons of mass destruction," and the Iraqi people's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The problem with the second formulation is that it blacks out whenever we reach the hard questions. Who will police the rights of Iraq, and guarantee the rights of Iraqis? The usual answer is the U.N. or some other multinational concoction. In other words: nobody. Sometimes we do leave things largely to the U.N. The Security Council has just voted to freeze the assets of four prominent Sudanese: the first punitive measures ever against instigators of violence in the Darfur region--which so far has killed hundreds of thousands.

When conservatives repossess the motto "No more Vietnams," it will be a perfect occasion to address one of the most important questions of our time. Is American policy based on rights or on duties? Is America in Iraq because of our duties or their rights? If "their rights" is the answer, liberals are correct: We have stuck our necks out unnecessarily; we could just as easily have let someone else worry about it, the way France and Germany did. If the answer is "our duties," we had no choice. We had an obligation to take charge of our own safety in a world that is lousy with terrorists, and we had to face up to our obligations as the world's strongest nation. And obviously we have duties in nations besides Iraq also. America doesn't have the power to help everybody--which is no excuse for helping nobody.

American character is on the line. For the sake of this nation--of its good name, its big heart, the sacrifices of its many brave defenders, the genius of its creators--of its greatness, in short--conservatives had better not lose this fight.

The administration was wrong to let Americans get the idea that Iraq would be easy. But it was right to fight. And because Iraq is exactly Vietnam all over again, our eventual victory won't only be good for Iraq, the Middle East, and peace on earth. It will repair American self-respect. And it will turn the Friends of Cowardice, the U.S. Mothers for Despair, and all their allied groups back into the peripheral players they always used to be in this country--until Vietnam.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.