Armchair warriors thumping their chests

Sometimes it’s necessary to get real.

Juan Cole posted an argument in favor of the war in Libya.[1] Glenn Greenwald, relying on a principle Cole had evidently posted with regard to the war in Iraq, asked Cole if he would be willing to fight in it.[2] Cole has replied that he would.[3]

That’s an answer that sounds honorable but which falls under the “words are cheap” category. It reminds me of something I heard somewhere to the effect that there are no atheists in foxholes, a claim that under fire, even a professed atheist will pray—and pray like hell. Which undermines Greenwald’s question as well as the criterion Cole initially laid down.

Because we know that in the extremely unlikely event that the Pentagon were to ask Cole to go to Libya or to serve the war effort in any other way, Cole would not fight with the infantry. Cole would be kept safely behind the lines if he even got that close. Why? Because the infantry demands a skill set that Cole likely lacks and Cole offers other skills which the infantry can, at best, use poorly.

So Cole can safely reply yes, knowing he will not and cannot be called on it. There is no counterfactual case available with which to test his claim. So Greenwald’s question was pointless. And I assume that when Cole originally put this to Christopher Hitchins, it was equally absurd.

Worse, the question does not actually get to the merits of the moral case for or against the war in Libya. To suggest that an author advocates a war that (s)he might not personally be willing to fight is a charge of hypocrisy. To suggest that the author might not be willing to fight that war is to charge cowardice. Such a charge of hypocrisy or of cowardice is an ad hominem attack because it does not attack the argument but instead the author. I’ve previously posted my own concerns about this effort.[4] The problem for me is not this particular war but rather a pattern in which war seems to be the only available solution. And I’m still waiting for an answer.

  1. [1]Juan Cole, “An Open Letter to the Left on Libya,” Informed Comment, March 27, 2011,
  2. [2]Glenn Greenwald, “Question for Juan Cole,” Salon, March 30, 2011,
  3. [3]Juan Cole, “Answer to Glenn Greenwald,” Informed Comment, March 30, 2011,
  4. [4]David Benfell, “An eye for an eye in Libya,”, February 21, 2011,

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