When it sounds good to believe that what you do is necessarily good.
Today’s 3D Definition: Force for Good
In April, a US congressman from Missouri, Sam Graves, framed his support for Donald Trump’s Syria policy in the following words: “It’s critical for Congress to work with the President and the Pentagon to craft a prudent and responsible path forward in Syria. And that’s why it’s so important for America to continue investing in our military, ensuring it remains the strongest and most well-equipped force for good in this world.”
Calling the US military a “force for good” partakes of a long tradition. It is based on the dogma that, being an enlightened democracy, the US only intervenes in foreign wars for the sake of the local people, who are believed to aspire to American-style democracy. From 2009 to 2015, the US Navy used “a Global Force for Good” as the tagline in its advertising.
At the same time, the Dalai Lama has adopted the brand “Force for Good” for his own mission, which excludes any form of military logic.
This useful, high impact expression — a force for good — thus proves to be very flexible and adaptable to different ideological positions.
Here is its 3D definition:
Force for good:
1. International: “action inspired by a genuine concern with others” (Dalai Lama)
2. North American: overwhelming military power exercised by a dominant and self-righteous nation across the globe with impunity, thanks to the absence of any equivalent military force to oppose it
3. British: The effort of aid and assistance to war veterans
The context, nationality and the identity of the speaker determine whether “good” means kindness or means of destruction. The British branding of the expression demonstrates the English talent for combining opposites, arbitrarily erasing the contradictions and enshrining them as a respectable tradition.
Woodrow Wilson coined the phrase “make the world safe for democracy” in his appeal to Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. It became a slogan characterizing US foreign policy in the aftermath of World War I. Here is how Wilson framed his intentions: “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind.”
Few historians have ever bothered to notice the very real linguistic ambiguity in Wilson’s slogan. The late president clearly expresses a vision of US military action as a “force for good,” with no hidden agenda. But the phrase “make the world safe for democracy” suggests two possible interpretations. It can mean:
1. to ensure that other nations have the means to become democratic (make the world safe for democracy to emerge from the people)
2. to ensure that a particular democracy known as the United States of America has safe and unlimited access to the entire world, the freedom to intervene in any region for whatever reason, usually euphemized as “national interest”
Many contend that the second meaning more accurately describes US foreign policy since Wilson, or indeed since President William McKinley, who presided over the Spanish-American War and the annexation of Hawaii.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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