Saturday, February 05, 2005

Target Practice: On Moral Responsibilities in War

I have never served in the military, nor would I want to. By temperament and ability, I would be quite unsuited to the task, even in my younger days. I am not particularly combative or competitive. And I fancy myself to be something of an iconoclast.

Also, they wouldn’t have to ask, I’d tell.

Yet I find myself in the curious position of a peacenik who’s glad that there are other people who are willing to be in the military. I wish armies would be wholly unnecessary. But they are not. I wish that no military would ever be used for non-defensive purposes. But that is naïve. There are aggressor nations who will attack without provocation. Only recently the nation with the world’s largest military attacked another nation based on trumped up claims of imminent threat that proved to be entirely baseless.

In addition to defensive purposes, I also support the use of the military for humanitarian assistance – such as was recently provided to the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. It may not be their primary purpose, but they possess both equipment and training well suited to the task.

I also support humanitarian intervention to put a halt to genocide, under the auspices of an international body. The United Nations may have shown themselves to be practically useless in this regard, but we’ve seen what can happen when one nation – and the coalition of the convenient – takes it upon itself to cloak its aggression in noble intentions. The real world political difficulties, which I concede do need to be addressed, do not change the desirability of multinational humanitarian intervention. For now, my purpose is simply to establish a legitimate purpose for, or at least a regrettable necessity of, a national military.

I may not be comfortable with guns and the people they attract, but these are necessary pre-conditions for having a military. Additional prerequisites include training people to kill, loosening their emotional and moral inhibitions to do so, training people to follow orders without questioning or challenging each one.

This is not without its dangers. Enter Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who commanded Marine expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an appearance before an audience of military personnel and defense contractors in San Diego, he quipped:

Actually it's quite fun to fight them, you know. It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up there with you. I like brawling. You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.

At the time, the comments elicited laughter from military personnel in the room. The shock and indignation that this prompted outside the US and among some Americans brought forth this response from the military.

While I understand that some people may take issue with the comments made by him, I also know he intended to reflect the unfortunate and harsh realities of war. Lt. Gen. Mattis often speaks with a great deal of candor. He should have chosen his words more carefully.

The American media’s take on the story that this was an unfortunate choice of words, but not much more; and more severe reactions, such as those by the Interfaith Alliance, which said, “General Mattis desecrated the honor of military professionals who are asked to protect us by his unprofessional glorification of killing in battle,” both rather miss the point.

Gen. Mattis may not be representative of the whole military, but he is surely not unique. The military attracts people for a variety of reasons. Most enlistees simply want a job and benefits. Some do it out of idealism. Some to fulfill familial or community expectations. Some carry with them the unexamined cultural baggage of misogyny and unreconstructed ideas about what it means to be a “man”. I won’t pretend to know what is inside the mind of Gen. Mattis, but his comment clearly comes right out of a patriarchal worldview of a hierarchy of men whose obligation it is to protect “their” women and to enforce among themselves, with violence if necessary, the code of manhood. The men who became target practice for Gen. Mattis are, in his eyes, fair game not because they are Muslim or Afghani, but because they failed Gen. Mattis’ test of manhood.

There are some real difficulties here. As good liberals, we want to be thankful for the willingness of these men and women to defend their nation, our nation, but this willingness has a likelihood of coming from a set of attitudes fundamentally at odds with good liberalism. The fact is there is not a bright line between the set of attitudes necessary to function in the military, even in the best and most justified of causes, and the attitudes expressed by Gen. Mattis.

I am not offering this as an excuse for these remarks or their underlying attitudes and the actions likely to come of them. But neither scapegoating Gen. Mattis nor dismissing the matter deals with the fundamental incongruity of the essential violence of an effectively functioning military and the goal of peace. On the one hand, attitudes such as those expressed in his statement lend themselves to atrocities and acts of cruelty completely at odds with the security of the nation or any legitimate function of the military. Witness Abu Ghraib. On the other hand, it seems a bit unfair, or at least unrealistic, to send young, and often less educated, men and women into harms way, expecting them to be willing to kill people they do not even know, expecting them to suspend their critical facilities sufficiently enough to be able to follow orders and then to hold them solely and individually accountable if they slide just a bit too far down the slippery slope we placed them on.

This is the problem.

Let’s step back first and start with the fact that the decision to enlist is not the decision to go to war. Whatever the motivations of enlistees, they make an agreement with the rest of us. They agree, if necessary, to put their lives on the line to defend our country. In return, we are obligated to provide the pay and benefits agreed to on the front end. But more importantly, in exchange for the soldier’s consent to fight where he or she is told to, regardless of their personal opinions, we agree that we will only send them to fight when it is absolutely necessary.

That is to say that we, the non-military public, have a specific and important responsibility towards those in uniform. By asking them to suspend, to any degree, their individual moral judgments, we must agree to take upon ourselves that moral responsibility. Gen. Mattis’ crimes are our crimes. This is the reason for civilian control of the military. It is not so that the President can become a virtual military ruler. It is so that we the citizens, through our elected officials, we can ensure that we never call upon our military to enter into an unjust action. It is so that there is a control over the abuses that can arise from the unchecked exercise of military might.

We, the American public as a whole, failed in our responsibility. We have sent our young women and men to fight and die when no immediate threat to our security existed.

I realize that many people use the “Support the Troops” signs that adorn yards and car bumpers mostly to mean, “Support the War, because to criticize the goals of the war is say that the troops are doing a bad thing.” This makes the mistake of conflating the duties of soldiers with the duties of the citizenry. It is not the duty of soldiers to judge the moral necessity of military action. It is the duty of the American public and our elected officials. We failed in the task leading up to the invasion and failed again to hold those officials accountable this last election.

Let's make a finer distinction. There is a difference between the reasons behind a military action generally, for which I do not hold soldiers accountable (other than as individual citizens, and no more than that), and specific actions by military personnel on the ground, for which they are accountable, even though the fact of war greatly complicates ethical considerations. For the soldier, to fight in an unjust war, is not morally wrong. By the fact of having a military, we, the citizens, agree to shoulder that moral responsibility. It is a necessary precondition to having an army. This does not give blanket moral authority to an individual soldier to whatever they want or even whatever they are ordered to do in the name of fighting that war. Abu Ghraib could not have happened without invading Iraq, but we could have invaded Iraq without the abuses of Abu Ghraib.

There is a fundamental difference between being held accountable for individual action and for the war itself. The latter is rather straightfoward. In a democracy the citizens bear the ultimate responsibility for the actions of their elected representatives. The last election may not have been a moral vindication of Bush, but it was a moral indictment of the US electorate. The former is anything but straightforward. One the hand, a willingness to obey orders and not to query the moral necessity of every action is a fundamental prerequisite of having an army at all. No military can function if soldiers bore the full responsibility for every action they take, and therefore were entitled to accept or reject any order based on their personal moral code. On the other hand, being a soldier at war is not a moral blank check, with or without orders.

The case of the abuses at Abu Ghraib is illustrative of the difficulties and complexities in this issue. Morally (and legally) any soldier should be allowed and expected to say "No, I won't" when ordered to torture or abuse a prisoner of war. However, placing the onus of moral responsibility solely on the soldier's shoulders leads to the kind of scapegoating we saw in this case. The military, the defense department, the president and that nation disavowed responsibility and blamed the soldiers. It is this very disavowal and scapegoating that enables these sorts of abuses to occur in the first place - and to continue. (Did someone say "Guantanamo"?)

I would draw a distinction in which the "ordinary" conduct of war, even an unjust and illegal war, becomes the responsibility of the nation on whose behalf the war is being waged. While specific actions of moral turpitude, unnecessary for the conduct of the war, becomes the individual's responsibility.

In practice, this is clearly complicated and messy. And yet even this formulation is too simple. In Abu Ghraib, the individual's responsibility is attenuated by circumstances and the fact that they are only human. IMHO, it is the people who are most certain that they would never allow circumstances to compel immoral acts that are the most vulnerable.

Ultimately, the kinds of controls necessary to prevent an Abu Ghraib or Mai Lai massacre must come from the top down and must originate from without. Starting with us, we must take seriously our moral responsibilities in matters of war. It is our responsibility to ensure that the military culture is permeated with the values and ethics we profess to have.

At this, we have failed. There was clear evidence from Afghanistan and Guantanamo that our military had been engaging in abusive treatment of prisoners being held for the flimsiest of reasons, before the abuses in Abu Ghraib ever occurred. Yet this went virtually unreported. The American public was not, by and large, interested in these abuses. Had pictures of the torture at Abu Ghraib not emerged, it is likely that most Americans would not know or be much upset about them. Only those bleeding-hearted, America-hating liberals would be critical of these actions, while Rumsfeld, Cheney et al would continue to dismiss such criticisms as mollycoddling terrorists. The fact is what happened at Abu Ghraib is a direct reflection of the will of the American people, who in the wake of 9-11 have become downright hostile to concerns over international law, human rights and due process. Bush couldn’t get away with his imperial presidency, he wouldn’t even try, if we didn’t let him.

The question then of what to do with Gen. Mattis and Lyndie England and Charles Graner is complicated by the conflict between the desire to hold individuals accountable for their individual actions and realizing that the context of these actions are anything but ordinary. Furthermore we share moral responsibility in a fundamental way. It is what we agreed to when we asked them to be willing to fight for us. Clearly we can know that we are on the wrong track when the individuals are punished while the military that instructed them and the society and government that controls the military are held blameless.

The only answer for the individuals is to judge their responsibility in a fair and impartial proceeding which takes into account both the effects and context of the actions. As for us, we are self-policing. And so far there appears to be no limits to our willingness to pardon ourselves.

The consequence is plain to see. When we abdicate our moral responsibilities in matters of war and indulge our fears, people die, people are tortured, the soul of our nation begins to wither and it becomes just a little easier to turn on one another and turn our backs on those in need.

Gen. Mattis’ crime wasn’t that he spoke his mind, or revealed the dark underbelly of the US military, although these are both certainly true. His crime was giving voice to the secret bloodlust of the American people.

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At 3:31 AM, Blogger jennifer said...

I have served in the military. Blame economics and advertising for that primarily. I suppose I am an odd soul though in that I am openly bisexual and very much a leftist and the military 'service' did not change that. So...I just want to say this post in particular impressed the hell out of me and this blog is great.
I find the words "Moral responsibilities in war" oddly vacant in the new war lexicon. I know many on the left decry Chomsky (either they love him or they hate him) but I find what he has said about war, war crimes and imperialism rather dead on...unfortunately, in the most literal sense of the terms. I think that the "morality" evident in the quotes you include here from those currently serving are mere echoes of the policies themselves. A great example of this is when people love to say that if America hadn't intervened in WWII, Europe would be speaking German. That is such crap but people BELIEVE IT. And that is unbelievable. I recently had a classmate question my "credibility" and "intelligence" because I talked about the fact that Ho Chi Minh had appealed to America again and again for help in the promised gospel of "Self-determination" AND "Democracy." He angrily attacked me for watching "too much CNN" and not knowing that the Vietcong really attacked the "freedom loving and democratic" South Vietnam. It is so amazingly difficult and unpopular to try and challenge such myopia and so, in short, I whole heartedly applaud the efforts of your blog and thank you for maintaining it.
If I had the time or the inclination to learn how to link to other blogs I would certainly link this one.

At 5:16 AM, Anonymous zaz said...

1) Nosing through your blogs, I say, "too perfect, too deep, too on-point", JimG is pseudonym for Gore Vidal, yes? Hmm, Mr.V. wouldn't say he didn't serve I'd guess ...other Vanity Fair personnel? ...can't spare the time to compare styles, the communist in me applauds heartily these gifts to the blogosphere.

2) In any case, this item presents an opportunity to add another view of one whose been inside that beast. I want war even less than you sir, but I commend the General for his comment. This is more than just what free speech is for, it is crucial to the human future. If we are to survive as a race with exponentially increasing power (the real power of physics and biotech) we have to come to grips with our animal nature. Those who oppose war must not ignore the powerful addiction they are up against; violence is an incredible rush for the perpetrator. Like any addict the soldier will leap at any and all rationalizations that defend their actions. To be sure, like me in me youth, many of the folks in the military machine are there because they desperately needed a job, but the core of the career soldiers (and the increasingly utilized mercenaries) are really there for the kicks. I share George Carlin's aversion to euphemism and doublespeak, all the more banality to camoflage the evil in that "Thrill of Victory." The likes of Smedley Butler or Ike Eisenhower are few and far between, far more of these guys are bigoted animals hoping to get away with rape and murder while wearing costumes and proclaiming a higher calling. "Follow the money trail" some say, but absent that, "Look for the Buzz."

3) Like the pilots of aircraft, the leaders are supposed to take complete responsibility for everything that happens in their command, that they passed blame down to those enlisted goofs indicates that whatever honor or integrity may have existed in this institution before ... is greatly diminished now.


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