Am I a conspiracy theorist to speculate whether Israel’s strike in Syria was linked to the U.S.’s claim that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons?
I don’t know how things work—it just strikes me that agreeing to provide diplomatic shelter for a serious attack by Israel on Syria strikes a calculated middle ground between military intervention and doing nothing.
There has been a lot of outrage directed at MSNBC’s Chris Hayes’ discomfort with using the word “hero” on Memorial Day. There is nothing I can write on this that hasn’t been written long ago by more talented writers than myself who experienced war first hand. Here are a pair of poems from the first world war:
Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen, 1917
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Suicide in the Trenches
by Siegfried Sassoon, 1918
I knew a simple soldier boy…
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
And no one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
- Under what circumstances should the U.S. drop missiles on people we’re reasonably sure are terrorists?
- How sure do we need to be that they’re terrorists?
- To whom should the evidence be presented?
- Does it make a shred of difference if the accused is a U.S. Citizen?
- What level of legal process is it possible to give somebody who is not in custody and doesn’t show up at court when given an opportunity to raise a defense?
- Does a killing that is acceptable on one side of a border become unacceptable on the other side?
- What is the next best alternative in a given situation?
- In what manner is a missile from a drone substantively different than any other way of killing somebody?
- How willing are we to accept foreseeable civilian casualties?
- Does the citizenship status of civilian casualties matter?
- To what degree should we hold superiors accountable for the abuses committed by underlings? Does it matter if these abuses were unforeseen? Unforeseeable?
- Once abuse is uncovered, what actions should be taken?
- In what manner should victims be compensated?
- Is there a balance between security and transparency? How do we strike it?
- Per Jonathan Cunningham “Is our answer different for unmanned drones than any other assassination tactic.” (I would phrase that last part as “method of killing people” as drone strikes aren’t inherently assassination).
War means death. If you order a BLT sandwich, don’t act surprised when it comes with bacon in it. Bacon is an integral part of a BLT. You got exactly what you ordered. Support for war is support for death. You don’t get to choose who dies. Many of the dead will be non-combatants. Some will be children.
I don’t want anything in this post to trivialize, understate, or excuse any of the horrors of war. Those we kill or fail to protect are also every bit as human and every bit as important as you and I are. Their families mourn their deaths just as our families would our mourn deaths. A lesser evil is still evil.
Nor do I intend to criticize anybody’s condemnation of those we kill. If the political cost of killing civilians is sufficiently high, perhaps we’ll try harder not to kill civilians. This has certainly worked in the past. We no longer firebomb cities. Our weapons are increasingly precise. Again, a lesser evil is still evil.
I do, however, want to explain both why I haven’t been more vocal in condemning President Obama’s continued use of drone strikes along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and why I don’t consider a strict anti-interventionist policy to be a morally superior policy.
Maybe I’m in the minority on this draft issue. Here’s a poll (click on the little box if you can’t see the poll) … let’s see where people stand:
Jeff chose World War II—which is a good choice of wars. It’s not WW I, which we’re not sure what the purpose was. It’s not Vietnam, that we now think was a bad idea. Most of us have learned that it was “the Good War.” Or, rather, that if war is ever justified, it was there.
I found this a very difficult question to answer. First, the way we’ve done the draft has never been fair or equitable. Some people could get out of it. Others couldn’t. And the people making the political decisions that led to war weren’t generally the ones on the front lines. But those are problems that could be fixed if we envisioned the best of all possible drafts for the best of all possible wars. But … that would still be a draft and still be a war.
I don’t mind the state forcing people to do things they don’t want to if it is necessary. If, for example, my town were flooding or burning, I wouldn’t be categorically opposed to conscripting labor if that was the only way we could save the town.
But war is a bit trickier. First, many war victims don’t get an option. When we bombed cities, a lot of people died who certainly hadn’t volunteered for military service. Is that so much less just than the draft? Is there anybody who would have been for bombing Dresden or Tokyo or Hiroshima but would still have opposed the draft?
Abby Jean writes:
I am really hoping that we can get into a broad conversation about what constitutes “justice” and whether killing OBL constitutes justice (for who? for what?) and if not why not
(this is a genuine non-sarcastic desire)
Since I share Abby Jean’s desire, I’ll take a first crack at the question. As I see it, there are three related questions.
- Did justice demand Osama Bin Laden’s death?
- If justice demands retribution, is the United States the correct agent to deliver that justice?
- Were just procedures employed in the killing of Osama Bin Laden?
I answer these questions, respectively, as maybe, no, and possibly and conclude that the killing of Osama Bin Laden was not justice.
The first question is a broad philosophical question that we’re not likely to get a real answer on. Is justice ever retributive? If anybody deserved to die for his crimes, Osama Bin Laden did. But the conception of justice I find most helpful (which is fundamentally a religious conception) is not retributive. Justice requires us to fulfill our obligations to others. It does not require us to harm those who do not fulfill their obligations to us. Do I think Bin Laden deserved to die? Probably. But (again, I’m a religious guy), if the wages of sin are death, we can’t go around demanding the death of everybody who deserves death for one infraction or another.
The second question is more practical. If some cosmic balance requires the death of evildoers, does it require (or permit) the United States to go around killing those evildoers? I don’t think it does. Why would it? We’re not a theocracy. We don’t claim a divine mandate. Our leaders are not annointed with oil and asked to serve as the right hand of God. We might kill people for less lofty reasons. But if justice demands death, it doesn’t give us a license to go around killing.
The answer to the final question hinges on what the purpose of the mission that killed Bin Laden was. We don’t want our government going around and killing people. Bin Laden never got a trial. Of course, under the circumstances, that wasn’t practical. Was the goal simply to kill Bin Laden? Or was the goal to capture him if possible, even if we knew that probably meant his death. If Bin Laden had surrendered, would he still have been killed? If so, then I see an error of procedural justice. If not, then I don’t have procedural problems with the mission.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that an action may be moral or just without being directly required by justice. If killing Bin Laden prevented greater harms, it may be just even if it did not, in itself, directly promote justice.
While the parallels are certainly worth discussing, there are some very significant differences.
- The Libya action includes a broad international force and a reasonable compliance with a U.N. mandate. (There will be a fair amount of discussion about whether the action remains within the bounds of that mandate—but I highly doubt that anything will happen outside the bounds of what every single member of the security council envisioned when they voted for it. They may have been careful with their wording to ensure they could distance themselves from the action later—but they knew what the game was.)
- There are no U.S. ground forces in Libya. (It’s possible that there will be some minimal number of U.S. ground forces in an advisory or logistical capacity at some point. There may even be a reasonably large international force. But it won’t exceed 1% of what we have in Iraq or Afghanistan.
- The action comes in response to a genuine popular revolution. The claim that the rebels in Libya wanted international military assistance is true this time. While the pro-Qaddafi forces certainly are larger than Qaddafi and his immediate family, they also seem to be a minority. We’ll shortly see how small a minority.
I would like to preface this post by mentioning how much I enjoy Ari Kohen’s writing on human rights. If you do not already follow his blog, I would encourage you to do so. He is writing is eloquent and informed. Even in the areas where we disagree, I have learned a lot from his perspective. When—as I am about to do—I take exception to something he has written, please read it in light of that profound respect.1 And if I drop a few f-bombs, I only do so to encourage a robust and honest dialogue.2
As I have mentioned before, I am not a very good pacifist. I’ve serious reservations about intervention in Libya—but when I hear about French fighter jets patrolling the sky above Benghazi and more planes arriving in the region from all around the world, I feel a certain deep joy. The world is pulling together to stand up against tyranny. For once, we’re using our military to do something right. This is the good war.
Except … war is never good. It may be necessary. I may be a lesser evil. But good? Don’t believe it. Ari writes an elegant defense of bombing Libya for human rights. He may be right. I might even agree with him. But the bullshit-to-candor ratio is way off—so I thought I would offer Ari’s post interspersed with some thoughts of my own. He writes:
I have to wonder: if there was ever a justification for intervention, wouldn’t it have to be the violent suppression of pro-democracy forces by an authoritarian dictator who unequivocally states that he is hell-bent on retaining power by any means necessary?
That’s a pretty broad criterion. It could justify military intervention in Iran, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Venezuela, Cuba, and possibly somewhere like China. It was already used to justify interventions in Iraq and (to a lesser extent) Afghanistan. It also could have justified a military intervention in Egypt or Tunisia prior to the resignation of the respective leaders. Of course, Libya’s the place we’re invading … because we can get away with it. It’s strategically important.3 And fuck Qaddafi.