Monday, May 28, 2012

Tortured Logic

I've often wished that people on the left like Glenn Greenwald and Conor Friedersdorf who criticize President Obama for his handling of the war against al Qaeda, would take a step more deeply into a discussion about the ethics of war. They seem to see clear lines of distinction where I see a morass of gray.

I've always preferred reading Adam Serwer's thoughts about these kinds of things. Even though I don't always agree with him, he doesn't seem to approach it all with the surety felt by those who are obviously suffering from Obama Derangement Syndrome (ODS). He recently took that step deeper into the ethics question and clearly demonstrates the problems we will inevitably find when the conversation turns to trying to link concepts like "morality" and "war."
There's a really important moral and legal distinction to be made between torture, which is always illegal and always wrong, and killing, which can occasionally be both justified and legal.
I suppose that we have to acknowledge that a statement like this is true. And yet, it begins the tortured logic of war, doesn't it? We've now established that its OK to take someone's life. The question remains, "who's life is it OK to take?" Here's how Serwer answers that one.
The laws of war exist to contain violence to combatants, who have consented to fight one another with the knowledge that doing so could lead to their deaths.
I would propose that that "law of war" was abandoned with the advent of arial bombing. At least the victims of places like Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Hanoi - not to mention Baghdad's "Shock and Awe" - would say so.

What Serwer is doing in this article though, is trying to make a moral case against what he calls "Obama's targeted killing," and so he pivots away from this particular argument of when its OK to kill  and when its not, to a comparison with President Bush's detention policies.
Bush's critics understood that the concept of membership in a terrorist group is far more nebulous than being a soldier in a uniformed military. Establishing that the individuals we're treating as terrorists are actually terrorists is therefore a moral imperative.

With targeted killing, the same issues are at play. Unlike detention, however, the results of targeted killing are irreversible. Dead is dead. And the collateral damage is considerably greater, because civilians can be killed along with the target.
I would say that it is in that pivot that Serwer lost me. As in any other war, "killing is irreversible. Dead is dead." And the fact is that in war, as I have already pointed out, there is always "collateral damage." So I think his original comparison is the apt - but troubling one.

I don't fault Serwer. He took a stab at some very difficult questions. I appreciate that and think we should all be struggling with them. But in my mind he failed.

That's why, ultimately, I've always argued that those who are troubled by these actions should do everything in their power to bring an end to this endless war.

I'd also suggest that as human beings, these gray lines of war will continue to haunt us. The only thing I can suggest in the meantime is that we elect a Commander-In-Chief who shares that struggle with us.
So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.  Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago.  "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."


  1. Typically, people for whom questions of morality are easy, are those who already know the final result they want to end up at, and simply craft their preceding discussion so as to magically end up there.

    Whether it's well-crafted or poorly crafted is of no moment - it's thoroughly dishonest in either case.

  2. So, if I've got this right, the really, really terrible thing is that people are willing to defend targetted killing, despite the irreversible killing it involves.

    So obviously we should do the alternative: sending teams of special forces in to capture suspected targets without the use of lethal force. And of course the large deployment of regular troops to back that up which is implied.

    So invasion is preferable to drone strikes? What scale is he working from?

    And as you've noted, the idea of 'consent' in war is pretty outdated, if not outright bizarre. Nobody, by definition, 'consents' to being invaded.

    Why is it so difficult to recognise the difference between 'bad' and 'less worse'? I don't like drone strikes, but given where we are it's the best option available...

    1. Its a tough argument to make - this bad or less worse - that you talk about.

      But its actually the absolutists who think there is some "good" argument that disturb if killing someone could ever actually be good or moral. It might occasionally be justified, but then up pops those questions you've identified in your alternative.

    2. This strikes me as the point. The morality of war is easy. Was is deeply immoral. Why? Because it involves killing people.

      Then, you get to the technical questions, which is where it becomes intense. We know it's immoral, but when is it the correct action and, then, how should it proceed? Moreover, how and when should it end?

      I might have liked a quicker timetable on ending the two wars, but I realize that there was going to be a timetable. OK, so be it. If we are working with what actually is, the general tack the President is taking doesn't seem too far off. It is, however, deeply immoral. He knows this. My ex used to say in admiration of him that he was willingly wading into real sewage so that he could make good decisions in that context, sacrificing his moral purity in the process. It's true, I think.

    3. Wading into the moral sewage and sacrificing his moral purity in the process - WOW. That pretty much nails it, doesn't it?

      I've had that feeling about what he's faced with Gitmo prisoners as well. Same with Wall Street and the financial mess.

      It was quite a fucking sewer he walked in to. And then along come the purity police wagging their finger at him. Fuckers!!!!

      OK, its out of my system for a while ;-)

    4. Smartypants curses! Fer fuck's sake!

  3. When do we get to stop saying GG is a member of the Left? Can't we just say he's a rightwingnutjob now?

  4. What an excellent discussion. And at the end you had the answer I came up with in my life. When I was in college I was a peaceful protester of the war in Vietnam. I didn't condemn anyone who went to war--I just wanted to make a world where war wasn't considered a solution. I'm 64 years old and I still think it's possible that our thinking can be transformed and we could have global peace, but I don't think anyone can "make" everyone else choose peace. I don't think pushing against war makes peace. It may stop that conflict, but it doesn't create the mindset that will make others choose peace.

    I really do believe Ghandi and his advice to "be the change you wish to see in the world." I don't see it as anyone else's job to create peace, it is my responsibility to create peace in myself and to offer that to the world. People like Ghandi and the Dali Lama influence just by being who they are as well as by their words and actions. And for me, President Obama does the same. I am uplifted by his words and who he is.

    There have been other times in history when man had to confront the morality of war and the means of fighting. It was considered manly and heroic to fight hand to hand. Weren't these same issues brought up when tanks and bombs began to be used? Probably happened when fighting went from swords to guns so that men wouldn't have to directly confront each other. And there has always been civilians killed during wars.

    I very much like President Obama's thoughts on war and peace. And I agree that I want the Commander in Chief to be like him, one with heart, compassion and intelligence making those decisions. As individuals it's up to us to create the world we want to live in -- however big or small our influence is with others -- it's our choice.

    1. In that second paragraph from the bottom I meant to add that even if the issues came up before or that civilians have always been killed in war -- that doesn't mean it's justified. It's important to consider what we are doing and make the best choice we can.

    2. Thanks Suzanne.

      You took me right to the words of what too many consider to be a children's song.

      let peace begin with me
      let this be the moment now
      with every step I take
      let this be my solemn vow
      to take each moment
      and live each moment
      in peace and harmony
      let there be peace on earth
      and let it begin with me