Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Against humane wars

The Great Diva Ann nails here one of the great paradoxes of war and international relations that escape the moral-minded -- that it's sometimes cruel to be kind.
If you want a shorter rebuilding process, then we're going to have to wage less humane wars. The enemy -- as well as innocent civilians -- must be bombed into quivering terror. Otherwise, we displace aggression but don't destroy it.

Americans are weaker for having seen that kind of carnage in World War II. ... If we're going to have humane wars, they are going to take a little bit longer. That wouldn't be so bad, except that it gives fifth columnists more time to demoralize Americans and convince them that we are losing a war in the paramount struggle of our time.
And in one of the columns two or three best laugh lines, Ann wrote:
Also this week, we celebrate a fast-track to freedom that doesn't require 40 years in the desert, but as I recall, the suggestion that we convert Muslims to Christianity was shot down early on in this war.
If you're going to insist on fighting low-casualty wars, you will actually have long drawn-out quagmires and high-casualty wars because conclusive and unquestioned victory become difficult. This paradox, one might call it the "less-blood = less-blood fallacy," is of course self-evident nonsense if one thinks as natural-law idealists do (with their implicit teleological models of movement, objective justice and universal good). They believe in some natural relationship between one side's bad things and the other's (this is nonsense in a world of conflict and value plurality). They also believe that stigmatizing something as immoral, even successfully, means one won't do it. But the world of conflict (which is not the world of cooperation and the surest sign of a fool is his not distinguishing the two) is almost the opposite -- saying "we'll never do X" is the surest way of finding yourself forced to do X, because you give an enemy determined to defeat you an overwhelming incentive to push you toward that Hobson's choice -- "defeat or X."

There is plenty of historical precedent to make nonsense of the notion that wartime kindness makes things better. After all, which World War and subsequent peace was harsher on Germany? No question about that. In World War 2, Germany was bombed into oblivion and completely overrun, civilians were killed by the millions, the country was divided de-facto-in-perpetuity (which turned out to be 45 years), Germans throughout Eastern Europe were ethnically cleansed and dumped into (mostly) West Germany, and the political culture was totally reoriented (in two different directions in its East and West, no less) by the occupying conquerors who themselves had a falling out and planned Germany as the site for the next war.

But which peace proved more durable? The peace of 1919 or of 1945? If you look at the world through rational moralistic lenses based on the objective details beforehand, you will of course give the wrong answer.

Versailles was at one and the same time too harsh and not harsh enough (another paradox that escapes as "a contradiction" those who think foreign policy is about applying the "golden rule" or natural-law moral categories). Versailles was a national humiliation that angered Germany without rendering it harmless. Especially humiliating was the "war-guilt" clauses by the very moral-minded and highly religioise Woodrow Wilson. Though here again, whatever might be said about that, it hardly compared culturally to the post-WW2 shaming. Which is the more-potent symbol of evil in the world today -- the Prussian Eagle or the swastika? Verdun or Auschwitz?

If cruelty or brutality produced bad results like some law of human behavior (and quoting an epigrammatic Chesterton assertion doesn't impress me), then World War I would have produced the more durable peace. But it didn't. That's why there even WAS a "World War Two." So start at the drawing board. Without moralistic preconceptions.

If you're not prepared to do some bad shit at the start, you may find yourself forced to do worse shit later. Or leave the field to those who will do really worse shit later still (this was the reason I have never taken seriously the "ius in bello" complaints about the Iraq war -- well, that and the utterly ahistorical perspective they inevitably melted into). I'm not sure anything short of genocide would reliably pacify Iraq now. And I'm equally confident both that America will not do that and that Iraq is not short of people who will if the US should leave.

As always, Machiavelli said it best, in The Prince, Ch. 17:
Coming now to the other qualities mentioned above, I say that every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel. Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency. Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; notwithstanding, his cruelty reconciled the Romagna, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty. And if this be rightly considered, he will be seen to have been much more merciful than the Florentine people, who, to avoid a reputation for cruelty, permitted Pistoia to be destroyed.* Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.

* During the rioting between the Cancellieri and Panciatichi factions in 1502 and 1503.
A future Machiavelli could write the Iraq War epitaph as "the Americans who, to avoid a reputation for cruelty,¹ permitted Iraq to be destroyed ... by allowing disorders to arise through too much mercy ... that were wont to injure the whole Iraqi people."

Indeed, the one part of the liberal critique of the war that is accurate is essentially this ... that the US went in with too few troops to establish ourselves as boss and guarantee beyond question a secure post-war environment.² Americans don't instinctively understand another fact about war that is counterintuitive -- the point of war is to break the other guy's will to resist and so it isn't over when they winner claims victory (much less according to some rationalistic standard) but when the loser acknowledges defeat. We can conquer Baghdad and rout an organized army, but that doesn't count unless it wins cultural acquiescence, and a quick relatively bloodless rout by a small-but-vastly-superior force won't achieve that. To use a sports analogy, the Rumsfeld-"transformed" American Army fought as if it were high-school wrestling and first-to-score-a-pin wins (and it is unbeatable on that particular mat). But war, or at least a war with an essentially pre-modern honor culture, is really more like ancient Greek pankration where you fight to break the other's will and force him into the dishonor of surrender.
-------------------------------------------
¹ Unsuccessfully, BTW, though not for objective reasons. As Torq notes below with the "But you lynch Negroes" bit of history (which I always knew but didn't realize had now entered East European languages in irony) -- the charge of "America has sinned and so is unworthy to [whatever]" will be said by those anti-Americans determined to say it -- the Guardian, the New York Times, Iran, Mark Shea, etc. -- regardless of what we actually do. Even if the US acts the Blessed Virgin Mary herself until the end of time, "but you lynched Negroes" will still be true. And spare the "cry me a river" act about Abu Ghraib or Maher Arar. By world-historical comparative standards of war brutality, the US in Iraq doesn't even register. Fallujah still exists; Carthage does not; Hama does not; Lidice does not; Thebes does not.
² Not that squeamish "peace and love" liberals would have actually done what would have been needed, mind you. They get the vapors over four hippies at Kent State. Putting down Sunni rioters? Tis to laugh.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

JOSEPH D'HIPPOLITO SAYS...

Victor, your post also exposes the limitations of the debate over "just war" theology in this era. First, many of the people who effectively oppose all war because of "just war" theology are those who have been infected with utopian, sentimentalist ideas about multiculturalism and moral equvalence. Second, many such people also have naive delusions about human nature. Third, many such people have no concept of history beyond last week.

Few in the Church will admit that the late pope had his own geopolitical and ecumenical agenda that governed his thinking about Islam and the Middle East, let alone about Iraq. Few in the Church will admit that the Vatican itself is confused about Islam, and really doesn't know how to respond. That goes for the Curia, the lesser bureaucrats and diplomatic corps all the way to Benedict himself (Seen any Regensburg-like comments, lately?)

Anybody who doesn't believe what I wrote can check out the following:

Regarding the late pope's agenda:

http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/dettaglio.jsp?id=6973&eng=y

Regarding the Vatican's confusion over Islam:

http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=25409

http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=15865

Anonymous said...

JOSEPH D'HIPPOLITO ADDS....

As a result, any discussion about applying Catholic "just war" theology to a specific conflict (especially in this asymmetrical war against Islamic terror) will be dominated by parties with various agendas who hope to use such theology as a smokescreen for those agendas. The late pope certainly was effective in doing that, unfortunately.

Donald R. McClarey said...

"There is plenty of historical precedent to make nonsense of the notion that wartime kindness makes things better."

There are historical arguments on both sides.

The Coalition powers after the Napoleonic wars at the Congress of Vienna gave France a fairly soft peace in 1815 which proved very durable. Our own Civil War ended in the total destruction of the Confederacy and our nation saw the end of domestic warfare. Rome destroyed Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War, and went on to found a vast empire. The English and the Dutch in the mid Seventeenth Century fought a series of naval wars which were resolved in moderate peace terms which have lasted for centuries.

Sometimes generosity to a defeated enemy is a wise policy, sometimes it is not. There are too many other factors that enter into the equation for a general rule to be enunciated. One thing however is certain. Once a nation is in a war, if it does not win it, the nature of the following peace will be up to its adversary and not to it.

Stephen J. said...

I think we should also be very, very wary of the argument "If we don't do Bad Thing X now, we may have to do Worse Thing X later."

For starters, it's never a verifiable thesis except in hindsight, and it's also an inherent appeal to consequentialism, situational ethics and relativism - the idea that some things are just Not Done no matter *what* the consequences, a principle which by Catholic thought *does* have a place both in international and interpersonal relations, can be too easily lost as a result.

Remember Screwtape: "We want a patient so haunted by memories of a terrible past, or tormented by visions of a ghastly future, that he will happily commit atrocities in the present if he can be convinced that by so doing he will somehow make amends for the one or prevent the other."

Marc Lewandowski said...

Stephen, I'm not entirely sure that's what Victor was getting at. His point seemed to be more that if the enemy knows you won't follow a certain path (X) to victory, they will focus their resources to ensure that every path but X is blocked.

Secondly, the whole point of this blog is to probe (esp. contra certain other parties intolerant of said discussion) the extent of what methods of war constitute perfidy/atrocity, especially in light of the entire scope of Church T/tradition and teaching. So, your second graf would seem to appeal to the results of open questions as though they were closed.

I'm not sure how the Lewis quotation applies to geopolitical concerns.

Finally, all this would seem a distraction from the central point of this post, which is not "should we commit atrocity/perfidy so as to end this war" but the extent to which it is wise to pull punches and attempt to wage war "humanely".

Donald, it would be interesting to compare salient features of the present conflict with those past, to better determine the answer. From a cursory glance of your list, it would seem that the "ease" of a durable peace is directly proportional to the extent to which the parties share Western culture. Any exceptions?

Donald R. McClarey said...

"From a cursory glance of your list, it would seem that the "ease" of a durable peace is directly proportional to the extent to which the parties share Western culture. Any exceptions?"

The Maori and the English settlers in New Zealand got along pretty well after fighting several wars in the Nineteenth Century. In general I do think that extreme cultural differences between warring groups make any peace short of conquest more difficult to achieve.

doubting thomas said...

Perhaps also the nature of the opponents varied philosphies. For example, the Christian west sees war as a means to restore the traquility of order. Within this tradition, war must be conducted within moral boundaries.

The fundamentalist Islamic world sees war as a means endorsed by revelation to ensure the spread of this given revelation. Within this framework, as Allah is necessarily capricious in his acts and judgements, anything will do in pursuing war.

Anonymous said...

JOSEPH D'HIPPOLITO SAYS...

Military and political strategy against an enemy ultimately depends on the nature of that enemy and its goals. That's not "consequentialism," that's fact. As far as "situational ethics" is concerned, remember that all ethics is situational by its very nature. Scripture actually justifies this approach. While Exodus 20 ennumerates the Ten Commandments, Exodus 21-23 outline how those commandments are to be applied situationally, especially if commandments seem to conflict.

In discussing the war on Islamic terror, we must never lose sight of our enemy's philosophy and goals, as doubting thomas so rightly pointed out.

Discussions of "consequentialism" invariably become the kind of esoteric philosophizing that all too often characterizes Catholic discussion of serious issues. Moreover, criticisms of "consequentialism" often ignore the legitimate, divine mandate for the party that has been attacked to protect its own innocent, which is the fundamental role of any government.

Not for nothing did Jesus say, "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword." Many oppressive, brutal governments (such as Nazi Germany) are examples of that dictum.

Stephen J. said...

Stephen, I'm not entirely sure that's what Victor was getting at. His point seemed to be more that if the enemy knows you won't follow a certain path (X) to victory, they will focus their resources to ensure that every path but X is blocked.

Absolutely. And if they succeed, this may force combatants into the dilemma we seek to avoid at all costs, where one can survive only at the price of utterly unconscionable actions. (There are things we are expected to die rather than do, whether on a personal or national basis.)

My point is that once you are forced into that dilemma you are lost whether you survive or not. The war has to be won on the basis of not getting pushed to the point of unacceptable alternatives, not in claiming that under duress the unacceptable becomes acceptable.

Secondly, the whole point of this blog is to probe (esp. contra certain other parties intolerant of said discussion) the extent of what methods of war constitute perfidy/atrocity, especially in light of the entire scope of Church T/tradition and teaching. So, your second graf would seem to appeal to the results of open questions as though they were closed.

I would say rather that we make a mistake in presuming that because we treat some questions as still open, we can argue as if their answers had all been settled in favour of our position. We may disagree on which courses of action are acceptable, but there must remain some presumption that at least some actions are unacceptable by definition -- a presumption that is very easy to forget when arguing from the consequentialist viewpoint.

I'm not sure how the Lewis quotation applies to geopolitical concerns.

Put simply, I think it's just as easy for states as for individuals to fall victim to the trap of saying, "We will deliberately choose Lesser Evil A because we think it's the only way to prevent Greater Evil B." This may be a choice of necessity or dilemma; I think it's dangerous to try to make it a choice of standard policy, because it (a) leads to consequentialism, as above, and (b) is very easy to abuse, as it involves basing one's choice on subjective perception of possible futures instead of objective verification of present realities.

Global warming advocates want to cripple the economy of the developed world and stunt the growth of the developing world purely because of imagined catastrophes for which the evidence is nothing like conclusive; it's the same thought process at play, and it seldom if ever works well as policy.

Finally, all this would seem a distraction from the central point of this post, which is not "should we commit atrocity/perfidy so as to end this war" but the extent to which it is wise to pull punches and attempt to wage war "humanely".

I'd suggest that any decision to stop pulling punches and wage "inhumane" war -- which seems an inevitable corollary to any assertion that "humane" war is more costly in the long run -- is inevitably going to lead to increased frequency and intensity of atrocity/perfidy anyway, whether it ends the war or not.

And suppose it didn't? Suppose we "took off the gloves" and only wound up making things worse? This is not an age where such things can be hidden and forgotten or swept under the rug, and this is not a fight that will be decided solely by military force. We would have lost our souls and gained nothing in return -- the perfect devil's bargain.

This, to some extent, is the problem with consequentialist thinking: You can always think of Some Much Worse Future Possibility that might reasonably happen if you don't do Some Bad Present Action, and it's very easy to get to a point of paralysis. Should we wage restrained war for fear an unrestrained war will galvanize the Islamic world against us, prolonging the struggle for decades? Should we wage an unrestrained war for fear a restrained war will drag on for years and cost more Western lives than the alternative? The truth is, we can't really know an answer to either of those, because they rely on assumptions about future events that are only partially in our control and almost always likely to surprise us.

This is part of why we are told to trust in Providence and choose our actions based on their rightness or wrongness now, not their consequences in the future: because we can never predict the future or all the outcomes of events.

Andy Nowicki said...

It's hard for me to understand how Miss Ann can speak so blithely about murder of innocent civilians-- she even calls them "innocent civilians" here (which I guess is better than calling them wogs or ragheads or some such)-- and at the same time be so adamantly against abortion, on the grounds that it is murder of the innocent. There is no consistency there.

And yes, I understnd the distinction between intentionally killing civilians in wartime and civilian deaths occuring by accident during a war. But Coulter, along with many faithful readers of this blog, seems be approving of the type of war that DOES aim to take out civilians by the thousands, if not the tens or hundreds of thousands, a la Dresden/Hiroshima, in order to defeat an evil regime. The evil of mass murder (and carpetbombing civilian centers IS mass murder--you can call it something else if you like but it is what it is) is thus justified on the premise that a greater good will ulimately prevail through this act of evil. Is such rhetoric really all that different from justifying abortion on the grounds that if the baby is killed the woman's life won't be ruined, i.e., that good will result of an evil act?