Saturday, March 12, 2005


Burke on Wolfowitz and war

Timothy Burke has a moving essay up at Easily Distracted, which is appropriately sober in light of the newest revelations of prison abuse by soldiers in Afghanistan. Burke ends his essay with these impassioned paragraphs:
If there is anyone who ought to be deeply, gravely concerned about unwarranted shootings at checkpoints, accidental deaths of civilians, torture in US prisons, killings of surrendered prisoners, it’s the advocates of the war, at least the ones who believe in the Wolfowitz vision as it is represented by Brooks, Hitchens and others. ...

Wolfowitz and his defenders want to convince us that humanity is united by its universal thirst for liberal democratic freedoms, well then, how can they possibly fail to react to injustice or error in Iraq with anything less than the grave and persistent concern they might exhibit in a domestic US context? Where’s the genuine regret, the mourning, the persistent and authentic sympathy? I don’t mean some bullshit one-liner you toss off before moving on to slam Michael Moore again for three or four paragraphs, I mean the kind of consistent attention and depth of compassion that signals that you take the humanity and more signally the rights of Iraqis as seriously as you take the humanity of your neighbors. Only when you’ve got that concern credibly in place, as a fundamental part of your political and moral vision, do you get to mournfully accept that some innocents must die in the struggle to achieve freedom.

The Wolfowitzian defenders of the war want to skip Go and collect $200.00 on this one, go straight to the day two centuries hence when the innocent dead recede safely into the bloody haze of anonymous tragedy. Sorry, but this is not on offer, least of all for them. If they can’t find the time, emotion and intellectual rigor to be as consumed by the case of a blameless mother and father turned into gore and sprayed on their children as they are by what Sean Penn had to say about the war last week, then their entire argument about the war is nothing more than the high-minded veneer of a more bestial and reasonless fury. If Brooks or anyone else wants to rise to toast Paul Wolfowitz, then they’ll have to live up to the vision they attribute to him, and meet the real problems and failures of that vision honestly and seriously.
It seems to me, though, that Burke's challenge can be levelled equally at all defenders of war, and not just neoconservative fans of Wolfowitz. Every decision to wage war is made on the basis of a universally questionable choice to pass over the death of innocents. There is, I agree, a way to pass over these deaths with more pause, with more sobriety, with more honesty and mourning. But why should we be convinced that these expressions of humanity would make the fury of war less bestial and reasonless? If Wolfowitz showed appropriate grief; if Cheney wore the dark coat instead of the parka; if Bush showed up at more funerals; if Hitchens criticized the checkpoint shootings; if Rumsfeld lamented prisoner abuse as the sign of structural problems ... would this signify anything more than stopping for a moment of silence at Go before jumping ahead to the "two centuries hence," when the innocent dead will still have died? Does making their deaths less anonymous make them more acceptable?

In a limited sense, yes. I don't want to underestimate the significance of the "emotion and intellectual rigor" that Burke is calling for, or to dismiss the sincerity of those who both defend the justice of war and genuinely regret its horrors. At the same time, to simply call for more emotional and intellectual engagement with the tragedies of war is ultimately another way of distracting ourselves from the surfeit of suffering that is always caused by war, even when it is conducted as sanely and softly as possible. I favor calling for Wolfowitz's defenders to be saner and to speak in softer tones, but what prevents us from going farther, and calling for the truly sane silence of a world without war?

Perhaps Burke would respond that such a cavalier call for world peace exemplifies the same kind of intellectual sloppiness that characterizes cavalier attitudes towards war. But how can one "rigorously" contemplate the dissolution of bodies into gore without coming to the conclusion that this should never happen, no matter how humanely we lament it when it does?

Not for the first time on this blog, I find myself voicing rather utopian views about war and peace. But if such views strike you as too utopian to take seriously, let me submit this more limited conclusion: Burke's essay suggests that if anyone should be concerned about the injustices of well-intentioned war, it should be Wolfowitz and his defenders. I would suggest, instead, that all wars fought by liberal democracies are usually undertaken for reasons that their defenders see as well-intentioned. The gauntlet that Burke throws down for Wolfowitz, then, lies at the feet of anyone who believes that wars are justified.

Collective Improvisation:
I still think the Iraq war was a mistake, but not for this reason. I think it was an uncalled-for risk, a bad idea when Iran and North Korea were far more serious threats, and a distraction when bin Laden remains uncaptured. So I agree that Iraq was a mistake. But...

Accidental deaths in themselves do not make a war unjust--unless they make all wars, at all times and places, unjust. All wars have had accidental deaths, and the United States has done more than any power in history to prevent them. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had fewer civilian casualties than any conflicts of similar scope; to complain about civilian casualties here seems to raise the bar to an arbitrarily high level, merely to have something to complain about.

Let's also recall that our opponents, far from trying to avoid civilian deaths, have actually tried to cause as many of them as they could. Given their tactics, their methods of concealing themselves, and their total disregard for human life--it is not surprising that civilian casualties will result. Blaming the United States, though, is grossly out of place.

Posted by Jason Kuznicki

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/13/2005 10:58:00 AM : Permalink  

But I did not restrict my comments to the United States, Jason. I pointed out that any defenses of any war -- and not just American defenses of American wars -- have to rationalize the death of innocents, so Burke's complaint about Wolfowitz can be generalized (conceivably) to anyone who thinks war can be, on balance, good.

I agree with you that Americans have been more concerned with the problem of civilian deaths in war than any comparable military power. But I disagree that we have done more than any nation in history to prevent them, for the simple reason that there have been and are nations that do not wage as many wars. We are neither the most aggressive nation in history nor the most peaceable.

While I agree that intent is morally salient here -- it is true we actively seek to avoid civilian deaths while many others seek to cause them -- I'm not certain that good intention by itself excuses those deaths. To the extent that all wars are chosen, waging war always means choosing to accept the accidental deaths that accompany every war. And if those deaths are chosen, and if they accompany every war, are they really "accidental" in more than a semantic sense? Perhaps our intention is to avoid civilian deaths once we declare war, but unless one believes that war can be utterly sanitized and precise, that declaration of war always signals an intent to accept civilian casualties as, on balance, justified.

Perhaps to ask these questions strikes you as hectoring the United States in particular, but again, I am not setting the bar high only for Americans, but "anyone who believes that wars are justified" -- American or not. You are right to detect that this may be setting the bar so high as to call into question all wars. But I disagree that this is an arbitrary place to set the bar. Rather, sometimes it seems to me the only consistent place to set the bar. Otherwise, we have to make arbitrary decisions about how many accidental deaths push a war across the line from just to unjust. Surely that line would be more arbitrary than the line I'm drawing is. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/13/2005 02:49:00 PM : Permalink  

"To the extent that all wars are chosen, waging war always means choosing to accept the accidental deaths that accompany every war. And if those deaths are chosen, and if they accompany every war, are they really "accidental" in more than a semantic sense?  "

This line of reasoning does far more than you probably intend it to do.

--Every time we build a highway, we are admitting that accidental deaths will happen upon it. Should we forbid all highways?

--Every time we make a new drug with significant side effects, we are admitting that people will suffer, generally on accident. No new drugs then either?

I could multiply the examples, but I think these two are enough. 

Posted by Jason Kuznicki

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/14/2005 02:06:00 PM : Permalink  

Jason, My main point in using that line of reasoning was this:

All  defenders of war will have to wrestle intellectually and emotionally with the accidental deaths that accompany all wars, because by choosing war we are also accepting accidental deaths. That means those who support wars have to give reasons for that acceptance. Burke's post suggests that this intellectual wrestling must be especially acute for Wolfowitz and his cohort because of their particular views about the origins of liberal democracy; I'm questioning why the intellectual wrestling he discusses should not be equally acute for any defender of war under any circumstances.

I have no problem, then, extending my line of reasoning to say that anyone who authorizes a dangerous new drug, for instance, has to wrestle with the potential damages that drug might cause and give some account of why those dangers do not count against making the drug available. Choosing to authorize a drug with side effects is choosing to accept potential deaths that might result from its use. Some moral accounting has to be offered by the defender of the drug as to why those deaths do not overrule the reasons for releasing the drug.

My comment is admittedly confusing because it slips from these limited claims (about the kind of wrestling any justification of war entails) to a more general skepticism about whether such justifications of war can ever succeed. If I wanted to defend this latter claim, I agree I would have to do more than just point out that wars always cause accidental deaths, since in that case I would be ruling out far more than I intend to. I would have to contend that arguments which allow us to choose highways and drugs would not work as defenses of war.

I would have to give an account of why a government is more accountable for deaths caused by war than for deaths caused by traffic accidents on a highway, for instance. (Do I need to make that case? It seems obvious to me.) I would have to argue that moral accountability for intentional violence is substantively different from moral accountability for accidental death, even when intentional violence spills over into unintended deaths. (Again, do I need to make that case?) 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/14/2005 02:28:00 PM : Permalink  

I would have to give an account of why a government is more accountable for deaths caused by war than for deaths caused by traffic accidents on a highway, for instance. (Do I need to make that case? It seems obvious to me.) 

I agree.

I would have to argue that moral accountability for intentional violence is substantively different from moral accountability for accidental death, even when intentional violence spills over into unintended deaths. (Again, do I need to make that case?)

I would also agree. But my problem is that far too often, it strikes me that anti-war writers make the mistake of arguing (effectively) against all wars, based largely on the problem of accidental deaths.

On reflection, you don't seem to be guilty of this. Many, though, shoot themselves in the foot here, because if the United States is guilty on this score, then al Qaeda is guilty of something categorically worse. These writers also prove far more than they realize, as most wars throughout history have involved a great degree of very deliberate suffering inflicted on civilians. If it was not always wholesale slaughter or firebombing, still pillage and rape were devastating even before the era of modern warfare. When soldiers stole or burned the food supplies, the peasants simply starved.

In recent years, a strange transformation has happened: Where early modern armies commonly supported themselves by pillage (even from "friendly" peasants), high modern armies shouldered the problem themselves, aiming to have self-sufficient supply trains and to abolish pillage. The United States has taken it a step further, routinely giving food to the "enemy" peoples. Our quarrel, we insist, is not with them, but with their governments. Whether such a policy is more practical or not remains to be seen in my opinion. Many have complained, for instance, that our food contains GMOs making it unfit to eat. If they only knew what war used to be like (!).

Given the history of warfare, it seems hard to complain about our overall treatment of civilians in the recent conflicts. Those who were deprived of their civil liberties and brought to Cuba for indefinite internment are another matter, and I fully concede that we have done a terrible wrong here. Outside of them, though, we have made heroic efforts.  

Posted by Jason Kuznicki

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/15/2005 08:52:00 AM : Permalink  

This is an interesting angle, and I've been turning it over in my mind a good bit.

I think I start from the position that the people who greatly favor a course of action have a disproportionate obligation to feel and account the costs of that action. This is what Henry V's pre-Agincourt unease is about in Shakespeare's treatment. Henry ends up granting himself a dispensation, that he bears no especial responsibility for the ends his soldiers may come to, but I think it's not unreasonable to say that the play itself suggests differently. Whatever Shakespeare thought, I think that those who advocate action, defend action and lead action do bear, or ought to bear, a heavier emotional and intellectual burden for the consequences of it.

I don't think that's sufficient reason to say that all war is wrong. By that standard, all collective social action that resulted in predictable death or injury would be wrong. We know, for example, that immunization programs will infect and possibly even kill a very small fraction of the people that are immunized. If one accepted Caleb's observation, then it would be hard not to apply it further to programs of this kind, to anything that had predictably negative consequences on innocent people, no matter what the greater good.

I have opposed the Iraq War on the grounds that the "greater good" being pursued requires an arbitrary selection of Iraq as the target, and that the achievement of that greater good may create new dangers and harms that outweigh whatever good might be achieved. I think those are specific tests that apply to this war but not others. The question of how we account and respond to the suffering that results from the war is not an entirely separate matter from that "just war" calculus, but it does have an significantly independent character.

Perhaps all I'm asking for is something performative, but performances matter. They tell us something about what our collective values are and what they are not. If we can't mourn our own dead, and even more so mourn the innocent; if we can't hold ourselves rigorously to higher standards, even at the cost of punishing our own soldiers, then we shouldn't be fighting this war, whether the war is right or wrong on its own merits. Where are the strong men and women in our leadership who can bear the burden of both righteousness and sorrow at once? That seems to me to be a basic requirement of leadership in war, a minimal acceptance of the gravity and pain of it.  

Posted by Timothy Burke

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/15/2005 03:01:00 PM : Permalink  

Jason, I would probably want to revise your statement about American missteps in this war to include more than just the Cuban detainees. The evidence of torture and unjust detainment in Iraqi prisons continues to grow, as does evidence of excessively aggressive behavior by soldiers at checkpoints. Still, I accept your point that we've made significant efforts to minimize civilian casualties. If the measure of an honest supporter of the war is one who mourns these casualties, then I think the measure of an honest opponent of the war is someone who at least acknowledges good faith efforts when she sees them.

Nonetheless, as both you and Timothy Burke can probably tell, I lean strongly in the direction of thinking that the threshold for just war is very rarely met if it is every met at all. I agree with both of you, though, that this question has a "significantly independent character" from the issue in Burke's original post -- which was about how we account for and respond to the evils that always accompany war.

In fact, my main interest in this post was to stress that the "performative" authenticity Burke is calling for should  be kept separate from the various calculations that we make to justify war. While I agree that an honest defender of war will "bear the burden of both righteousness and sorrow at once," I don't think that demonstrating sorrow demonstrates righteousness. I think the implication in Henry V is that Henry gave himself a dispensation because he could persuade himself that he had put on the cloak and been a part of the band of brothers. That was honorable for him to do, but it was unrelated to the righteousness of the war, however he may have thought otherwise. In the same way, surprise visits by Rumsfeld or Bush to military cafeterias in Iraq speak better of them than not going would, but it does not speak better of the war.

I wanted to stress that point because I don't think greater expressions of sorrow on the part of Wolfowitz and company would change my opinion about the war, even if it would change my opinion about them. Likewise, I think all defenders of all wars should, at the very least, show an appreciation of war's "gravity and pain." But since that's a minimal requirement for defending war, it cannot by itself take the place of a fuller justification for that gravity and pain. The more I think about it, the more I think this is what Burke's original post was trying to say. Consider this, then, a friendly amendment that tries to enlarge the discussion. Instead of just saying that these people should be more serious about their war, we can more generally say (as these comments have) that all wars, whether in Agincourt or Afghanistan, warrant a basic sobriety and sadness on the part of the war's architects.

Both of you bring up other cases of collective social action other than war that have negative side-effects. As I've already said, I agree that I should not attempt to build a fully pacifist position solely on the premise that civilians always suffer in war. But the more I think about the counterexamples you have offered, the less I think they are germane here, especially for the decision-making processes by which liberal democracies go to war. When our representatives approve social projects that place us at risk, we at least have indirect control over whether to approve of those projects. Civilians in another country do not have that luxury, and for that reason the threshold for exposing them to harm should be significantly higher than it is for citizens here. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/16/2005 05:24:00 PM : Permalink  

At the least, that threashold should be AS high as it is here.


Posted by Timothy Burke

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/16/2005 07:37:00 PM : Permalink  

You don't think it should be higher, though? Use the immunization example, instead of the war example. To pick a not unrealistic example, suppose we knew a particular vaccine for smallpox had a high risk of negative side effects or death. Would we be equally justified in requiring American civilians in Iraq to be immunized and in requiring Iraqi civilians to be immunized? 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/16/2005 09:49:00 PM : Permalink  

And now Wolfowitz is to be the president of the World Bank!!! What a jacked up world we live in! It's unbelievable to thinking and caring people. They have taken over and there is no turning back. 

Posted by Justin Sivey

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/30/2005 09:51:00 AM : Permalink  

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