July 28, 2006

Morality and War-Fighting

Two Israeli views, one (call it the J-Pod school), from Yoel Marcus: ("(b)efore any international agreement, Israel must sound the last chord, launching a massive air and ground offensive that will end this mortifying war, not with a whimper but with a thunderous roar"), and then Ze'ev Sternhell's:

When there is fighting, guerrilla organizations want the entire population to be harmed. When everyone is a victim, the hatred will be directed at the enemy more forcefully. That is why bombing residential neighborhoods, power plants, bridges and highways is an act of folly, which plays into Hezbollah's hands and serves its strategic goals: An attack on the overall fabric of life creates a common fate for the fighters and those standing on the sidelines. At the same time, the greater the population's suffering, the greater its alienation from the formal ruling institutions - the government, the parliament and the various security forces that are powerless to save them.

It is an illusion to hope that the 700,000 Lebanese refugees will direct their fury at their government, or that the population that still remains in place will evict the Hezbollah members from among it. As far as the population is concerned, responsibility for its catastrophe lies entirely with Israel, and failure to cooperate with whoever fights against Israel would be considered national treason. It was foolish to assume that the Lebanese political elite would dare to confront Hezbollah and use force against it. And anyway, who was even capable of using force? The Lebanese Army, whose bases were bombed as well?

That is why Israel's interest must be to isolate Hezbollah, to strike a hard blow at its bases and camps, but to avoid harming the infrastructure of life for the general population, even when its gives refuge to those bearing arms. This is not a matter of military ethics, but of a cold practical considerations.

Well, count me among the Sternhell School. As for J-Pod , don't miss this snippet from his NY Post piece:

What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?

If you can't imagine George W. Bush issuing such an order, is there any American leader you could imagine doing so?

And if America can't do it, can Israel? Could Israel - even hardy, strong, universally conscripted Israel - possibly stomach the bloodshed that would accompany the total destruction of Hezbollah?[emphasis added]

It's quite sad that the son of an accomplished, prestigious American intellectual would muse so innocuously about the merits of mass butchery--basically the wholesale slaughter of a broad demographic of an ethnic group writ large--a policy prescription that is quasi-genocidal in nature. John should think of previous genocides in this century, in such contexts, as he ponderously queries the pros and cons of the extermination of entire population groups. Where is the decency? It’s repulsive, really. There is also his revealing reasoning that "even hardy, strong, universally conscripted Israel", yes even she, might not have the guts to do such a thing. Quelle dommage! Yes, even an unflagging, staunch, indefatigable society like that of the Israelis doesn't have the cojones to do this kind of thing. Western civilization truly is imperiled, the hand-wringing goes.

This speculative dribble isn't only amoral and outrageous. It's also just plain stupid, and shows an abysmal lack of understanding regarding the most basic tenets of counter-insurgency doctrine, as even Rich Lowry feels compelled to write (although, risibly, he calls J-Pod's effort in the NY Post "bracing and powerful," whilst reassuring us skittish cowards who lack the requisite sang-froid for roving mass massacres in Mesopotamia that all this is simply by way of hypothetical interrogatory, nothing serious, mind you). The fact that any of this passes for hifalutin' commentary, and indeed gets debated in NRO as being even close to the realm of seriousness is, it must be said, rather disturbing (farcical also, of course, but I lean more towards the concern prong given the war-drums loudly blaring in the usual Washington quarters).

Cue then Glenn Reynolds who, as is his wont, breezily links to this heady fare with a pithy comment, seemingly blissfully unmindful of the import of what Podhoretz is asking us to contemplate: "JOHN PODHORETZ WONDERS if Israel is too nice to win." Glenn then writes: "This reminds me of Josh Marshall's 2003 worry that we weren't killing enough Iraqis and that this would come back to haunt us. I think they're both probably wrong. I certainly hope so." And herewith the usual pattern with Glenn when he links to something prima facie absurd. Preserve plausible deniability that these are not his views, of course, ("I think they're both probably wrong"), and throw in a good leftist too, when possible, so people don't think it's just a Republican brown-shirt kinda thing or such. And so, another neat little blog-post, you might say, but of course thousands of readers in places like Knoxville and Peoria and Omaha read this, and they see a nice guy, Yale lawyer, and ostensibly serious personage wrestling with, when you cut through all the bullshit and fog, whether Israel, basically, should march into Lebanon south of the Litani, and kill on the spot any Shi'a male between the ages of 15-35, or something like that. Cuz they're Hezbullies, or Hez-lovers, or Gonna-Be-Hez-Soon and Big Things Are Afoot, and sometimes a mega-ass-kicking is just the thing to set the world aright. And while it's convenient to fold in Josh Marshall to the 'genocide-lite' aficionado brigades, much as Glenn likes to enlist Duncan Black as a fevered Ledeenite when it comes to Iran, it's just not accurate. What Marshall had written was:

Not only did millions of Japanese and Germans die in World War II, but U.S. and British aerial bombing of major Japanese and German cities alone killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in what is now delicately termed “collateral damage.” And that’s not even counting the carnage caused by the atomic bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final days of the war against Japan.

My point here isn’t to question the justice of America’s war against the Axis powers or how we chose to wage it. Japan and Germany brought the war on themselves. Their occupations and bombings of China and Eastern Europe, respectively, were almost infinitely more brutal. They were fascist regimes that had to be destroyed and we were trying to do so as quickly as possible. But we shouldn’t ignore these facts about what happened during the war if we want to understand the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of what came after.

Violence, death and destruction on such a massive scale have a profound conditioning effect on the psyches of individuals. And the same applies to whole nations. Japan and Germany weren’t just ‘defeated’ or ‘occupied,’ they were crushed — not just their armies, but their civilian populations too. This led to a sort of national humiliation and a transformative willingness to embrace defeat and change.

True defeat changes people and nations too. The fact that our subsequent occupation turned out to be so benign was extremely important. But part of that importance was the contrast between how much these populations had suffered during the war and how much better things got for them after we took over.

And thus our problem. If everything goes according to plan, the loss of civilian life in Iraq will be minimal. Certainly, we all hope so.

But it is one thing, isn't it, in the midst of a massive World War, to use carpet bombing techniques (a la Dresden) or atomic weapons, in a bid to stave off a Hitlerian Empire on the march, and major fascist forces in East Asia—some almost 70 years ago to boot—and when norms of fighting were rather different. It’s quite another, I'd think, to cogitate in polite society about the wisdom of, now more than half a century on, and in the course of a preventative war of choice, intentionally killing, man by man, the entire population (save the kiddies and elderly, mind you) of a major ethnic group in that country. This is the logic of a Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein or Pol Pot or, yes, Adolf Hitler—not the sort of stuff we should be pondering whether George Bush or Ehud Olmert have the guts and fortitude to accomplish.

I mean, we've foresworn, haven't we, with the progress we've made in precision weaponry (often un-precise, of course, but still), with better technologies for espying the enemy, with the painstaking growth of international human rights laws and norms against genocide, and mass slaughter, and population transfers, and collective punishment--we've tried to move towards a more civilized future, one where there is rule of law, and where civilization, not barbarity, reigns? Are we now to stoop to the level of our worst enemies (it is the militias of Moktada al-Sadr, after all, who are slaughtering young Sunni males willy-nilly), pondering politely as if an interesting academic conundrum, with arguments ostensibly of equal merit on both sides, whether we should have fought the war in Iraq by exterminating hundreds of thousands of middle-aged male Sunnis? How then does this make us different than Saddam? How then does this make humanity different in the post-Auschwitz era? What have we learned? How then can we believe in progress, and decency, and history not doomed to cyclical savageries?

My point isn't to cast aspersions at Glenn or John, really. And, God knows, I've gone rounds with Josh Marshall in the past, and it's no secret Duncan thinks I'm something of an "useful idiot", as he recently linked to a post so stating. I'm not trying to curry favor with this or that blogger, or pick sides, or defend "new" ideological bed-fellows, or whatever. I mean, who gives a eff really, at the end of the day. This is so much bigger than any and all of us. I'm just honestly baffled and stunned that people are writing this kind of stuff, and seriously debating it as if it's even within the outer reaches of the rule-book. It's not, it's bat-shit crazy, it's absurd, it's insane. And people wonder why people like me are being forced, day by day, to perhaps abandon the Republican Party (though where to go, faced with the often ferocious lameness of the Democrats, like the recent carping about Maliki not being sufficiently anti-Hezbollah (Schumer), and therefore an anti-Semite (Dean))? Look no further than what passes for serious discussion among supposed opinion leaders in its ranks.

J-Pod concludes his piece by asking: "(c)an it be that the moral greatness of our civilization - its astonishing focus on the value of the individual above all - is endangering the future of our civilization as well?" Sounds so reasonable, doesn’t it, J-Pod's closing, heart-felt query? But I fear it's nothing more than hyperbole born of deep paranoia, one married to serious incompetence, given that the tactics J-Pod would have us consider would, not only lead us towards a savage race to the moral gutter, and thus immense catastrophe in terms of the decent society America has been able to, almost miraculously, preserve these past two odd centuries plus—but also not even achieve the intended result—as fighting an insurgency movement in such fashion, as any serious West Pointer would tell you, is absolutely, drop-dead, out of the gates, doomed to failure. Utter, total, mega-failure. But I digress, somewhat.

Hannah Arendt once wrote:

No civilization would ever have been possible without a framework of stability, to provide the wherein for the flux of change. Foremost among the stabilizing factors, more enduring than customs, manners and traditions, are the legal systems that regulate our life in the world and our daily affairs with each other.

The cornerstone of our polity and civilization, that what distinguishes us from our fanatical, nihilistic foes, is our respect of law, including the laws of war enshrined in the post-WWII, post-Holocaust era. To throw these by the way-side, in favor of the law of the jungle, is to defeat ourselves. We will have done the bidding of the Osama bin Laden's of our own volition, hoisted ourselves on our own petard, condemned ourselves to reversing the great human gains obtained via the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and modernity. This is too terrible to contemplate, and we cannot allow it to come to pass as a polity. I remain confident it won’t, though in my darker moments I wonder what awaits us if greater 9/11s visit our shores.

MORE: Mark Kleiman adds:

John Podhoretz fears that we may be too civilized to win asymmetric conflicts, and proposes (behind the poltroonish veil of the question mark) that we become somewhat less civilized. If his prose means anything, it means that we erred in not slaughtering as many "Sunni males between 15 and 35" as possible after we conquered Iraq.

There is a technical term for that approach to war-fighting. It's called "genocide," and it's punishable by death...

...Aside from his moral mistake, Podhoretz makes a fundamental strategic mistake: he likens the current fight against the movements of violently politicized Islam — Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda — and the states that support them — notably Iran and Syria — as if it were the same sort of civilization-threating conflict as World War II or the Cold War. In this regard, John Derbyshire's unapologetically racist contempt for the people he refers to in public as living in "worthless countries" (and no doubt refers to in private as "wogs") gives him clearer vision, though no greater moral elevation.

Our civilization is not at risk. To think so reflects cowardice. To persuade others that we are at risk is to spread cowardice. Podhoretz's tough-guy persona hides either a man too terrified to think like a civilized human being or a man who hopes to terrify his fellow-citizens into supporting policies he favors for other reasons. He'd make a good teller of scary stories around a Boy Scout campfire. As a strategic thinker, he'd have to improve a lot to be contemptible.

Indeed. Meantime, an expat blogger in China adds: "It is definitely a most peculiar time in America, when suggestions such as Podhoretz's can be made so casually, and find audience in our mass media."

Yeah, and he's not the only one who believes it's "a most peculiar time in America". As I've said, it's an era of incompetence and paranoia. Look, I live just a few blocks north of Ground Zero, and was in Manhattan on 9/11 itself, so I well understand that we are living in a difficult, new era. But this endless harrumphing and WWIII talk (sorry, WWIV, I think it is), or that we need Dresden techniques and mass killings, if we really mean to win, and so on and on, is just obscene. Incidentally, having recently returned from Beijing and Shanghai, and as I'm sure the expat blogger I link above would also attest, I can assure you the Chinese are very much focused on the real world, as it is, and busily setting about out-flanking us in terms of trade and commercial relationships in large swaths of the globe (they are also making in-roads in terms of East Asian security architecture and trading arrangements, lessening US influence there also). Meantime, our titular opinion leaders are subjecting us to psuedo-intellectual blatherings about quasi-genocide and the merits thereto. None of this is to put the Chinese on some pedastel, as god knows they have displayed on countless occasions why they are not yet a mature, world power, and thus why American leadership remains so critical as stabilizing force in the international arena. But with our leadership increasingly mindlessly fixated on the GWOT, and with the self-contented, group-think piffle being scribbled about NRO and the Standard, we appear to be dropping the ball more and more. The GWOT is a global counterinsurgency campaign and, to be sure, a critical one. But we are fighting it rather poorly, and while making something of a ham of it, we are also neglecting many other likely equally critical matters. J-Pod's mindless cogitations reveal something of a zeitgeist, almost decadent in its remove from the real world, amoral and dirty in terms of implications, and generally just really, really underwhelming, finally. So yes, I agree with Mark Kleiman that, as a strategic thinker, John leaves much to be desired indeed.

Posted by Gregory at July 28, 2006 10:32 PM

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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