Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Life Is Cheap when Your Great Nation is Buying

These days, Memorial Day is meant to honor those who have performed military service, particularly those who have died doing so, but is also an apt day for remembering the horrors of war and the follies that instigate and perpetuate them. We've looked at the impulse to dehumanize one's perceived enemies in the past, and sadly, the subject always seems relevant.

Jonathan Schwarz wrote a fine, biting piece back in March called "America's 300 Year-Long Lucky Streak Continues"

One of the great things about being American is we're just lucky. Lots of countries have killed millions of people, and it made their families really angry and sad. So the countries sometimes had to feel bad about it. But when WE'VE done it, we've always been lucky enough to do it to people who turned out not to mind being killed. So no harm done.

Most recently, Steve Inskeep of NPR pointed out that Afghans haven't gotten all bent out of shape about a U.S. soldier massacring sixteen of them, because "human life is already cheap" way over there.

That's great journalism. However, it would have been even better if Inskeep had found out whether life is not just cheap in Afghanistan, but also plentiful, like it was in Vietnam:

WILLIAM WESTMORELAND: The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.

And what about Iraqis? Were they whiny bitches when we killed them? No way:
FRED KAGAN, ARCHITECT OF IRAQ "SURGE": If anyone has seen pictures of Ramadi or Fallujah, they looked like Stalingrad. Cities absolutely crushed...

The interesting thing is that when we were fighting those battles and doing that damage, on the whole the Iraqis were not bitching about collateral damage...the Iraqis don’t on the whole say "darn it, you shouldn’t have blown up all of our houses." They sort of accept that.

We know this is correct because Iraqis felt the same way in the twenties when they were being slaughtered by the British:

"The natives of these tribes love fighting for fighting's sake," Chief of Air Staff Hugh Trenchard assured Parliament. "They have no objection to being killed." The military's argument was that, though the often indiscriminate air attacks might perturb some civilized folks back in London, such acts were viewed differently by the Arabs. As one British commander observed, "'[Shiekhs]...do not seem to resent...that women and children are accidentally killed by bombs."

Head over to read the rest. Steve Inskeep is normally a decent journalist, but really dropped the ball here, or is just trapped in a typical cultural attitude (especially endemic to the Beltway). The cognitive dissonance really is remarkable (if perhaps sadly predictable), isn't it? As we've examined before, people doing horrible things tend to come up with all sorts of "interesting" rationalizations for their actions, and the most common route is to dehumanize their victims, decide that they deserved it, or that they don't mind it being done to them. One can argue that this or that military conflict is necessary, but this sort of grotesque hypocrisy and self-deception tends to needlessly start and prolong wars.

Schwarz' post also made me think of a social gathering I attended a few months back. This particular crowd would probably have described itself as left of center, libertarian or independent, but certainly believes itself to be fairly intelligent and well-informed. None were veterans. I won't go into all the details, but someone started opining approvingly about Israel or the U.S. bombing Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. The same person also said things were fine when the Shah was in charge. (I felt compelled to mention the American and British-backed coup of Iran in the 50s, and that Iranians might not see things the same way.) Somebody else approved of the U.S. or other nations assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. This wasn't really the time or place for a serious debate, and the conversation moved elsewhere, but I found it unsettling. (I try to avoid discussing politics in certain crowds, but if someone brings them up...) It brought home once again that even among college-educated people who may not be news junkies but at least try to follow current events and should know better, saber-rattling can be met uncritically and imperialism is reflexive, acceptable and even lauded.

It wasn't long ago that the Bush administration lied relentlessly and shamelessly to start an unnecessary war in Iraq. Many of the same people are saber-rattling over Iran, even though "American intelligence analysts continue to believe that there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb." That might change, but some of the war hawks haven never cared about evidence and are obviously arguing in bad faith. Skepticism is clearly warranted. Regardless, there should always be a high threshold for going to war. Meanwhile, if someone wants to advocate assassinating private citizens of another nation, um, okay, that's one opinion, but it's also an imperialistic position. You can't reasonably claim the moral high ground anymore; now it's about might-makes-right. You also can't reasonably be shocked when other countries fear or hate you. It's hardly shocking if Iranians have gotten nervous given how casually American politicos have advocated bombing Iran or killing its citizens as if this was their god-given right. None of this is to deny legitimate discussions of these issues, but nationalistic narcissism tends to crowd out sager talk.

Some of this comes down to vanity and social dynamics. At least in certain circles – parties, Sunday talk shows – people want to appear knowledgeable and smart. Their opinions can far outstrip their knowledge and certainly any sort of wisdom. They borrow opinions from supposed experts, even if those "experts" are fools or charlatans. If those "experts" express opinions fitting the social norms of that circle – even if those opinions are completely unsupported or refuted by the evidence – they are unlikely to be challenged. (I'm not entirely immune to this crap myself, and have kicked myself later when I've found myself parroting the bullshit du jour.) If you're arguing about films, books and pop culture, a silly opinion isn't so bad, although it helps if it's expressed in good cheer and not obnoxiously. When it comes to war, the stakes are higher, even if the speaker doesn't possess any significant power, because citizens can at least vote and speak out.

Unfortunately, blithe imperialism and a belligerent American exceptionalism or triumphalism are widely acceptable or even prized. It has a veneer of tough-minded realism, even if it is really pseudo-tough, posturing machismo. Even the most consistently wrong, unrepentant war hawks seem to be granted far more respectability than any war skeptics, and never lose their cushy jobs. Warmongers never go hungry in the Beltway, and some citizens eagerly ape their opinions. For those of us who should know better, the moral obligation is to resist the temptation to parrot bullshit, and to push back – gently or forcefully, as appropriate – especially against particularly odious and dangerous bullshit. I fear it will be hard to put an end to unnecessary wars as long as blithe imperialism is socially acceptable or even seen as the mark of a Very Serious Person.

Related Pieces (Updated)

Driftglass urges that "We Should Have a Day of National Remembrance" for Max Blumenthal's 2007 interviews of chickenhawks. Agreed.

Emptywheel: bmaz writes thoughtfully "On Chris Hayes & America’s Fallen Heroes."

Digby posts about "Arlington West," in Santa Monica.

David Atkins remembers Pat Tillman.

David Dayen writes about a debate on counter-insurgency at West Point.

To the Point: "Memorial Day in America: Fun or Remembrance?"

The Business: "War Movies: 'The Tillman Story' and 'The Hurt Locker'"

TBogg posts a lovely song for the day.

Wonkette: Intern Riley Waggaman pens "Goodbye Forever! Also: No More War, Please"

No More Mister Nice Blog: "Do We Really Fight More Because We Call the Troops Heroes?"

Balloon Juice: DougJ contributes "Fuck War," although yes, he really needs to listen to Hayes in context.

Balloon Juice: John Cole weighs in later with "About What He Said."

Thers at Whiskey Fire provides "Memorial Day Reminder" (featuring "And the Band Played Waltzing Mathilda") and "Fuck the Troops." While I wouldn't put it that way, Thers' point, like Chris Hayes' point, has been completely misunderstood and misrepresented. I believe some of that misunderstanding is sincere, but it's deadly for all that. These dynamics are key to understanding war and preventing unnecessary tragedies. The bmaz post linked above handles this stuff quite well, but let me also rerun a few passages. From "Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels":

Being "pro-soldier, anti-war" normally means: given a war, the troops should be well equipped, the generals shouldn't be stupid with human lives, and the war should be fought to be won. However, the most obvious way to be "pro-soldier" is not to endanger any troopers unnecessarily. An unnecessary war, a fundamentally flawed mission, an assignment where the danger far outweighs the potential gains – none of these "supports" the troops. Being truly "pro-soldier" necessitates being "anti-war" in this sense. There are also times when it is sheer folly to continue a war. Heroism in war is to be honored, and the camaraderie between troopers in war is greatly prized, but this is because of helping one another through a horrible ordeal. There's nothing "good" about the ordeal itself. Surviving an atrocity does not somehow ennoble the atrocity. War is anything but glorious...

As for continuing an unnecessary war, and doubling down so that those who have died "will not have died in vain," we'll get into that in far more depth in a subsequent post. I've said it before as well, but briefly: regardless of the rightness or mendacity of a given mission, a trooper's service can be honorable or even heroic. But their virtue does not necessarily ennoble the mission itself, nor does any heroism they show transfer to those making the decisions, no matter how many times those bold, intuitively brilliant, God-touched Deciders don a flight suit and show off their genitals. Consider Pat Tillman, killed by "friendly fire" – clearly his service was honorable, but just as clearly, his death was unnecessary. His death was a tragedy, but it becomes a tragedy compounded if more people die by continuing an unnecessary war.

From "War and the Denial of Loss":

Gary Trudeau satirized the "not die in vain" mentality superbly in a 2005 Sunday cartoon, which includes this line from his Bush: "Again, we'll stay the course. We cannot dishonor the upcoming sacrifice of those who have yet to die." (Read the whole thing.) I commented in a 2007 post on it:

The stupidity of leaders or the pointlessness of a mission do not diminish the heroism of the troops themselves. Troops only die in vain if we are too stupid to learn from our mistakes or face our own vanities. Having the courage to admit someone acted heroically, but died unnecessarily, can be essential for preventing more unnecessary deaths. No one should die for pride and image alone, and the pain of facing the harsh truth of a given mistake is as nothing to the pain of actually dying or the pain of mourning a loved one. To pretend otherwise is dreadful, deadly vanity.

Or (to quote an earlier post in this cycle), consider Pat Tillman, killed by "friendly fire." Clearly his service was honorable, but just as clearly, his death was unnecessary. One could say, of so many dead in senseless wars: They were honorable but the mission was flawed. They did not die for nothing. Or one could say: They died for nothing. But they will not have died in vain if you fight to prevent others from dying for nothing. Their deaths were meaningless only if you learn nothing from them, and let this needless, horrible waste continue.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Tom Flanagan, worst chicken hawk ever