The Untarget Was Collateralized (Updated)

From George Orwell’s 1984, “Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak”:

The B vocabulary. The vocabulary consisted of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them. Without a full understanding of the principles of Ingsoc it was difficult to use these words correctly. In some cases, they could be translated into Oldspeak, or even into words taken from the A vocabulary, but this usually demanded a long paraphrase and always involved the loss of certain overtones. The B words were a sort of verbal shorthand, often packing whole ranges of ideas into a few syllables, and at the same time more accurate and forcible than ordinary language. …

Some of the B words had highly subtilized meanings, barely intelligible to anyone who had not mastered the language as a whole. (pp. 249, 250).

From the lead story in today’s New York Times, “Pentagon Details Chain of Errors in Afghan Strike“:

The aircrew appeared to be confused by the directions from the Americans on the ground in the minutes leading up to the attack. At one point, the crew was told it would need to hit a second target after the strike it was about to commence, and “we will also be doing the same thing of softening the target for partner forces,” that is, Afghans.

“So he wants us to shoot?” one crew member asked the others aboard the AC-130.

“Yeah, I’m not positive what softening means,” the navigator replied.

“Ask him,” the pilot added.

The crew did, and was told the “intent is to destroy targets of all opportunity.”

At one point, a crew member, identified in the report as the TV sensor operator, spotted the correct target and said it fit the description that was relayed by Afghan forces. But after “several attempts” to clarify which building should be struck, the aircraft was directed to the hospital.

Still, the crew members appeared to have doubts. They were even unclear on what exactly was meant by targets of opportunity. “I feel like let’s get on the same page for what target of opportunity means,” the navigator told his fellow crew members.

“When I’m hearing targets of opportunity like that,” another crew member said, “I’m thinking you’re going out, you find bad things and you shoot them.”

The conversations among the crew, and the clarifications with the Special Forces on the ground, continued until just after 2 a.m., when the AC-130 was given clearance to fire.

At 2:08 a.m., the attack commenced, and the navigator radioed, “Rounds away, rounds away, rounds away.”

The first round hit the courtyard north of the main building in the hospital compound — the area where men were spotted walking. The second round tore through the roof of the hospital building. By the time the attack was over, the AC-130 had fired 209 more rounds of ammunition from all of its guns, including the howitzer.

It took Doctors Without Borders only about 11 to 12 minutes to reach American officials and raise the alarm about what was unfolding. It continued to make calls and send text messages to American commanders in Afghanistan, the Pentagon in Washington and the Afghan Interior Ministry, throughout the bombardment, imploring them to stop the attack.

Confusion appears to have quickly set in among American commanders in Kabul and troops on the ground in Kunduz. At 2:52 a.m., more than 40 minutes after the AC-130 fired its first shot, Doctors Without Borders in Kabul received a text message reply from someone at the headquarters of the American-led coalition in Kabul that said, “I’m sorry to hear that, I still do not know what happened.”

Postscript, May 1, 2016: In my Phil 250 class at Felician, “Making Moral Decisions,” I had the students read Kenneth Himes’s recent book, Drones and the Ethics of Targeted Killing, and spent about three solid weeks on it. A central topic in the book is the distinction between so-called “signature strikes” and “personality strikes.” A personality strike is a targeted killing, by weaponized drone, of a specific person regarded as a “high value target” for reasons related to specific terrorist activities. A signature strike is a targeted killing, by weaponized drone, of a group of people of unknown identity, who fit a behavioral “profile” associated with generic terrorist activity, where the “profile” in question can be as vague as being bearded, being a male of military age, being armed, and riding with other males in a jeep. Bear in mind that since the regions in questions are war zones and nearly lawless “states of nature,” the default assumption is that any individual one meets anywhere in the region is either armed or traveling with an armed escort or escorts, regardless of his sympathies for or against, say, Islamist terrorism. So it’s pretty easy to satisfy the criteria of a signature strike and be entirely innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever.

On the final day I devoted to Himes’s book, I gave my students a quiz asking the following question: “What is a ‘signature strike’ in the context of drone warfare, and why are signature strikes controversial?” The class has an enrollment of 27. Twenty-four students showed up to take the quiz. Of those twenty-four, ten (42%) were correctly able to answer the question. Two students (8%) gave vague, equivocal answers. Twelve students (50%) had no idea whatsoever what a signature strike was, despite my devoting three weeks to a book in which the concept plays a central role. Pause on that for a moment. If students tasked with reading a book on the ethics of targeted killing fail to grasp the single most controversial concept involved in the debate about drone strikes in three weeks devoted to “studying” the topic, what is the likelihood that either the concept or the controversy about it has any significant depth of ingression in the consciousness of the average American–someone not tasked with reading a book on the subject?  If it doesn’t have any real depth of ingression, what are our debates about warfare about? In other words, if we don’t know what we’re talking about, what are we talking about?

It’s something to bear in mind the next time you hear talk about the unique turpitude of terrorists who deliberately “target innocent civilians.” What exactly is the moral difference between those who deliberately target innocent civilians, and those who deliberately target people who have a high likelihood of being innocent civilians while being relatively indifferent to the probabilities? The answer to the question turns, of course, on how reliable signature-strike profiling is at identifying real terrorists–something that’s hard for an outsider to know. But then, shift the issue back a bit from the people doing the targeting to the people applauding the killing–the cheerleaders of war, on either side of the divide. What is the difference between a population that applauds the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians, and a population that applauds the deliberate targeting of people who have some significant probability of being innocent civilians, while neither knowing nor caring what the probabilities are? Morally speaking, I don’t see much difference.

That’s why I’m perennial unimpressed with rhetoric about how “civilized” we are (Americans, Western Europeans, Israelis) and how “uncivilized” they are over there–in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Pakistan, in the “Arab world” and the “Islamic world.” We regard innocent life as precious, but they regard it as cheap–or so the mantra goes.

I don’t believe it for a minute: it doesn’t cohere at all with my experiences of life here versus life over there. The “moral” differences between us and them are primarily matters of luck, not of actual moral credit. We are heirs to liberal societies, they aren’t. Liberal societies are certainly morally superior to non-liberal ones, but it doesn’t follow that the people who inhabit them are, on average, morally superior to those who inhabit non-liberal ones. Not only does it not follow, I’m disinclined to think it’s true. The widespread belief in its truth seems to me to reflect little more than a commitment to a form of circumstantial moral luck, i.e., luck in the circumstances in which one finds oneself. Being heir to a civilized, rights-respecting society does not, without due effort, give the heir any particular moral credit. It just seems to induce a nauseating sort of moral complacency.

My students are lucky to live in a society in which their rights are relatively secure, and their culpable ignorance is relatively epiphenomenal. Here’s my hypothesis: put them in a different environment, and you would see a nearly instantaneous regression to barbarism. Not a charitable thing to say, but thoroughly well-earned.

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