Missing the Corpses for the Case

The New York Times reports on the “disturbing” case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher:

On this episode of “The Weekly,” members of SEAL Team 7 tell Navy investigators that Gallagher was a reckless leader with a disturbing hunger for violence. They say they spent much of their time protecting Iraqi civilians from their battle-crazed chief instead of going after ISIS. And never-before-released video from the SEALs’ deployment shows Gallagher kneeling beside a defenseless ISIS captive moments before Gallagher plunged his knife into the prisoner’s neck.

The problem is, Gallagher was acquitted of the most “disturbing” charges made against him.  But don’t shelve your outrage too quickly. There is something outrage-worthy here. To see this, it may be worth our while to stand back a bit and see the battlefield corpses for the legal case.

Between 7 and 12 of Gallagher’s colleagues accused him of war crimes. Their testimony was (apparently) riddled with inconsistencies and errors. Predictably, Gallagher’s attorneys capitalized on this fact to discredit the witnesses against Gallagher. And so Gallagher was acquitted.

I don’t claim to know whether Gallagher is in fact innocent of the charges made against him, or guilty as charged. But I also don’t think it matters. To worry so much about that is to fail to see the obvious implication. If 7-12 of Gallagher’s American colleagues accused him of war crimes, and were unable to make those charges stick in an American court of law, what are the chances that those Iraqis that Gallagher et al killed would have been found “guilty” of anything in a more impartial setting? The default assumption among Americans seems to be that anyone who shoots at an American is thereby “guilty” of something that justifies death. But recall that we invaded Iraq. What if matters are the other way around? In other words, what if we assume that an armed aggressor who invasively crosses a legitimate boundary sets himself up to be shot?

Those are questions, not statements. But even in interrogative form, they ought to generate doubts about our one-eyed fixation on the Gallagher case. Instead of worrying about Gallagher’s guilt, maybe we should be worrying more about our own collective guilt.* The median voter theorem holds that democracies like the United States are responsive to the preferences of the median voter. We may not have declared war against Iraq, but we started the war with the eager acquiescience of our Congressional representatives. Put more simply: we started the Iraq war. We sent the likes of Gallagher et al over there. What did we think they were going to do the people who lived there? Arrest them, read them their Miranda rights, and give them top-notch defense attorneys for gold-standard civilian trials? We sent the military over there to kill people en masse. That’s what an invasion is.

It’s of no consequence whether or not all of those killings violated the letter of “the rules of war.” What matters is the default assumption under which the killings took place: that it was justified to kill at all. At this point–from this distance in space, time, and circumstances–it’s impossible for an outsider to judge Eddie Gallagher’s guilt or innocence. But for the same reason, it is also impossible for an outsider to judge the guilt or innocence of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis we killed. We can’t even count them, much less judge their guilt or innocence. All we can know is that we killed thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people. What if half were innocent? What if most were innocent? What if 90 or 95 or even 99% were? Who knows? How can we know?

The relevant issue is not whether Gallagher is guilty or innocent of the specific charges brought against him. The relevant issue is that the guilt or innocence of the Iraqis we killed is far more important than Gallagher’s. Given that we can’t really know their guilt or innocence, the relevant corollary issue is that our recklessness with military force is no different from that of a drunk driver or a participant in a game of Russian roulette–a game in which the barrel is pointed at someone else. Like them, we’re willing to kill people without having any idea who they are or why they deserve death.

Since I don’t claim to know Gallagher’s guilt or innocence, I can’t say that I share the widespread resentment of him that I’ve seen online and in the press. As far as I’m concerned (and judging by the evidence available to the public), he’s not that much different from the military veterans I’ve encountered in my classrooms at Felician and John Jay (both military-friendly schools) who have, whether in deep anguish or in a spirit of masculine joviality, confessed their battlefield transgressions to me. As far as I can tell from my admittedly limited experience, the differences between my students and the Eddie Gallaghers of the war are a matter of degree rather than kind. The relevant point is that they were both trained to kill, and both did their fair share of it. (Obviously, they have their Iraqi counterparts as well.)

Only one thing in the whole “Chief Gallgaher” episode has really offended me: a screenshot from Gallagher’s Instagram account (click this link and scroll down). It shows Gallagher holding a hatchet he used in Iraq, the implication being that the hatchet he’s holding was used to kill people there. I’m not offended by the hatchet per se, or even by the idea of hacking someone to death with it, but by the slogan on the bracelet Gallagher is wearing in the photo. The pronoun at the beginning of the slogan is partly obscured, but it’s either an “I” or a “we.” A good bet is that it reads:

I kill bad dudes.

Bad dudes. If only war were an episode of Cops. Even Cops has the pro forma decency to remind us that “All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”**

No such decency forthcoming here. Truth is, what Gallagher’s bracelet should really say is:

I kill people that I would like you to believe are ‘bad dudes’, when the evidence you have of their badness is a hell of a lot worse than the evidence against me.

Gallagher’s acquittal depends crucially on the uncertainty about the charges against him. But the very uncertainty that acquits him acquits everyone he killed, and acquits just about everyone that was killed in Iraq. In other words, judging by the defense his attorneys offered, the “bad dudes” Gallagher killed are no badder than he is. Since the preceding message probably wouldn’t fit on his wrist, I would suggest that he tattoo it to his forehead just to remind the world of the bad-faith bullshit artistry implicit in the message he does wear.

I don’t mean, of course, that Gallagher was himself guilty of killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. I mean that we were, where “we” includes him. We all killed a couple of hundred thousand “bad dudes” on evidence much, much worse than that discredited in Gallagher’s trial. Perhaps we should all tattoo scarlet question marks on our foreheads, just to remind ourselves of our own guilt? A lot to ask, I suppose. It might suffice to ask the right questions in the future, persisting with the evidence at hand until we got the right answers–about our past wars, our present wars, and any that the powers-that-be decide in their wisdom to throw our way.


*I exclude people who were categorically against the Iraq war from the very beginning until the present. I regret that I myself don’t make that cut. Though questions remain about Gallagher’s innocence, my own rule is to write and speak about him on the presumption of innocence until and unless inculpatory evidence against him materializes, discounting all inculpatory testimony against him made by his colleagues.

**Just to be clear: I don’t mean to imply that all wartime killing must morally speaking meet the evidential standards of a criminal trial. What I mean is that if a war neither satisfies ad bellum criteria nor courtroom standards of guilt and innocence, the killings engaged in by the party starting the war are bound to be unjustified.

14 thoughts on “Missing the Corpses for the Case

  1. You say: “We all killed a couple of hundred thousand “bad dudes” on evidence much, much worse than that discredited in Gallagher’s trial. Perhaps we should all tattoo scarlet question marks on our foreheads, just to remind ourselves of our own guilt?” Which you qualify with this: “I exclude people who were categorically against the Iraq war from the very beginning until the present.”

    What about the millions of persons who had no strong view, one way or the other, about the invasion of Iraq? And what about the millions of persons who voiced support for the invasion of Iraq but whose support had no effect on the actual decisions made in the U.S. government and armed forces? Are all of those millions to be held responsible for an undertaking that was beyond their actual influence, as mere voters (if that)? If they are to be held responsible, why not the persons who voiced opposition to the invasion but did nothing practical to prevent it? Talk is cheap.

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    • Just an obvious preliminary point: any use of “all” (as in “we all killed”) has to be interpreted with a certain dose of common sense. Obviously, I’m restricting “all” to competent citizens of the country engaged in war. I don’t mean children, the cognitive impaired, undocumented aliens, etc. The footnote mentions one obvious exclusion from the scope of “all.” It wasn’t meant to cover every single conceivable case. But the cases you ask about were all meant to be included.

      What about the millions of persons who had no strong view, one way or the other, about the invasion of Iraq?

      It depends on why they had no strong view. If they had no strong view because, despite conscientious inquiry, they couldn’t reach a definitive view, there’s (by definition) nothing culpable about that. That possibility has some plausibility when applied to the disarmament rationale for the war, but not the nation-building one. But if you’re asking about the millions of people who had no strong view because they professed indifference to the issue as such–“Yes, we’re about to go to war with Iraq, but what does that have to do with me?”–I would say that such an attitude is culpably irresponsible. It’s culpably irresponsible to profess indifference to being used in a campaign of mass killing. You have an obligation to figure out whether to assent or dissent. You only get a pass if you try but fail. As a general proposition, you have a moral obligation not to allow yourself to be used in an egregiously immoral endeavor (or one that potentially is).

      Of course, if a competent adult somehow managed non-culpably to believe that they were not being used by the US government to prosecute the Iraq war, they’d get a pass, but I find that implausible.

      And what about the millions of persons who voiced support for the invasion of Iraq but whose support had no effect on the actual decisions made in the U.S. government and armed forces?

      I don’t quite understand the question. If A voices support for B’s murdering C, and B murders C without input from A, A may not be guilty of the murder but is still guilty for having voiced support for it. Voicing support for murder is a form of complicity in murder, and complicity in a culpable act is itself a culpable act. If Donald Trump is to be believed, “thousands” of Arabs in Jersey City celebrated the 9/11 attacks. Imagine asking the question, “What about the thousands who celebrated the 9/11 attacks but whose celebrations had no effect on the attacks?” Well, assuming thousands celebrated, they’d be guilty of celebrating. They don’t get a free pass any more than did the Germans who supported Hitler but happened not to serve in the Wehrmacht or SS.

      Since I myself fall into the preceding group (voiced support for the Iraq invasion but had no discernible effect on the conduct of the war), I would go further. I supported the disarmament rationale for the war because I sincerely believed that there was a threat from Iraq’s WMD, and sincerely believed that the Bush Administration was going to war to enforce UN Resolution 1441. I was initially skeptical of the war, but prematurely impressed by the disarmament rationale. So I reluctantly went along with it. But honesty compels me to admit that I did go along with it. In that respect, I don’t just regard myself as wrong (though I was); I regard myself as culpably credulous. Given what I knew (or should have known) about the U.S. government’s conduct in Vietnam, and its policies elsewhere, I should have known better. I should have exposed myself more assiduously and conscientiously to anti-war points of view. I didn’t support the war until after the invasion was under way (so my actions couldn’t possibly have brought the war about), but that doesn’t change anything about my culpability.

      If they [those who voiced opposition] are to be held responsible, why not the persons who voiced opposition to the invasion but did nothing practical to prevent it? Talk is cheap.

      Given the median voter theorem, voicing opposition is something practical to prevent the war. Each time you give voice to opposition where others can hear you, you make some marginal contribution to public opinion. Better still is to voice one’s opposition to those conducting the war–one’s legislators. We could quibble about how much of an obligation you have, but the relevant point here is that a person who voices opposition to an unjust war is not “doing nothing.” She’s doing something; perhaps she could do more, and perhaps she should. The question is how much is required to avoid culpability.

      On the one hand, any positive, effortful contribution to a just cause is still (somewhat) commendable as a contribution to justice. On the other hand, here as with other similar obligations (like charity), there’s such a thing as doing too little. Two general principles here: the more time you can afford, the more time you’re obliged to spend; given the history of the Vietnam War, no one can credibly claim that anti-war opposition has no practical effect on a war. So counsels of despair or complaints about one’s political impotence or helplessness are misconceived and out of place.

      Bottom line: In general, a person who conscientiously devotes real time and effort to a (just) cause is non-culpable. Whereas a person who fails to do that while manufacturing excuses about the pointlessness of effort, is culpable. If the median voter theory is right, the theorem implies that had there been real opposition to the war from the outset, there would not have been a war. Had there been more opposition after the war got underway, it would have been cut short. There’s plenty of blame in there to justify my saying what I said in the original post.

      I was initially skeptical about the war in 2002, supported it in 2003 (once it started), but slowly started to oppose it that very year, calling for a troop withdrawal by summer 2004. It took awhile before my opposition became wholehearted enough for me to reject all the reasons for staying in Iraq. But I got there. I wouldn’t have gotten there had I dug myself into my original view, refused to hold myself responsible for it, then shrugged the whole thing off and forgotten about it. Millions of people did just that. If I’m culpable, they certainly are. And I am.

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      • I understand you to have enunciated the following principle: Every time the U.S. government (or any other government in the U.S.) does a bad thing, a competent adult is morally complicit in the resulting badness if he or she (a) knew that the government was in the process of preparing to something (which turned out to be bad), (b) knew that it would be a bad thing or (c) should have known that it would be a bad thing because the U.S. government has done things in the past, and (d) failed to openly express opposition to the thing that turned out to be bad.

        Condition (a) is easily met in cases like the Iraq War, which get a let of attention, but certainly not in the myriad cases of destructive regulation that are not even on the radar of most Congresspersons. Condition (b) requires a lot of information and analysis that (I believe) is well beyond what can be reasonably expected of the median competent adult. Condition (c) implies that a competent adult should oppose government action of any kind on principle. (I happen to agree with that position, except, ironically in the case of defense against foreign and domestic enemies.) Condition (d) is relevant only if the median-voter theorem holds, which is doubtful given the theorem’s many underlying assumptions.

        In any event, if you could back-date yourself to December 8, 1941, would you have supported U.S. involvement in World War II, believing (based on the evidence of previous wars) that the conduct of the war would probably result in the killing, maiming, displacement and impoverishment of huge numbers of innocent persons who happened to reside in war zones?

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        • Sorry, this is going to be long.

          Maybe I should weaken and re-phrase my original claim. It’s not that we’re all guilty of killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but that we’re all collectively responsible for it unless we actively divest ourselves of responsibility. Any person who doesn’t actively divest himself of responsibility by contributing to opposition to the war has (whether morally guilty or not) contributed to it, and shares in the liability for it, in the sense that if restitution were to be paid to the victims, such a person would be fully on the hook for his share of it. The only people fully exempt are those who fully divested themselves from the outset (like Roderick below; that’s what his “whew” comment refers to).

          That said, there’s still a large disagreement here. We may not all be guilty, but huge numbers of us are, and your argument doesn’t convince me to the contrary.

          The principle I mean to be defending is that we all have an obligation to refuse to let ourselves to be used (even through coercion) to facilitate an immoral endeavor (unless, of course, the coercion overwhelms our capacity to act or credibly threatens to). The clearer the case, the greater the culpability for violating the principle; the less clear the case, the less the culpability for violation.

          I wouldn’t equate that principle with the version you’ve given in your comment. There’s a distinction to be drawn between knowingly contributing to an immoral endeavor, and unwittingly contributing to a bad outcome. The first is culpable, not the second. Think of the difference between letting someone drive drunk at an event you’ve hosted, and simply going out for a drive for entirely frivolous reasons. Both increase the odds of premature death on the road, but I take the first rather than the second to be culpable.

          I take the Iraq War to be a clearer case than any of the ones that you’ve mentioned (and clearer, than, say, the Afghan War): the relevant facts were available to anyone paying attention right from the outset, and though unclear at first, eventually became clear enough to be understandable to anyone. The only thing that impeded understanding was the systematic dishonesty of the Bush Administration and its propagandists in the media. They deceived us both about Iraq’s possessing WMD and about the rationale for going to war. They claimed knowledge that Iraq had WMD, as well as that those WMD were threats to us; they also dishonestly claimed that the war was about WMD rather than nation-building. I make some allowances for all that deception, but while a person could be excused for being fooled at first, only a culpable fool could be fooled for long–for years on end, through several election cycles, and a series of outright catastrophes, from Abu Ghraib to the rise of ISIS.

          At some point, the transparent, pathetic quality of the Bush Administration’s rationalizations for mass death, mass displacement, and all-out political chaos would have to cut through the static of the most static-entangled mind. What’s tragic (and evil) is that at a certain point, it did cut through, but when it did, the reaction was not outrage but indifference. Outrage became outre. To this day, people on the political right have taken to equating outrage with a lack of objectivity, as though there were some great virtue in confronting mass death of one’s own making with calm equanimity. I’m inclined to counter that sometimes, objectivity leads to outrage. It depends on the object.

          I understand that regulation has terrible effects, but a useful analogy here is the distinction between armed robbery and embezzlement. It’s not hard to grasp that a strong-arm or gunpoint robbery is immoral. Even children grasp it by analogy with mistreatment at the hands of a schoolyard bully. Embezzlement can be just as wrong as armed robbery, but is often (not always) far less clear. You couldn’t , for instance, explain the plot of “Office Space” to a small child (e.g., one who didn’t understand banking or decimals).

          The Iraq War was more like armed robbery than like embezzlement; bad regulation is more like embezzlement than armed robbery. I don’t at all dispute that many pro-regulatory attitudes, left and right, are highly culpable. What I dispute is that the cases of war and regulation are as similar as you’ve made them. People are used by the government for immoral regulatory ends, but can’t always be said to know that they are–at least not as clearly as in the case of the Iraq War. So while there is culpability there, it’s more muted. That said, people do have obligations to object to the regulatory state. The same basic principle applies. They don’t have to object to every single regulation that comes down the pike. Generalized objections (or principled objections to specific regulations) are fine. But dissent of some kind is imperative. Regulation, like warfare, has become a runaway train.

          So now let me deal more specifically with your comment.

          Every time the U.S. government (or any other government in the U.S.) does a bad thing, a competent adult is morally complicit in the resulting badness if he or she (a) knew that the government was in the process of preparing to something (which turned out to be bad), (b) knew that it would be a bad thing or (c) should have known that it would be a bad thing because the U.S. government has done things in the past, and (d) failed to openly express opposition to the thing that turned out to be bad.

          The issue is not badness, but immorality. A competent adult is complicit in immorality if she knowingly allows herself to be used in an immoral endeavor without dissent of some kind. In a political context, “competent adult” should be replaced with “competent citizen.” And “bad thing” has to be replaced throughout.

          But with those amendments, (a) and (b) are basically right: the person has to know that she’s being used in an immoral endeavor, and some failures of knowledge are likewise culpable. It’s part of a person’s moral responsibility not to allow herself to be fooled by dishonest actors, and no competent American citizen can (non-culpably) fail to know that the U.S. government lies about a lot of things. I don’t mean, of course, that a person is culpable whenever they’re defrauded. I mean that a person is culpable if they’re defrauded through a defective sort of credulity. An American who goes around thinking that if a government agent says something, it must be true, is prima facie guilty of a culpable sort of credulity. (If someone managed to adduced a case of non-culpable ignorance, I would trace that ignorance back to someone guilty of a culpable omission to educate the person in question.) On that understanding, some version of (c) is fine, as is (d).

          That said, I don’t accept the inferences you draw about (a)-(d). I’m not sure if this disagreement is explained by the amendments I’ve introduced above, or by something else.

          Condition (a) is easily met in cases like the Iraq War, which get a let of attention, but certainly not in the myriad cases of destructive regulation that are not even on the radar of most Congresspersons. Condition (b) requires a lot of information and analysis that (I believe) is well beyond what can be reasonably expected of the median competent adult. Condition (c) implies that a competent adult should oppose government action of any kind on principle. (I happen to agree with that position, except, ironically in the case of defense against foreign and domestic enemies.) Condition (d) is relevant only if the median-voter theorem holds, which is doubtful given the theorem’s many underlying assumptions.

          Because (a) is easily met in the case of the Iraq War, that case more easily licenses inferences to culpability than regulation. But I don’t agree that regulation is not on the radar screen of our Congressional representatives. If it’s plastered all over their websites, it’s got to be on their radar screens. And they habitually brag about all the regulation they’re sponsoring or voting for.

          Such representatives are certainly culpable in the case of a huge proportion of the regulatory legislation they pass; in many cases, they wear their recklessness about it on their sleeves. But so are the many myriads of people who clamor for regulation without even a moment’s thought beyond some direct consequence that they (often delusionally) think will come to them as a result. We’d have to get down into the empirical weeds to tease out the details here, but I think there is enormous culpability there. The culpability may not be as egregious as that involved in the Iraq War, but it’s not small or unimportant. It wasn’t what I was discussing in the original post, but I’m the last to deny it.

          I don’t agree with (b). Given the adverse effects of path-dependency and many other complications, it takes a great deal of lot of knowledge to know what regulations to keep in place. Precisely for that reason, it’s reckless to clamor as recklessly as people do to pass regulatory legislation. As I said just above, much of that recklessness is culpable. It doesn’t take much knowledge to grasp that you don’t have much knowledge on a given subject. That fact becomes transparent to anyone who honestly confronts his own ignorance. Since people are colossally ignorant of what one needs to know re regulation, they have an obligation to ratchet back their demands for regulation. Huge numbers of those who run afoul of this obligation are culpable.

          Condition (c) strikes me as too strong. I’d need to hear a rationale for it before I commented. For one thing, I don’t know how to reconcile your statement of the condition with the parenthetical just after it. But I guess I just don’t know what you mean, or how you reason to (c). It sounds like you’re advocating “anarchism except for dealings with enemies.” But I’m not sure about the anarchism, not sure who qualifies as an enemy, and not sure about the rationale for the exception.

          I think your comment on (d) conflates two different things. The fact that a theorem depends on prior assumptions makes its truth or falsity a complex matter, hence more open to doubt by a skeptical inquirer. But complexity doesn’t make the theorem more likely to be false than true.

          In any case, even if we set the median voter theorem aside, a weaker version of the theorem will do: all I need is the plausible claim that elected officials are responsive to what is required to get them elected, plus the claim that when it comes to war, they are responsive to mass protest (or alternatively, mass support/apathy). The anti-war movement of the 1960s and 70s is good evidence to this end, as is the civil rights movement. American law changed when people demanded change en masse. It didn’t change until they did.

          As for World War II, I’m not convinced it was an immoral endeavor, so I don’t regard support for it as immoral complicity for an immoral end. Even if it was an immoral endeavor, I don’t think its immorality (such as it was) was as clear to people in 1941 as the Iraq War is to those of us living after Vietnam and Watergate (etc.). Vietnam and Watergate taught us something novel about the moral character of our leaders. I’m not sure that people really grasped that, or were able to, in 1941. So if culpability was involved there, I’m inclined to take it easier on the people of 1941 than I am on the people of 2019. On the other hand, the people of 1941 did have the experience of Jim Crow, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, immoral enterprises hard to explain except by the culpable dishonesty of those involved. So I make this particular historical judgment with some hesitation. But I don’t think it has bearing on what I said in the original post.

          Do you disagree with the main claim I made in the post–that Gallagher is guilty of hypocrisy in relying on uncertainty for his acquittal while claiming something like certainty about the badness of the “dudes” he killed as regards his PR?

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          • Incidentally, Roderick has a really good paper relevant to this topic that’s influenced me a lot and is well worth reading. It’s “On Making Small Contributions to Evil.” (It’s a Word file, so just Google “Roderick Long” plus the title and it should come up.) I don’t know whether Roderick would agree with anything I’ve said here (he’s already disagreed with me about the bracelet), and I’m not sure I agree with every last claim in his paper. But I thought I’d mention it anyway.

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          • I was mulling a detailed response to your long reply to my comment. But I decided on a brief response because, like all competent adults, I have other priorities in my life. It isn’t your place to judge my prioritization (or anyone else’s). You cannot have any idea of what is important to others, nor can you possible weigh the value of, say, working hard to make the mortgage payment or pay for a child’s critical operation against the minuscule possibility that saying something about the invasion of Iraq might have forestalled it or shortened the length of the ensuing war. So I reject your wholesale assignment of guilt, or responsibility, or whatever gradation of “sin” you choose to assign to people who disagree with you about the invasion of Iraq — or who simply don’t have a firm opinion about it. My decision to make this a brief response is confirmed by your post “War with Iran?”, which points to “9/11 + 17: Lessons”.

            You will probably reject my characterization of the import of the latter post, but it strikes me as consistent with the typical paleo-libertarian stance on war, which is to wait until you see the whites of an enemy’s eyes. (Your lesson #8 is especially relevant here.) I will be blunt. That’s a stupid and suicidal stance. Fortunately, leaders like FDR and Churchill didn’t take that view about World War II — the morality of which you can’t bring yourself to pronounce upon. Yes, there were immoral things done in World War II, as there are in every real war, but if the Britain, the U.S., and other allies hadn’t taken the fight to the enemy, Britain would have been conquered and the U.S. would have been surrounded by the Axis powers, and therefore subject to economic and military blackmail — and probably to eventual invasion and subjugation. There is undeniable truth in the old saying that the best defense is a good offense. And if my side (yes MY side) wins because it takes the offensive and commits some acts that you would condemn as immoral, that is better than having my side lose and then having the enemy commit immoral acts against my countrymen, my family and friends, and even possibly me.

            Of course, war shouldn’t be the first resort against an enemy, or a potential enemy. And war inevitably results in evil-doing. But, as you point out in “9/11 + 17: Lessons”, the course of war is unpredictable, and doesn’t proceed as planned. Well, neither does life, but that’s not a good reason to commit suicide.

            I’ve gone on longer than I meant to. But that’s all I’ll have to say. If you reply, it will be for the sake of your other readers, because I’m through with this discussion. I have much more important things to do with my competent adult life.

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            • I’ll respond more fully when I can manage, but there is, to my mind, something amusing about your response: it suggests that you’re more wholeheartedly devoted to the prosecution of wars that other people will fight than you are to a conversation about warfare that you yourself initiated. Whereas my priorities are just the reverse: I prefer talking about wars to having people fight them, especially when they decide to fight them in my name and at my expense.

              Either my priorities are right or yours are, but they can’t both be. So it makes no sense to insist that personal priorities are beyond the scope of rational judgment when what we’re disagreeing about is which priorities should prevail. We’re both making judgments about one another’s priorities. The difference is that while I’m the first to admit that that’s precisely what I’m doing, you do it, then insist it shouldn’t be done.

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            • So here is my fuller response.

              On the broad issue of priorities, I guess the simplest thing to say is that if it were really true that no one could judge another person’s priorities, then moral judgment itself would be impossible. Moral judgment involves, at a minimum (and understating the point), judgments about others’ priorities. In any discussion, and particularly a relatively informal one on a blog, one makes assumptions at the outset that aren’t proven in the course of the discussion. I’m assuming that we can make moral judgments, hence can judge one anothers’ priorities.

              Unless you mean that no one can ever judge another person’s priorities about anything (which is incompatible with moral judgment as such and would render the entire discussion pointless), you must mean that I’m wrong about the importance of not allowing oneself to be used in an immoral enterprise, especially one involving mass death. But the principle I came up with was not all that demanding: all it says is that in the clearest cases, you should offer some public expression of your refusal to be used for a highly immoral end. I don’t see how that’s incompatible with paying one’s mortgage. I actually don’t even see how it’s incompatible with paying for a child’s operation. It’s not all that expensive. Even if you didn’t have a computer, you could walk into a public library, find your congressional representative’s website, and write him or her an email on a public computer. Or call. If you were really that financially straitened, I suppose you could just buy some paper, make a sign in magic marker, and tape it to your front window. I haven’t insisted that you should do something incompatible with the rest of a normal life, simply that resistance to injustice is part of a good life.

              Suppose we were talking about charity. Is it really so controversial to say that a person taking your line would justifiably be described as uncharitable?

              “I have no obligation to make a charitable donation to anyone ever because I have to pay a mortgage, after all, and what if my child has to have a critical operation, so don’t you dare suggest that I have to give a dime to the March of Dimes, or Oxfarm, or Unicef, or…I have different priorities.”

              If the speaker were really that impoverished, well, I suppose he’d be a charitable beneficiary rather than benefactor, hence off the hook. But how many people in the United States are so impoverished that they can’t afford a dime’s donation to anything ever? At a certain point “skepticism” about the possibility of judging another’s priorities starts to sound like bad faith.

              It also sounds like confusion. To bring things back to the Iraq War: obviously, the obligation to oppose the war can’t apply if you thought that the war was justified, or if you simply professed ignorance one way or the other about its justification. But for someone who’s so aggressive about asking questions, and demanding straight answers, you’re awfully cagey about what you think about the justification of the war we’re supposedly discussing. If you think it was justified, I’d say you were wrong. If you aren’t sure, I’d have to ask about the basis of your indecision. But all of that is a different topic than the one we’ve been discussing. I was assuming that the war was unjustified, and holding Americans responsible for not stopping an unjustified war on that assumption. If you thought differently about the war itself, you could have said so. But I took you to be saying this:

              Suppose that the war was unjustified, and suppose it involved mass death, torture, mass displacement and so on, and suppose we’re complicit in it. So what? Some people want to disavow complicity, and some could care less about it. To each his own.

              My response is that that view de-values justice. Justice demands something more than sheer indifference or apathy to mass death, torture, etc. undertaken with one’s resources and in one’s name. I think there’s ample justification for interpreting you as saying what’s in the block quote just above, but if you’d had something else in mind, feel free to say it. I’d rather hear it than hold you to your self-imposed vow of silence.

              Now on lesson 8 and “seeing the whites of the enemy’s eyes”: the simplest response to everything you’ve said on this issue is that you’re begging the question and also arguing against a straw man.

              The straw man is the idea that lesson 8 rules out a defense in depth. It doesn’t. It doesn’t require that we wait for threats to materialize in our midst, and then act. What it requires is that we have genuine evidence of threats to us before we decide to take military action against “them.”

              Which brings me to the question you’ve begged. You write as though American military history has consisted of episodes in which this country has faced genuine national security threats, and gone to war against those threats because had it not done so, the threat would have become existential and killed us all (hence the constant references to “suicide”). I think I can name plenty of episodes across a couple of centuries that were nothing of the sort–starting with the Revolutionary War and ending with what we’re currently doing in Iraq and Syria.

              As for World War II, I didn’t say or imply that I couldn’t bring myself to pronounce on it. You asked about the application of my principle to the war, and I said that it didn’t apply; the principle applies to complicity in evil, and I’m not convinced that World War II was evil (meaning that I don’t think that Allies’ fighting the Axis was evil). If you don’t think it’s evil, and I don’t, then (I inferred) a discussion of that war was irrelevant to the principle we were discussing (and said as much).

              That said, I don’t think that World War II is the obvious case that so many people make of it. One issue is obvious, at least to me: the Axis were the aggressors; the Allies responded defensively to their aggression. But it’s a separate question whether fighting was worth the trouble for everyone who engaged in it. Was fighting in World War II worth it to my relatives in British India, who fought for Britain? I don’t see how. Neither Japan nor Germany nor Italy was ever going to invade Lahore. I don’t see anything wrong with watching the empires fight one another and seeing how it all shakes out. My relatives didn’t happen to do that, but I would have. I mean, if the Swiss and the Irish could sit out the war, so could we.

              Was it worth it to us as Americans? I suppose it was. It isn’t all that obvious to me. I wouldn’t deny that it was, and it has a certain plausibility, but I wouldn’t claim certainty. Claims like this don’t do anything to persuade me:

              …if the Britain, the U.S., and other allies hadn’t taken the fight to the enemy, Britain would have been conquered and the U.S. would have been surrounded by the Axis powers, and therefore subject to economic and military blackmail — and probably to eventual invasion and subjugation.

              Just to be clear: you are saying that I can’t know anything about human priorities, but you have knowledge of the what-ifs of human history.

              The German invasion of Britain failed before the United States entered the war–that is, before the U.S. entered the fight that you’re saying we “took” to the Nazis. So there’s no way to infer that but for our fighting the Nazis, Britain would have been conquered. It wasn’t conquered despite our not fighting them.

              To be “surrounded” by Axis powers, the Axis would had to have invaded and conquered Canada and Mexico, and have had uncontested naval superiority in the Atlantic and the Pacific. But that only argues for defending the American continent against Axis invasion, and ensuring naval superiority in the oceans. We didn’t have to enter the war to do either thing.

              As for our being subject to economic blackmail, you’re presupposing that the Axis would have been economically successful after fighting the Soviets, winning, and conquering Western Europe. How do you know?

              And as for military blackmail, we faced plenty of Soviet blackmail after the war, and managed. By far the worst way of dealing with it was to take the bait and engage in proxy wars all over the globe–Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Afghanistan…a literal hell of a list. What you’ve offered up is hand-waving under the guise of certainty. But there are very few counterfactual certainties in military history. None of yours are.

              I am not certain there was any way to avoid our entry into World War II. I incline toward the conventional view that there wasn’t, but am open to any retrospective appeaser who can offer me a way out. When it comes to warfare, I take a pride in being an ingenious excuse-maker for evasion, avoidance, and inaction: give me an inch toward war, and I’ll subtract a mile. My priorities on display, for whatever they’re worth. And I’m not dead yet.

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              • A quick postscript to my comment: When I said that the Axis were the aggressors in World War II, and the Allies the defenders, I hadn’t meant to be denying that aggression in Europe was a joint Nazi-Soviet endeavor. To belabor what is probably obvious: technically, the Soviets were among “the Allies,” even though they helped start the war in Europe, and yet the Nazis were the aggressors in their invasion of the Soviet Union. Sometimes, even the obvious requires clarification.

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  2. “what Gallagher’s bracelet should really say is: ‘I kill people that I would like you to believe are ‘bad dudes’, when the evidence you have of their badness is a hell of a lot worse than the evidence against me.”

    That wouldn’t fit on a bracelet though.

    “I exclude people who were categorically against the Iraq war from the very beginning until the present.”

    Whew.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  4. Pingback: War with Iran? | Policy of Truth

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