Sing It Again, Y’all

From a Bret Stephens column on the “Gulf of Oman” crisis:

Trump might be a liar, but the U.S. military isn’t. There are lingering questions about the types of munitions that hit the ships, and time should be given for a thorough investigation. But it would require a large dose of self-deception (or conspiracy theorizing) to pretend that Iran isn’t the likely culprit, or that its actions don’t represent a major escalation in the region.

How many fallacies do you see there? I was at first tempted to count two.

The first  is a begged question: the U.S. military’s version of the event is true because the U.S. military doesn’t lie.

The second is either a poisoned well or two of them: if you don’t believe the U.S. military’s version of the story, you are (1) self-deceived or (2) engaged in conspiracy theorizing. Continue reading

Droning On

I’m teaching the issue of drone warfare and targeted killing in one of my ethics classes, the fifth or sixth semester in a row I’ve taught this material, via Kenneth Himes’s 2016 book, Drones and the Ethics of Targeted Killing. It’s been a frustrating, even despair-inducing experience: Of the 90 or so students enrolled, only half attend. Of the 45 of who attend, 40 are utterly indifferent to the material, unmoved even by the most shocking finding, revelation, or video I can throw at them.

My students–whether rich or poor, urban or suburban, black or white–simply do not care whether drones increase or decrease the incidence of terrorist attacks, much less whether their use is in any sense morally justified. Whether drones kill innocents or kill “bad guys,” whether the targets are justified in resisting U.S. policy or obliged to lie down and take it: none of this is nearly as important as whatever they’re doing on their phones. Continue reading

9/11 + 17: Lessons

I post this every year around 9/11, so here it is again. Though it isn’t up yet, Chris Sciabarra’s annual 9/11 series is always worth reading and should be up soon. And feel free to take a look at my recent apologetic essay here in defense of terrorism, eventually slated for publication in Reason Papers as part of a symposium on Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified. 

We’re just a few days away from the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned from the last decade and a half of perpetual warfare. I offer them somewhat dogmatically, as a mere laundry list (mostly) minus examples, but I have a feeling that the lessons will ring true enough for many people, and that most readers can supply appropriate examples of their own.  Continue reading

Terrorism Justified: A Response to Vicente Medina

[This is a draft of the paper I’ll be presenting this Saturday at the Author Meets Critics session I’m organizing on Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified: The Use and Misuse of Political Violence, featuring presentations by Theresa Fanelli (Felician), Graham Parsons (West Point), and myself, with a response by Vicente Medina (Seton Hall). Comments welcome. For a link to an earlier discussion of Medina’s book at PoT, go here.]

Terrorism Justified: Comment on Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified
Author Meets Critics Session
Felician University, Rutherford, New Jersey
April 21, 2018
Irfan Khawaja
Felician University

  1. Introduction

Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified offers a comprehensive, clear, and thorough critique of terrorism. There’s a sense in which I agree with and greatly admire Medina’s argument, and a sense in which I fundamentally disagree with and reject it. In this paper, I’ll focus on the disagreement, in the hopes that in doing so, the implicit agreement will come out as well.

I begin in Section 2 by making some critical observations on Medina’s definition of “terrorism.” The definition, I suggest, pushes the reader in two different directions—a categorical rejection of terrorism, and a subtly conditional one. On the latter interpretation, terrorism can be justified, but only in situations that Medina regards as extremely implausible and unlikely. In Section 3, I offer an extended thought-experiment, verging on a fable, intended to give plausibility one such situation. In other words, the case I describe is one in which it seems (to me) justifiable to target people that Medina would regard as “innocent noncombatants,” or else to inflict foreseeable harm on them without having to meet a “reasonable doubt” criterion as to their moral status. In Sections 4 and 5, I make explicit what the fable leaves implicit. Continue reading

A War of Convenience

I’m sure this strategy has Putin and Assad cowering in fear:

America’s allies in Britain and France declared that they were prepared to act again if necessary, but made clear that they did not want to become further involved in Syria.

Translation:

We will take all necessary measures to deter our enemies…unless doing so becomes a hassle.

Right, but wouldn’t that be an invitation on Putin and Assad’s part to make it a hassle? If you don’t want “to become further involved in Syria,” wouldn’t non-involvement be the more obvious method to adopt?

We Play Our Part, and They Play Their Games

To paraphrase Bon Jovi, our Syria strikes shot through “the heart” of Syria’s chemical weapons program. “We are,” Nikki Haley tells us, “confident that we have crippled Syria’s chemical weapons program.” But

“I would say there’s still a residual element of the Syrian program that’s out there,” General McKenzie said. “I’m not going to say that they’re going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future. I suspect, however, they’ll think long and hard about it.”

Just a little FYI: the metaphor of shooting something through “the heart” means that you’ve killed it. Supernatural powers or magic aside, death is forever. So unless you’re invoking magic or the supernatural, it makes no fucking sense to say that you’ve killed something but you’re “not going to say” that it’s “going to be unable” to re-constitute itself. In that case, what you’re saying is that you’ve killed it, but it’s not dead. In which case you probably shouldn’t have claimed to have killed it. Continue reading

Rolling Blunder: Airpower Redux

From George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, pp. 179, 180:

Rolling Thunder

The United States relied heavily on bombing. Airpower doctrine emphasized that the destruction of an enemy’s war-making capacity would force that enemy to come to terms. The limited success of strategic bombing as applied on a large scale in World War II and on a more restricted scale in Korea raised serious questions about the validity of this assumption. The conditions prevailing in Vietnam, a primitive country with few crucial targets, might have suggested even more questions. The air force and navy advanced unrealistic expectations about what airpower might accomplish, however, and clung to them long after experience had proven them unjustified. The civilian leadership accepted the military’s arguments, at least to a point, because bombing was cheaper in lives lost and therefore more palatable at home, and because it seemed to offer a quick and comparatively easy solution to a complex problem. Initiated in early 1965 as much from the lack of alternatives as from anything else, the bombing of North Vietnam was expanded over the next two years in the vain hope that it would check infiltration into the South and force North Vietnam to the conference table. …

The manner in which airpower was used in Vietnam virtually ensured that it would not achieve its objectives. Whether, as the  Joint Chiefs argued, a massive, unrestricted air war would have worked remains much in doubt. In fact, the United States had destroyed most major targets by 1967 with no demonstrable effect on the war. Nevertheless, the administration’s gradualist approach gave Hanoi time to construct an air defense system, protect its vital resources, and develop alternative modes of transportation. Gradualism in encouraged the North Vietnamese to persist despite the damage inflicted on them.

Sound familiar?

Traveling in the Right Circles

From a letter to the editor of today’s New York Times:

To the Editor:

Re “The Truth About the Cost of War” (editorial, Nov. 24):

I was in a unit in Vietnam in 1969 that called in air and artillery strikes on “free fire zones” in III Corps, northwest of Saigon.

I asked an Army officer how we knew that the people we fired on were all the enemy. “By definition,” he said, “if we kill them, they are the enemy.”

Part of the truth in your editorial isn’t that civilian casualties are underreported but that their deaths in battle are seen as irrelevant.

BRUCE W. RIDER, GRAPEVINE, TEX.

503+ Boots on the Ground and Counting

No comment on this item except to say “I told you so”:

More flexibility for American commanders appears to be coming. Representative Mac Thornberry, Republican of Texas Republican and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters Wednesday that he expected the White House to remove “artificial troop caps” in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The current “force manning level” for Syria sets a limit on the number of American military personnel in Syria at 503. But the limit does not count temporary reinforcements, like the roughly 400 personnel who were deployed in Syria when the Marine artillery battery and Army Rangers were sent to the country.

There was another telling indication on Wednesday that American Special Operations would continue to play an important role. Col. Jonathan P. Braga, the chief of staff of the Joint Special Operations Command and the former deputy commander of Delta Force, has been named as the next senior operations officer for the American-led command that is leading the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Surely you remember President Obama’s “no boots on the ground” promise (“promise”)? It took less than three years for the promise to evaporate and be forgotten. Continue reading

Ayn Rand on World War I: (In)Decisive Arguments and the Lessons of History

I’ve been prepping to teach a course on international relations this term. In the course of doing so, I decided, on a lark, to re-read Ayn Rand’s essay “The Roots of War,” which I hadn’t read in awhile. On re-reading it, I was startled at how crazy it seemed since the last time that I’d read it–baffling, misleading, exasperating, and confusing.

Here is one of the baffling claims she makes, about the origins of World War I:

Observe that the major wars of history were started by the more controlled economies of the time against the freer ones. For instance, World War I was started by monarchist Germany and Czarist Russia, who dragged in their freer allies (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 33 in the Centennial Edition).

The first sentence is debatable, but the second sentence strikes me as bizarre. Can anyone think of a plausible interpretation of the origins of World War I that holds Germany and Russia jointly responsible for starting it? I’m not questioning the abstract possibility that two antagonists can separately and simultaneously initiate force against one another. That’s odd, but can in principle happen (and does happen). What I find puzzling is why Rand thinks Russia can be saddled with having started this particular war. Continue reading