Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Rich Puchalsky 10.19.16 at 12:37 pm

Even as we write this, forces are advancing on Mosul to recapture the city from ISIL: the reason they can do this is because of U.S. airstrikes and troops. Refugee organizations expect something like 200,000-700,000 refugees from the city. The city was captured a couple of years ago when 1,000 Daesh fighters routed something like 60,000 defenders, mostly because the defenders weren’t strongly motivated to defend: people in the city now have a counter-assassination resistance against ISIL executions.

That is our intervention. Our bombs will not kill civilians in the city: the disparate groups of fighters that we support certainly won’t commit the usual atrocities of war: the refugee crisis will no doubt be handled responsibly and will be fully resourced: when the city is recaptured, the ISIL fighters will be defeated once and for all and we’ll never hear from them again.

The people who support this are crazy. They are insane and I can only talk to them in the jocular way that you’d talk to people who are suffering from such severe mental illness that there is no way to rationally convince them that their delusions are not real. But these people have not been institutionalized: they are running our institutions.

bruce wilder 10.19.16 at 1:41 pm

LFC: Deliberately targeting noncombatants is a clear violation of law and norms, and it cannot be justified by saying: “well, we have to eliminate the violent rebels in this city, and we’ve offered a pause to allow the rebels to leave, but the rebels have declined the offer, and therefore the lives of the civilians [whether they be 30,000 or 200,000] in the city are of no particular concern to us, . . .

The laws of war are a very particular and even peculiar species of bullshit. I am not a lawyer, let alone a military lawyer or specialist in such things, but from casual reading of news reporting, I think you are actually wrong in the above assertion. Giving a warning and an opportunity for combatants or civilians to vacate an area actually does open up a broad exception. “Exception” is probably the wrong term, technically, but in operation, . . . The offering of a warning, a pause and opportunities to vacate are all the laws of war require, in order to excuse the collateral damage that follows from combat operations against targets that are believed to shelter enemies among civilians.

bruce wilder 10.19.16 at 2:31 pm

If you don’t see any point in distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants (yes, the lines are sometimes blurry, but they are often very clear), and if you don’t think that intentions are of any relevance — that is, if you think there’s no difference whatsoever, for instance, between (1) deliberately blowing up a hospital and (2) accidentally bombing a hospital in a culpably negligent act of misidentification in the middle of a nighttime battle (as happened in a highly publicized case in Afghanistan a while back), then we can’t have a conversation b.c we are operating in different universes of discourse.

Do I think intentions are relevant? Maybe. Do I think statements of intention are relevant? Harder. I do not have any reliable way of sorting or confirming actual intentions, as distinguished from propaganda.

I am afraid we are stuck with this universe of discourse. No one can offer LFC a corridor of safe flight to a more morally certain world.

In my mind, I keep coming back to that NYT Mag profile of Ben Rhodes, the White House speechwriter (Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications) trying to manage U.S. foreign policy with rapid fire narratives. This is the world we live in. And, yes, it is one where it is not possible to distinguish between deliberately blowing up a hospital and accidentally in a culpable act of negligence blowing up a hospital. Not because there are not relevant moral distinctions, but because any story is built around those putative distinctions without much regard for facts. As Layman points out, the “information” given out by officials is dictated by a desire to manipulate public perceptions and deflect criticism and follows a predictable pattern unrelated to facts of a case.

This discourse has become delusive, as Rich P says above. Sarcasm or mockery may be rude, but appropriate.


Rich Puchalsky 10.19.16 at 3:18 pm

BW: “I do not have any reliable way of sorting or confirming actual intentions, as distinguished from propaganda.”

Note that even criticizing propaganda as such is supposed to imply commitment to the other side. Remember how faustusnotes apparently sincerely could not distinguish between criticism of propaganda about atrocities threatened in Gaddafi’s speech and actual defense of Gaddafi? In the same way, if you oppose a no fly zone that threatens great power war where the no-fly zone would be an area in which 165 people were killed in two months by bombs and shells by one “side” as opposed to 168 by the other, you must not be concerned about people being killed.

This is ancient stuff, but here we have the best and the brightest — university graduates, people with Ph.Ds in international relations, educated people of all kinds — no more able to think about it than any barely literate 19th century lower class urbanite. Clearly education only means that people are freed to rationalize a class position that justifies their interests.

This is why I think that problems of scale and responses to problems of scale really are the core elements of what people should be thinking about.

bruce wilder 10.19.16 at 6:18 pm

My phrase, “morally certain world” was poor. It doesn’t denote what I meant.

I think an objective observer, weighing the balance of likelihood, would conclude that the U.S. military targeted the MSF hospital and most probably did so, because the MSF hospital was only facility in the area where Taliban fighters could seek sophisticated medical treatment. That the choice of target originated in the U.S. chain of command was confirmed, so there is no dispute really that this choice was made, though the motivation and objective have been obscured and can only be surmised. No one was disciplined specifically for initiating the attack — we know this because no one was named let alone court martialled and sent to Leavenworth as would be nominally appropriate for such an unauthorized(?) act of murder and mayhem. The only discipline handed out was essentially administrative and only for the negligence and general snafus that allowed the rest of the chain of command to execute the attack without objection. Again, a reasonable and objective observer would wonder whether the initiator of the attack might not have had a hand in arranging things so that the attack went ahead and wasn’t short-circuited by the ordinary and routine controls put in place to prevent such “mistakes”.

Presumably, this balance of likelihood is why the MSF wanted an investigation independent of the U.S. military’s own self-examination.

“Blaming the victim” should not be the primary issue, here, though, of course, in the prolonged sequence of contradictory explanations in an incident that attracted international attention at the highest levels, the U.S. did at various times officially claim that the Taliban were firing from the compound and that the MSF complex was not properly marked. There is no particular reason to think that the sequence of explanations arrived at anything resembling the truth; only a defensible redoubt of apologia.

Whether the attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz constituted a “war crime” isn’t the issue I want to raise either. I think it was a war crime, but the U.S. has a general policy of committing war crimes while denying that policy, so unless you think denial is itself a singular virtue is, I do not understand the argument. If the problem is whether Russia is the bad guy and the U.S. is the good guy, I don’t think the U.S. has much the better argument, at least on the face of it. Pretty much every “bad guy” atrocity in the record books has a corresponding atrocity with an American signature. Shoot down a passenger airliner? Check. Unprovoked aggressive war? Check. And so on.

The thing that troubles me — the thing I want to draw attention to — is the delusive effect of letting moral narrative dominate all policy discussion.

In the case of the Kunduz MSF hospital incident, the effect of moral-narrative-domination is that we do not know who in the U.S. chain-of-command decided MSF should clear out and the MSF hospital should close down (and people should be killed and maimed to achieve that objective). The civilian leadership presumably is not willing to own this policy choice, and they are willing to let the military bear the costs of demoralization, by disciplining, however mildly proportionate to the consequences for the dead and maimed victims, those in the chain of command responsible for the “negligence” which was ultimately trotted out as an excuse for “poor performance” (after several other explanations failed to stymie high-level criticism).

Our American b.s. pretense of righteous conduct is seriously interfering with the political ability to arrive at a deliberately chosen policy likely to achieve strategically chosen objectives, to cooperate efficiently within the policy-making hierarchy, to cooperate with allies and rivals (like Russia, which probably does not see the U.S. as particularly trustworthy or even entirely rational in negotiation), and to generate public support and general legitimacy.

I would submit that the ordinary purpose of international law is not to mandate just conduct per se, but to establish conventions that allow for political coordination, even between rivals, as well as facilitate hierarchical control of the state’s forces for the centralized control of policy. And, domination-by-moral-narrative has become a serious handicap, a source of American foreign policy palsy cum dementia.

I’m not taking the position that morality and ethical conduct do not matter. (I think long-time readers will realize I am something of an impractical idealist.) What I am trying to draw attention to is the effect of bull shit justifications: the narratives are drawn up in disregard for their factual truth value. (Disregard for truth value is kind of the definition of bull shit).

In short, I think judgments should be attempted, even in the face of the obscuring propaganda, but I think we have to confront the propaganda as propaganda and the doubts and uncertainties it engenders, as well as the semi-deranged social climate of opinion it engenders, as Rich P points out.

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