Sunday, March 29, 2015

Clichés, Ethics, Afghanistan (1 Nov. 2009)

                   Clichés are useful, but dangerous when they stop arguments and stifle thought, so we should demand that people at least think about our clichés.
                  Start with thinking about them literally.
                  The Washington Post had an editorial headlined, "Mr. Obama punts" (27 Sept. 2009). The editorial attacked the Obama administration on a decision on detaining terrorism suspects at the US base at Guantanamo, and I agree with the Post. There's a problem, though, if people assume that punting is necessarily a bad idea; if you think that you're not thinking enough about football, where a punt may never be heroic but is often the only sensible play.
                  Similarly there was a Congressional to-do over the line, "cowards cut and run, Marines never do." Back when the expression had the most meaning, literal cutting and running wasn't a decision for a Marine but for a naval commanding officer.
                  If you commanded a modest American frigate on a solo mission during the War of 1812, and you were at anchor in a small bay and looked out and saw the fog clearing to reveal a rapidly approaching, not-so-modest British squadron —any one ship of which had you outgunned — then, sir, it would have been your duty to order cut the ropes that held the sails furled and also your anchor cable(s). And then you would run, perhaps before the wind, perhaps not, depending on which way the wind was blowing, because your duty, sir, was to get the hell out of there before your ship was sunk or captured.
                  In football, sometimes you punt; in naval warfare, sometimes you cut and run. And in ground warfare, "Come back with your shield or on it" meant, "Don't throw away your shield and run off," not "never retreat." Infantry have to know how to retreat, sometimes at high speed.
                  And if you can't stand the heat do get out of the kitchen, unless there's some important reason for being in the kitchen.
                  American politicians, pundits, and standard-issue citizens are going to have to debate continued US military action in Iraq and, more pressingly, Afghanistan. And we will use clichés, including the macho clichés. Just ask yourself some literal questions and work out their geo-political equivalents.
                  Where is the ball in Afghanistan? How do you get a first down? Where, and, what are the goals? Alternatively, is this a "kitchen" we belong in? Is the meal worth the effort, and the cost? If politicians and pundits talk figuratively of heat and kitchens, we should also ask just who is sweating in the Afghan "kitchen." It's Afghans and NATO military people (primarily American troops), not politicians or pundits.
                  And so forth.
                  There is nothing unmanly about getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan if that's the right and reasonable thing to do: men are the second-most common variety of human beings, and humans are, in theory, uniquely ethical animals, capable of reason.

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