Thursday, March 19, 2015

"Squeamishness," "Manliness" ... Brutality (13 Aug. 2014)

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“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of "Admin." 
The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid "dens of crime" that Dickens loved to paint. 
It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. 
But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) 
in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars 
and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. 
Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like 
 the bureaucracy of a police state or the office 
of a thoroughly nasty business concern. 
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Preface

I'm still stewing over the line in an editorial in The Ventura County Star (our local paper in "south-central-coastal California") on President Obama's "squeamishness about the use of force" in Iraq, a sequeamishness he's partly overcome as I write in early middle-ish August of 2014.

Let's go back to a war ambiguous enough to keep a conference of ethicists at work for a few years, but relatively straight-forward as wars go and certainly compared with most wars currently and lately: "The Big One," "WWII," "The Last Good War" (on the side of the Allies).

The people of Dresden and Hamburg were, generally and undoubtedly, "Good Germans," supporting their duly elected Leader. Did they — or the people of Tokyo — deserve to be blown apart or burned to death or asphyxiated as the firestorms destroyed their bombed cities? Did they deserve to have their children killed — or their children to die, often horribly?

To ask such questions is to answer them, and it is rare for politicians or others to justify carpet-bombing cities in terms of deserve. The questions either aren't asked, or justifications are presented in terms of "speed the end of the war."

Air-power advocates had a theory: "strategic bombing," as it was called, would remove the means of making war at their sources by destroying factories, communication networks, and stores of war materiel; would break the morale of the Enemy by terrorizing the civilian population and killing family members of fighters; and (usually spoken very quietly, if at all), kill off many in a rising generation of potential opponents.  Or, as Winston Churchill is said to have put it back in the days before accurate bombing — deny housing to Enemy workers, since if the bombers could get their bombs onto a city, they'd be sure at least to destroy a bunch of houses.

Back when I was studying such things, the war wonks were still arguing whether or not strategic bombing worked, and my Army teachers were dubious. For sure, however, we can say that warfare from the beginning has involved killing civilians and killing them in large numbers: intentionally as part of a terror campaign and/or "business as usual," or, more recently, as "collateral damage," where noncombants are not killed (wounded, maimed, rendered homeless) as a primary objective but as a more or less unfortunate unintended —  but inevitable — consequence.

Similarly for weapons of mass destruction other than strategic bombers, e.g., massed artilley a fleet showing up in  your harbor with large numbers of naval guns and/or, nowadays, missiles.
I don't know whether President Obama was right or wrong in ordering air attacks in Iraq, and right about now I'm too disgusted with both the Israelis and Palestinians to take sides (although I'm Jewish and old enough to know what "Good Germans" of many nations could do to Jews rendered stateless — and the survival of Israel is important to me). What I can do now is repeat yet again a couple ideas drawn from George Orwell on language, Kurt Vonnegut on warfare, and C. S. Lewis (see above) on the nature of modern evil.

There are always men in the world  — mostly men —who have set up "ends," goals they are convinced will justify "any means necessary" to achieve. These people, generally, are fanatics, often fanatics operating from religious assumptions that involve values of infinite worth: saving souls, e.g., establishing The Kingdom of God, as they see it, doing what "God wills" (Deus vult!). There are other men — mostly men — less lofty in their worldviews for whom "War is a mere continuation of policy by other means," or who pursue the Mafia idea of "Business is business," just on vaster and bloodier scales than Mafia dons and soldiers.

 Such folk can do a lot of damage, as can decent people resisting evil or frightened people who will do unto others before those others do unto us — or people understandably out for revenge.
And many such people are armed and dangerous, and sometimes heavily armed.

This has been the way of humankind and in less sophisticated forms (quite likely) the way of many of the ancestors of humankind. So be it. Let us at least, however, face honestly what it is we do.

Contemplating the destruction of Dresden by US and UK aerial bombing during World War II, Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse-Five, "I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.”

I can't be quite that much of a pacifist, so my advice to the hawks calling for US "assertiveness" and "use of force" is (1) to put in specific, concrete terms just what they are calling for, (2) think about Vonnegut's actually rather extreme position — as the world goes — and (3) apply the more limited rule, "Only kill when you really, really have to," and, if we're talking about killing people, maybe not even then.

And, while we're engaging in such relatively idealistic behavior, perhaps we can reduce the "massacre machinery" in its nuclear varieties to levels where our willingness to kill one another doesn't get so out of hand that we take down our civilization, if not our species (and maybe vertebrate life and complex plants).

 That may be unmanly talk, but, then, I'm endorsing some varieties of squeamishness. 

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