Wednesday, November 24, 2004
It's always with a certain sense of frustration that I follow the news. For over a week now, the news media has been chewing over the footage of the Marine shooting a
gunman. The primary purpose of this coverage is to discredit the war effort. Now, whether or not you support the war, this is a canard. For if the war were wrong,
it would still be wrong even if the Marine did the right thing; and if the war were right, it would still be right even if the Marine did the wrong thing.The critics
have also raised two generic objections to the actions of the Marine. I say 'generic,' because these are objections they've been raising to the war in general from the
get-go: (i) it sends the wrong message to the Muslim world, inflaming Arab opinion: (ii) it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.To the first objection I'd say a
couple of things:a) You notice that whenever the Muslims do it to us, we're told that this has nothing to do Islam; Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance.But
whenever we do it to a Muslim, we told that this will inflame the Muslim world, which assumes that it has everything to do with Islam.b) The message which the
Marine's action sends to me is that if you pick a fight with a Marine, you'll end up on the losing end of a rifle butt. And to my Neanderthal mind, that's a very
excellent message to be sending to the Muslim world.As to the second charge, notice how the debate has been framed: whether what the Marine did was right or
wrong depends on whether his action is defensible consistent with the terms of the Geneva Conventions.No one is questioning the Geneva Conventions. Rather,
they are questioning his action in relation to that unquestioned standard of reference.Well, I, for one, am going to question the Conventions. Suppose, for the sake
of argument, that the Marine did violate the Conventions. I don't care. The Conventions are not a moral absolute.As so often happens, you have something that
was put into effect for a reason. But once it's put into effect, folks are apt to forget what the reason was, and absolutize the policy. It takes on a life of its own--a
free-floating autonomy.In traditional warfare, there were two ways of dealing with POWs: enslave them or execute them.Both methods were harsh, but there was a
reason for the harsh policy. If you repatriated POWs, they would live to fight you another day. But that all changed, on paper, at least, with the Geneva
Conventions--which stipulated that POWs were entitled to certain rights.Yet it is important to remember the reasoning which lay behind the Conventions. The
reasoning was not that we should be nice to POWs for the sake of being nice; rather, the reasoning was that we'll be nice to our POWs so that you'll be nice to
your POWs.The reasoning was that if, in a given war, both sides take POWs, then it is in the self-interest of both sides that their imprisoned soldiers not be
mistreated.That's the logic. Notice that the logic is bilateral, not unilateral. This is not a moral imperative, but a pragmatic arrangement.It also comes at a cost. The
side which honors the Conventions is assuming an additional risk. It should be much safer for our soldiers to take no prisoners rather than to gingerly pick their
way through the fallen. Now, what kind of enemy are we facing in Iraq? We are facing an enemy that does not abide by the Geneva Conventions. Yet the
Conventions were predicated on the principle of reciprocity. Both sides assume a risk to yield a benefit.But given that the enemy doesn't play by the rules, there's
no earthly reason why our soldiers should be giving the wounded the benefit of the doubt.I'm not saying that we should kill indiscriminately. We should only kill
in self-defense and in the furtherance of a strategic objective.But the enemies we're up against live to kill. Whenever they take one of our soldiers captive, they kill
him--kill him as brutally as their diabolical minds can devise.So there's no good reason why we should sacrifice the safety of our soldiers or our tactical advantage
with an enemy like
At the risk of repeating myself, the underlying rationale for the Conventions is pragmatic, not principled--utilitarian, not absolute.
The reasoning is that when we capture your combatants, we'll be nicer to them so that you'll return the favor when you capture our combatants.
This is not a question of intrinsic values or lowering ourselves to the level of the enemy. Rather, this is a case of contract law. Both sides assume a mutual obligation in the interests of a mutual benefit. If one party reneges on the contract, then that voids the contract.
This is an end-means arrangement, contingent on both parties to the contract upholding their end of the bargain. In case of nonperformance, the deal is off.
A cease-fire is a good comparison. If one side resumes hostilities, no reasonable man would say that other side is still bound to abide by the terms of the cease-fire, for the terms were mutual and the rationale was reciprocal. The salient point is the point for which the rules were framed in the first place.
This doesn't mean that our side is free to do whatever it pleases. For teleological reasoning conditions other aspects of just warfare. You try not to inflict more harm that is necessary to achieve the strategic objective. Wanton brutality and random carnage are without warrant because they are, among other things, gratuitous.
There are certain minimal standards of humane conduct, regardless of what the enemy does. To that extent we must sometimes surrender a tactical advantage.