Tuesday, March 20, 2012

'War Crime' is Redundant. 'Just War' is Oxymoronic.

David Brooks explores today the transition of a good, decent civilian who now stands accused of appalling atrocity in Afghanistan, going to the notion of original sin and to research demonstrating human capacity for violence. It's an important, interesting column, too short a piece on too deep a topic. I think it's a good start, and would go further as below.

We learn nothing from the Nazis worth learning unless we acknowledge that they were human, as human as we are, and that which can make a human a Nazi exists in all of us. It is something not to be denied but to be watched for, and fought, not least within ourselves. And yes, heroes, too, are human, as human as Nazis, which is precisely why one must reject despair, which aids and abets Naziism far more than it enables heroism.

It should be old, old, very old news indeed that war produces atrocity, on all sides, in people who would not so behave otherwise. There has never in human history been a war devoid of it. The notions of 'just war' and 'war crimes' are willful denial of the fact. There is no such thing as just war. There is no war without crime. One can say that it was necessary to defeat Hitler's evil, even if it required acts such as massive civilian bombing and alliance with one of history's most monstrous regimes, but one cannot pretend that victory, even in a war as necessary as any, can come without its price to the soul of the victor, or that 'necessary' and 'just' are synonymous.

One of the curious, profoundly unsettling things about nuclear weapons is that they are so powerful that they have forced upon many of us a moral consensus that their only just, moral and ethical use is the deterrence of their use by others. A world otherwise full of horror has not seen a nuclear weapon used in war since 1945. We have, of course, not entirely embraced that yet. A single ballistic missile submarine has 240 or so warheads which can be individually targeted to destroy the infrastructure and population of even the largest country on earth within 30 minutes of the order. We now have around 10,000 warheads, and that is celebrated by some as an improvement, and railed against by others as unilateral disarmament. Meanwhile, even such as Kissinger, Scowcroft and Shultz have joined in calling for an end to nuclear weapons. Some of us might add that one might call for an end to war in general under similar grounds: easy to begin, difficult to limit or control or end, inevitably producing atrocity not just from an enemy but from ourselves, and far more often than not preparing the ground for the next war.

We now live in times when one of the two major parties' rhetoric constantly calls for more personal responsibility, but, in general, only finds it lacking in others. That is absurd on its face, offers no way forward at all, and opposes the teachings throughout history of the greatest teachers humanity has produced. We also constantly hear saber rattling over the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, as if war is the default position, to be proceeded with absent guarantees of total success were it not embarked upon. It isn't hard to hear a dismissal of the inevitable 'collateral damage' of such a war, as if Iran's government and its people are one and the same, as if a war could not possibly have negative consequences as large as those of not going to war. Not so.

If any of us can be Nazis, if any of us might under some circumstances commit or abet atrocity, then it seems to me amongst the very highest of our obligations to prevent that. It's obvious that it can be prevented: most people do not so behave. That requires us to understand both what exists within ourselves, and what circumstances encourage evil behavior from us. And there are no more confirmed data about humanity than that war brings terror, atrocity and death, that politics and religion which dehumanize others result in man's inhumanity to man, that weapons designed to kill facilitate killing.

Cite to Brooks: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/opinion/brooks-when-the-good-do-bad.html?_r=1

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Be Quiet: It Goes Without Saying

Reviewing Eyal Press's 'Beautiful Souls', Louisa Thomas opens with this story from the book:

Paul GrĂ¼ninger, a Swiss police commander, had a simple explanation for why he broke the law to help Jewish refugees flee Austria in 1938. His daughter remembered that he would repeat the words “I could do nothing else.” It is a humble answer, as if to say that anyone would have done the same.

Except that most Swiss police officers didn’t: they turned the refugees away, as the law required. GrĂ¼ninger made a choice, and it was certainly not the expected one. He did not fit the image of a resister. He was not a political activist and did not have a history of rebellion. He had a family to protect and provide for. He had taken an oath to uphold the law, and he considered himself faithful to his country. When the authorities discovered that he had falsified the documents of Jews, he became a pariah. So why did he disobey his orders?


Every person I've ever met who could be construed as heroic, every last one, has been reluctant, even refused, to discuss the heroic behavior/incident, and said something similar, often going on to say, 'You'd have done the same thing.' It's impossible for me to believe that of myself. Reading, for instance, the Congressional Medal of Honor citations, I can't imagine acting that way. And yet, that's an a priori belief, sitting on a couch with my laptop in a situation devoid of heroic possibilities. I might not stop to think, just act, feel as if there's no choice. Most heroes don't think, they just do. I might not. So I'll probably never know. Sometimes I wish I'd taken more risks, demonstrating what I'm capable of, or not; sometimes I don't.

Then there are differing notions of heroism and risk. A friend recalled to me sailing with a single friend/crew member across the Atlantic. Found the bolt securing the mast held only by friction one evening; he quickly put the out back on. They were sailing into regions where crime was possible to the extent that they hid a couple of machine weapons in a false ceiling, fortunately never used. I found that risky. Meanwhile, I'd gone to Russia and Kazakstan to adopt my younger daughters, after getting (happily) married and having a biological child. He found that far riskier than sailing across the Atlantic--he's a robustly heterosexual confirmed bachelor. He doesn't see himself as courageous, nor do I. And we were both general surgeons, confronted with tasks that are a day's work to us and awesome, even heroic to lay folk.

I discount courage in those who point out their own, just as I instantly mistrust someone who says, 'I'll be honest with you,' or 'I don't have a drinking problem.' And there's an extent to which I'll never know if I'm courageous or not. If I catch myself thinking I am, I'll not believe myself. I recall TS Eliot's Thomas a Becket, in 'Murder in the Cathedral', tempted not by fame, riches or power, but by martyrdom: is the ultimate treason to do the right thing for the wrong reason?

Beats the crap out of me...

Can I Get a Mittless? Episode V: Strange Things

We are informed today that Mitt is campaigning for the Southern vote in next week's primaries by saying that he's finding himself liking grits, and that similar 'strange things are happening' to him.

There is nothing more implausible to me, a lifelong North Easterner, than that a Southerner would listen to this with anything other than a derisive snort. First, it's caricature. Second, the notion of Mitt actually eating grits is hilarious.

And, third, and most important, it's obviously a politician's pandering rather than a human being's attempt, however flawed, to sympathise, much less empathise, with other human beings. Recall his reaching into his pocket for fifty dollars to give a woman who told him of her bad times, a gesture so thoroughly repulsive and politically stupid as to be beyond belief. Recall his wife's kinship with millions of unemployed auto workers in the devastated Rust Belt as evidenced by her two Cadillacs. Over and over again. He doesn't understand politics, he doesn't understand other people, and, most important, I think, there's increasing evidence that he doesn't understand himself.

It would be a shame were his ideas so devoid of substance and consistency, his personality so vapid, his political skills so absent, that the coming campaign for the Presidency turns on his defects rather than on an actual, necessary debate on the future of the country. It'll be uglier than it needs to be, and divide the nation, and the Republican Party, even more. But that's what's coming, I think.

So I bought an industrial umbrella and a pair of chest waders from Amazon today.
I'm ready...

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

David Brooks on Character

His column this morning praises the late James Q. Wilson, who cited the importance of character as central to social problems. Well, sure, but character isn't an isolated phenomenon springing whole from Zeus' brow. Character doesn't exist in an economic vacuum. Massive losses of good jobs, especially in light and heavy manufacturing in the cities, aren't irrelevant.

He cites household debt as evidence of weakened character. The credit card and the home equity loan were not invented by consumers, but by banks. The end of usury limits on credit card interest was not sought by irresponsible consumers, but by credit card issuers. And these exceedingly profitable entities have been remorselessly marketed. This isn't merely a failure of consumer character.

Self control, in general, isn't as short term profitable as unrestrained self-indulgence. Every last incentive, marketing tool, advertisement, directed at us from cradle to grave, militates against the very character traits that Mr Brooks sees as vital. The complete, utter lack of restraint of those trying to get us to spend our money, and our borrowed money, in search of happiness, sexual fulfillment, beauty and so on is hardly to be ignored in a discussion which all too often centers on individuals' character flaws. Of course, character is important. But Brooks contradicts himself regularly when, for instance, he talks of the 'stresses of the information economy' as causative. You indeed have to play your hand as best you can. But you don't cut the cards, don't make the rules, and it's the only game in town.