ads/2010/09/picture.jpg” alt=”" width=”510″ height=”290″ />
Philosophy for soldiers
David Edmonds at BBC News reports that all West Point cadets are now required to study moral philosophy and “the trolley problem.” He outlines the famous thought experiment nicely:
Imagine there is a runaway tram, known in America as a trolley, heading towards five people tied to the track.
You are a bystander.
If you do nothing, all five will die.
But you could hit a switch and divert it down a side track.
Unfortunately, on that spur is one person and if you turn this tram, this person will die.
What should you do? Turn the tram? Most people think you should.
Now imagine that same tram is again heading towards five people. This time you are watching from a footbridge.
There is a fat man leaning over this footbridge. If you push him over, he will land on the track and die, but his bulk will stop the tram.
So should you push the fat man? Almost no-one thinks you should.
Why might it be acceptable to turn the tram and kill the man on the track but not acceptable to push the fat man?
West Point philosophy professor Jeff McMahan explains to Edmonds the implications of this conundrum to warfare. He argues that it reveals the moral distinction (recognized in international law) between killing civilians intentionally, and knowing civilians will die as a foreseen consequence of military action, “between attacking a munitions factory aware that there will be, to use that euphemism, collateral damage, and aiming at civilians intentionally.”
It might be clearer to say that the trolley problem shows that soldiers should not use the death of civilians as a strategic tool. It’s different when civilians die as a consequence of some other, legitimate strategy. Of course, there are proportionality concerns when one knows that civilians will die (how important is the military action in question vs. how many civilians will die).
As to the more general importance of future military officers studying philosophy, Major Danny Crozier explains that while it leads to the possibility of insubordination, that concern is outweighed by the fact that soldiers must not obey unjust commands. I don’t know the law on this, but it seems dangerous to have soldiers consider the morality of every command, following only the ones they support. Maj. Crozier must mean that soldiers must not obey clearly unjust commands, the illegitimacy of which is not open to serious debate.
WikiLeaks and its documents are here. What do we do now?
On Monday, Sam highlighted WikiLeaks’ enormous release of secret documents concerning Afghanistan and Pakistan, and US efforts in and relations with both countries. As he noted, one of the first questions we should ask is whether or not WikiLeaks’ document release is legal.
Obviously, the cat is out of the bag: WikiLeaks and its documents, for good or for bad, are here. The bigger question now is how governments and citizens will respond.
Leaks, even large ones, are not unheard of (think Pentagon Papers). To answer both this question, and the earlier one to which Sam pointed, we need to determine if this leak is unlike any previous ones—and whether deserves a unique response as a result. Read more
For his role in 16,000 deaths during the Khmer Rouge, Kaing Guek Eav, alias “Duch,” was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison. That he may walk free in 19 years at the age of 86 due to time served has baffled and infuriated Cambodians. The worst tyrants of the last century mostly escaped formal justice (Hitler, Stalin, Mao); others did die in ignominious circumstances and were effectively the victims of mob violence (Mussolini, Ceausescu, arguably Saddam). Duch’s case and surprisingly light sentence brings to mind the perennial question of justice for politically-motivated atrocities.
We seem to know what crimes against humanity are when we see them. But the story is often more complicated in places like the most impoverished parts of the Third World, where politics is a life-or-death affair. Interest groups are divided along ethnic, class, or religious fault lines and power is a means to extract resources for the favored group at the expense of all others. An old Kenyan aphorism holds that to seize the machinery of the state means that “it is our turn to eat.” In these cases murder, rape and torture may become routine tools of political intimidation.
How do we evaluate crimes against humanity and the justice that should follow when the only clear distinction between victim and victimizer is that the latter is stronger than the other, and when it seems likely that the other side would behave just as monstrously if the circumstances permitted?
Photo by Flickr user Sebr used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
Last week I sided with transparency over state secrets in the case of the Washington Post‘s special reporting on the U.S. intelligence buildup since 9/11. In that instance, the willingness of the intelligence community to pass on making any real objections provided no reason to think the usual cost of transparency – safety or national security – was in play.
Today it’s same song, second verse. The transparency site WikiLeaks has just released 91,000 classified documents related to the Afghanistan war, and most major papers – which received advance copies – are running various stories related to the documents.
The White House isn’t happy. According to a statement from National Security Adviser Jim Jones:
The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security.
Wikileaks made no effort to contact us about these documents – the United States government learned from news organizations that these documents would be posted.
This is the opposite case of the Post. WikiLeaks gave the government no heads-up, no chance for review, no opportunity for objection.
Now that’s not itself wrong. Read more
Love, life and freedom of the press in 2010
Forgive the 90s reference (but, for the record, E! network still exists–I recently watched their broadcast of Knocked Up from a hotel bedroom). The Washington Post is launching today a major expose on the U.S. intelligence community. Entitled “Top Secret America,” the project has been “nearly two years in the making,” and explores “hundreds of thousands of public records of government organizations and private-sector companies” to describe the ” the huge national security buildup in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.”
The Post is sparing no expense. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dana Priest and William Arkin led the reporting, which will be presented through a unique website, a three-part story, a PBS Frontline special, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page.
A headline from the right-leaning Washington Times blog sums up the classic conundrum that faces intelligence reporting: “Is Wash Post harming intelligence work?”
Editors from the Washington Post went out of their way to explain their scrupulous approach to investigating a critical story while respecting the bounds of this highly-sensitive national security domain:
Because of the nature of this project, we allowed government officials to see the Web site several months ago and asked them to tell us of any specific concerns. They offered none at that time. As the project evolved, we shared the Web site’s revised capabilities. Again, we asked for specific concerns. One government body objected to certain data points on the site and explained why; we removed those items. Another agency objected that the entire Web site could pose a national security risk but declined to offer specific comments.
We made other public safety judgments about how much information to show on the Web site. For instance, we used the addresses of company headquarters buildings, information which, in most cases, is available on companies’ own Web sites, but we limited the degree to which readers can use the zoom function on maps to pinpoint those or other locations.
Our maps show the headquarters buildings of the largest government agencies involved in top-secret work. A user can also see the cities and towns where the government conducts top-secret work in the United States, but not the specific locations, companies or agencies involved.
Is that enough? Read more
How much risk should soldiers bear in order to minimize civilian casualties?
According to the New York Times, even before General McChrystal’s firing, American troops abroad were uneasy with his strategy of counterinsurgency. Many soldiers think that the General’s insistence on tightening the rules of engagement in order to minimize civilian casualties has put American troops at risk. When fighting a terrorist enemy unafraid to hide within civilian populations, Americans must withhold their military superiority in order to protect civilians. This means eschewing artillery strikes or air support in favor of risky urban warfare.
While McChrystal’s reasons are surely more strategic than ethical, it is important to ask whether American soldiers have a responsibility to put themselves at risk for the sake of foreign civilians. After all, it is not uncommon for Americans to think “our” troops are more important than “their” civilians.
The combatant/civilian distinction exists in order to restrain the scope of war. War should be a relation between nations (or perhaps sub-national groups), and combatants are the armed emissaries of their nations. Civilians, without the ability to harm, are not directly part of the war effort, and therefore are not liable to be killed. Combatants, on the other hand, not only acquire the ability to harm, but have also implicitly taken on the risks of war. War, brought by combatants, is thrust upon civilians. Thus, combatants should take the brunt of the risk associated with war.
Arguably, the reason terrorism is so objectionable is because it seeks to erode the combatant/civilian distinction. Our moral repugnance toward terrorist attacks in New York is no different than our repugnance toward terrorist attacks in London, and so we should remain consistent when considering terrorist attacks in the Middle East. In all three cases the moral opposition is to the killing of civilians not liable to be killed, the nationality of the victims is morally irrelevant. Thus, when conducting our own wars, the combatant/civilian distinction should remain paramount – when fighting terrorism we should be careful not to imitate it.
How many (and which kinds) of deaths are acceptable in war?
On Tuesday, Marc posted an interesting article which argued that even if our current wars truly are essential to American defense, the number of innocent lives lost cannot justify the gain. The author, Adil Shamoo, assumes that the only reason we might find the deaths overseas acceptable is if we value American lives more than foreign lives. Dr. Shamoo thinks that this line of thinking is irrational and therefore cannot justify the bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As U.S. citizens, we value the lives of our fellow countrymen many fold over the lives of other citizens. How else could we allow our government to continue this policy of killing and wounding our opponents in such disproportion to the number of casualties of U.S. troops and contractors for nearly nine years after 9/11.
In his analysis, Dr. Shamoo considers only the number of deaths, but in doing so, he seems to have left out at least two morally relevant considerations – the manner in which the deaths occurred, and the purpose of the killers. For example, imagine that some Person A walks up to another Person C and kills him for some reason. Now imagine Person B walks up to the same Person C and for the same reason yells at him. Unbeknownst to Person B, Person C is easily startled and is standing at the edge of a cliff. The frightened Person C took a step back and fell off the cliff to his ultimate demise. In this example, both Persons A and B were responsible for the death of Person C and for the same reason, yet hardly anybody would think that their actions were morally equivalent. The difference here seems to be intent – while Person A intended to kill C, Person B only intended to scare him, the killing was an accident.
Now imagine Person A is a racist and shoots Person C because of his race. Person B, on the other hand, Read more
When is dissent appropriate?
General Stanley McChrystal has become President Obama’s MacArthur, as MacArthur was to President Truman: McChrystal failed (dramatically) to keep his frustrations and criticisms private, opening up a rift with the administration. The result? He was sacked.
There are a number of reasons to agree with the president’s decision. Obama needed to avoid creating the sort of situation that Truman found himself in when dealing with the insubordinate MacArthur in 1951. And although he is popular with public populations throughout the world, the president’s international reputation with the leaders of allies and enemies (and therefore his foreign policy initiatives in general) could be damaged. Read more
How does cost affect where we should house suspected terrorists?
The Washington Post ran a detailed article today on the $500 million that has been invested in renovations at the Guantanamo Bay base that has housed many of the enemy combatants we’ve captured since the 9/11 attacks.
Among the more amusing expenditures:
The cost of the marquee, along with a smaller sign positioned near the airfield: $188,000. Among other odd legacies from war-on-terror spending since 2001 for the troops at Guantanamo Bay: an abandoned volleyball court for $249,000, an unused go-kart track for $296,000 and $3.5 million for 27 playgrounds that are often vacant.
It’s always easy to cherrypick seemingly useless expenses to show waste, although an abandoned go-kart track really does feel egregious. Also, I’m not sure playgrounds are as fun when you are cuffed and hooded. Or maybe slides and tunnels are a new “enhanced interrogation” technique. Ok, ok, enough bad one-liners.
The real concern is the disparity between Guantanamo’s $150 million annual operating cost and what it would likely cost to house these prisoners on U.S. soil. The Post cites a White House estimate that Guantanamo costs “double the amount for a comparable U.S. prison.”
There have been some interesting arguments about whether it would be appropriate to move suspected terrorists to a U.S.-based maximum-security prisons. The main debate was whether such a move would put American lives in danger.
But the spending issue adds a new and important perspective. There’s little question that safety arguments tend generally to trump waste arguments. If moving these prisoners to the continental U.S. really would significantly risk American lives, the best argument would be to show that keeping the prisoners in Guantanamo actually puts more lives at risk (or increased the risk level for the same number of lives).
If the risk is relatively low, the spending level (the Post estimates about $2 billion total) really does trade-off with other morally good things. Today’s Los Angeles Times reported that political pressures heading into the midterm elections have even many Democratic lawmakers leery about education and unemployment expenditures expected to be taken up by Congress.
If I were a father of four, I wouldn’t want Guantanamo-USA near my hometown. But if I’ve been unemployed for a year, I might need my unemployment check.
How should we choose?
John Dickerson at Slate discusses Gen. James Mattis’ view.