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Posts from July 2006

War and manhood

(Links via Dulce Et Decorum Est 2006-07-31 and comments on Tennessee Guerrilla Women 2006-07-30.)

Here is a view of war and manhood from the bottom of the ranks.

I came over here because I wanted to kill people.

Over a mess-tent dinner of turkey cutlets, the bony-faced 21-year-old private from West Texas looked right at me as he talked about killing Iraqis with casual indifference. It was February, and we were at his small patrol base about 20 miles south of Baghdad. The truth is, it wasn’t all I thought it was cracked up to be. I mean, I thought killing somebody would be this life-changing experience. And then I did it, and I was like, All right, whatever.

He shrugged.

I shot a guy who wouldn’t stop when we were out at a traffic checkpoint and it was like nothing, he went on. Over here, killing people is like squashing an ant. I mean, you kill somebody and it’s like All right, let’s go get some pizza.

At the time, the soldier’s matter-of-fact manner struck me chiefly as a rare example of honesty. I was on a nine-month assignment as an embedded reporter in Iraq, spending much of my time with grunts like him — mostly young (and immature) small-town kids who sign up for a job as killers, lured by some gut-level desire for excitement and adventure. This was not the first group I had run into that was full of young men who shared a dark sense of humor and were clearly desensitized to death. I thought this soldier was just one of the exceptions who wasn’t afraid to say what he really thought, a frank and reflective kid, a sort of Holden Caulfield in a war zone.

But the private was Steven D. Green.

— Andrew Tilghman, Washington Post (2006-07-30, B01): I came over here because I wanted to kill people.

When Tilghman met Green, Green was angry and disillusioned about the war. He seethed about the old men’s demands for restraint (We’re out here getting attacked all the time and we’re in trouble when somebody accidentally gets shot?), and about the meaninglessness of this war:

See, this war is different from all the ones that our fathers and grandfathers fought. Those wars were for something. This war is for nothing.

— Quoted by Andrew Tilghman, Washington Post (2006-07-30, B01): I came over here because I wanted to kill people.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Green was wrong about the wars that our fathers and grandfathers fought. Or any other war fought by men in the name of the National Manhood. Meanwhile, here is another view of war and manhood, from the top of the ranks:

The Wars Our Fathers and Grandfathers Fought

photo: burnt corpses lie in a ruined street

Aftermath of the Tokyo firebombing, 10 March 1945

photo: an aerial view of Hiroshima, leveled

Aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, 6 August 1945

photo: leveled houses around the Nagasaki railroad station

Nagasaki railroad station

photo: a ruined residential neighborhood, with all the homes burnt or toppled

Iwakawa-machi residential neighborhood, Nagasaki


Aftermath of U.S. bombing of Snu?@c5;8f;l, Cambodia on 3 May 1970.

AUSTRALIA intervened to stop key US military strikes against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, fearing they might constitute a war crime.

Major General Maurie McNarn, then a brigadier and commander of Australian forces in Iraq, on several occasions played a red card against the American plans, which included hits on individuals. His objections drew anger from some senior US military figures.

In one instance, Major General McNarn vetoed a US plan to drop a range of huge non-precision bombs on Baghdad, causing one angry US Air Force general to call the Australian a pencil dick.

However, US military command accepted Major General McNarn’s objection and the US plans were scrapped.

The revelation of how Australia actively and successfully used its veto power in the 2003 invasion of Iraq is contained in a new book on the US-Australian alliance, The Partnership, by The Weekend Australian‘s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan.

… The book reveals that Major General McNarn — now the head of the Defence Intelligence Organisation — delivered a great shock to the US when he first used the red card and then put his objections to the proposed US military strike in writing.

Shit, exclaimed one American when he saw the document. What if this leaks? Major General McNarn replied that if the US did not take the illegal action, it would not matter.

As coalition forces prepared plans to take Baghdad, Major General McNarn vetoed three of five proposed US Air Force weapon systems — mostly huge bombs — on the grounds that they were not accurate for a radius of less than 16m and, as a result, were unsuitable for use in a built-up area.

— Cameron Stewart, The Australian (2006-07-29): Aussie veto stopped US war crimes

There are of course two stories here. The first story, the one emphasized by the news report, is that the Australian general halted the U.S. generals’ plans to indiscriminately bomb Baghdad–which would have made the war even more of an abattoir for Iraqi civilians than it became even with the more restrained bombing. The second story is that the U.S. generals made plans to indiscriminately bomb Baghdad. Plans they were invested in, and plans they were enraged to see blocked.

Karl Hess on the Country, the State, and a new language of patriotism

Thanks to Netflix, L. and I enjoyed Anarchism in America the other day. No, not the condition (alas!); the 1982 documentary by Steven Fishler and Joel Sucher, recently reissued on DVD by the folks at AK Press. It’s well worth watching if you can get your hands on it. Here’s one of my favorite parts, from the interviews with Karl Hess (for those of you following along at home, it’s about 56 minutes into the film, after the segment with the truck driver Li’l John):

Well, I think there’s an implicit anarchism in any of the American tendencies that have organized people in opposition to the State. I think co-ops might have reflected this notion, organizing people not only in opposition to the State in effect, but in opposition to the major economic movement of the time. I think, as a matter of fact, just in the romantic view of the American character, there’s an anarchist tendency.

It is flawed by one thing: the abstraction of patriotism. People who will damn the government from morning till night, and oppose the State in a million and one ways will, at a time of national crisis, become incredibly patriotic, and begin to say they will do anything for the State. And they begin to talk of duty, service, sacrifice … all of the words that are the worst words in the world, it seems to me, in a human sense. … I don’t know why this is, unless it is that these are such good-hearted people that they really believe that the American state is totally different from any other state–and it’s certainly somewhat different. And they feel that it is important to preserve–they feel they’re preserving the country, but the only language that’s available is, to preserve the State. I have an idea that one of these days, there will be another language, in which we can talk about preserving the country–the landscape, the neighborhoods, the people, the communities–without talking about preserving the State. At which point there will be a lot of radical farmers, factory workers, and small-town residents in this country.

— Karl Hess, interviewed for Anarchism in America (1982)

You would not tell with such high zest

Sheldon Richman recently posted to on the Bush gang’s palavering and depraved indifference to the life of Lebanese civilians. It’s a good post; you should read it. Along the way, he said this:

Translation: The killing and maining of Lebanese and Israelis shouldn’t stop until Israel is ready for it to stop.

That is moral depravity, if anything is.

In the comments section, E. Simon replied:

So would your omission of the implication, that the cessation of hostilities not be constrained according to whether or not Nasrallah and his supporters are allowed to kill and maim Israelis, be an example of intellectual depravity?

Given that he’s so awfully concerned about innocent people being killed and maimed, I asked E. Simon the following, linking to my post on Proportionality:

And just how many unrelated third parties do you think the IDF can legitimately kill or maim in the process of retaliating against Nasrallah and his supporters?

Here’s the answer, such as it is:

That being said, I think your question is a good one, because ideally, I would like to see NO unrelated third parties hurt. Therefore, there is no good way to answer it since it would suggest legitimizing the ascription of a military debit or financial value to the loss of a life whose inherent worth is — otherwise — incalculable. And yet, the use of Israel’s military will prevent Hizbullah from intentionally causing the loss of similarly incalculably valuable Israeli lives. But Israel is not responsible for Lebanon’s failures in necessitating that most unfortunate decision.

There are costs, no doubt. But the costs of not thusly, and appropriately disincentivizing against murder are much riskier, given the total analysis.

Now, I’d like to note that this is a complete evasion of the question. (The fact that you wave your hands at the higher mysteries and heart-rending impossibility of answering a question does not mean that you haven’t evaded it; it just means that you’ve offered a poetical apology for the evasion.) As I note further down in the thread:

I’ve accused you of dodging the issue because if you do not have an answer to that question, then you can have absolutely no moral basis for endorsing the war. If you don’t even have a ballpark estimate of what a tolerable civilian body count is, then you have no idea whether or not the killing and maiming of innocents has gone beyond the limits of proportional self-defense. And if you don’t know that then you don’t know whether or not the war is legitimate self-defense or a massacre. If you treat the question as some higher mystery beyond your ken, then you have thereby admitted that you have no idea whatever whether justice demands that the IDF continue or that it relent.

If, however, you profess not to be able to answer the question, but then turn around and continue supporting the war, particularly with polysyllabic hand-waving at pacifying abstractions such as collateral damage and appropriately disincentivizing, then what I have to conclude is that you are quite satisfied with the level of killing, burning, bombing, and maiming being inflicted on innocents, but that you’d rather not say so because it would sound too brutal coming from your lips.

You can follow the argument on its merits through the rest of the thread; as far as that goes, I’m willing to just say We Report, You Decide for now. But I do want to make a remark about a matter of style, rather than substance here. That may seem petty, or underhanded, and in any case irrelevant. But it’s not: the style in which people say the things about war that E. Simon wants to say here is itself a very important part of what allows them to utter the substantial position that they end up uttering. Let’s look at that again:

That being said, I think your question is a good one, because ideally, I would like to see NO unrelated third parties hurt. Therefore, there is no good way to answer it since it would suggest legitimizing the ascription of a military debit or financial value to the loss of a life whose inherent worth is — otherwise — incalculable. And yet, the use of Israel’s military will prevent Hizbullah from intentionally causing the loss of similarly incalculably valuable Israeli lives. But Israel is not responsible for Lebanon’s failures in necessitating that most unfortunate decision.

There are costs, no doubt. But the costs of not thusly, and appropriately disincentivizing against murder are much riskier, given the total analysis.

My short response would be to offer some suggestions about where E. Simon can take his total analysis. Fortunately, George Orwell already made the remarks I’d like to make about this passage, and much more eloquently than I could:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer….

— George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)

War survives because people don’t talk about war, but rather about something else, using an inflated jargon that they have mostly nicked from military communication (both internally, and through their press flacks). That jargon, and the style that goes with it, is more or less deliberately calculated to obscure and degrade thought, because to think and to speak, really and seriously, about what war does to people, would be to destroy any hope of moral and political legitimacy for any kind of modern campaign.

I’m told, incidentally, that my mentioning this, and my using harsh words in my own remarks, shows a lack of civility, open-mindedness, and maturity. But if civility and maturity mean whitewashing the killing and maiming of real people with real lives (with or without incalculable value being sentimentally ascribed to them) into costs to be assessed along with the risks involved in not setting up the appropriate incentives, as you do the total analysis over the dispensability of other people’s lives and livelihoods, then civility and maturity and open-mindedness can go straight to hell, and take the civil warmakers and war apologists right along with them.

Further reading:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace…

I have a new project. It’s a weblog called Dulce Et Decorum Est.

The means my ends will be anti-war cultural artefacts, both historical and contemporary. I don’t just mean agitprop by anti-war activists; I also mean artefacts that record the experiences of ordinary soldiers and civilians in times of war. This is not the place to go for commentary, analysis, or debate on current events; more or less none of the content will even be original to this website. It will be a place for facts, and for things, and for people. My intent is simply to remember our history (including the history we are making right now), and in so doing to strip the mask from off the War Party, revealing not glory, not honor, not heroism, but rather a grinning Death’s Head underneath.

— About: Dulce Et Decorum Est

The first post is the eponymous poem about the Great War by Wilfred Owen, DULCE ET DECORUM EST. There will be more to come. Please read yourself, and let anyone know who you think might be interested.

Well, thank God #5

I’ve been meaning to take note of the Directors’ Guild’s recent triumph over insurgent customers for a few days now:

A federal judge has issued final cut to studios, ruling that companies that snip out potentially offending material from movies for home viewing violate copyright laws.

Businesses that edit sex, profanity and violence out of DVD and VHS copies in an appeal to some viewers’ tastes are illegitimate, said Richard P. Matsch of U.S. District Court in Denver.

Four companies that do so must stop and turn over their copies of expurgated films to Hollywood’s major studios.

Audiences can now be assured that the films they buy or rent are the vision of the filmmakers who made them and not the arbitrary choices of a third-party editor, Directors Guild of America President Michael Apted said in a statement.

The studios and several prominent directors — including Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman and Steven Soderbergh — have been fighting movie sanitizers in court since 2002, saying that retailers such as CleanFlicks had no right to copy and distribute their own versions.

Retailers asserted that their cleaned-up copies made fair use of the movies under copyright law and that they bought one copy of the original for each modified version they rented or sold. That ensured more sales and exposure than such movies would have received had they not been edited to be more wholesome, the retailers argued.

We’re disappointed, CleanFlicks Chief Executive Ray Lines said. This is a typical case of David versus Goliath, but in this case, Hollywood rewrote the ending. We’re going to continue to fight.

As many as 90 video stores nationwide — about half of them in Utah, where CleanFlicks is based — purchase movies from his company, Lines said.

The owner of the four CleanFlicks shops in Utah County, Daniel Thompson, told the Deseret Morning News of Salt Lake City: I think it’s ridiculous that you can’t watch a movie without seeing sex, nudity or extreme violence. I don’t understand why they’re trying to keep that in there.

The dispute is about artistic integrity, said Apted, who directed Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Directors put their skill, craft and often years of hard work into the creation of a film, he said in the statement. So we have great passion about protecting our work, which is our signature and brand identification, against unauthorized editing.

— Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times (2006-07-10): Sanitizers of Home Video Lose in Court

My God, it’s a good thing we have the federal courts there to stand athwart our DVD players shouting No! If the judicial branch of the government weren’t there to keep customers from going around watching films any old way they want–if the federal judiciary weren’t there to force Mormon families to look at boobies and guns the way the Directors’ Guild authorized them to do–then who would? It’d be mere anarchy!

The latest technological weapons may have been taken out of the hands of viewers, but it is still a dangerous world for artistes. Viewers will find all kinds of improvised devices for skipping over sex and violence. Perhaps with faith and perserverance the Directors’ Guild can convince the courts to further protect their artistic vision, by having all the fast-forward buttons in America stuck in place with super-glue.

(Hat tip to Tom Woods at the LRC Blog.)

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