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One man’s reductio

Here’s widely-published, reportedly libertarian columnist Walter Williams on the need for political will in the War on Terror:

Does the United States have the power to eliminate terrorists and the states that support them? In terms of capacity, as opposed to will, the answer is a clear yes.

Think about it. Currently, the U.S. has an arsenal of 18 Ohio class submarines. Just one submarine is loaded with 24 Trident nuclear missiles. Each Trident missile has eight nuclear warheads capable of being independently targeted. That means the U.S. alone has the capacity to wipe out Iran, Syria or any other state that supports terrorist groups or engages in terrorism — without risking the life of a single soldier.

Terrorist supporters know we have this capacity, but because of worldwide public opinion, which often appears to be on their side, coupled with our weak will, we’ll never use it. Today’s Americans are vastly different from those of my generation who fought the life-and-death struggle of World War II. Any attempt to annihilate our Middle East enemies would create all sorts of handwringing about the innocent lives lost, so-called collateral damage.

Such an argument would have fallen on deaf ears during World War II when we firebombed cities in Germany and Japan. The loss of lives through saturation bombing far exceeded those lost through the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

— Walter E. Williams (2006-08-23): Will The West [sic] Defend Itself?

I’d like to thank Mr. Williams for helping to illustrate an important point about logical inference.

Two of the most important rules of inference are the modus ponendo ponens (p β?? q. p. β?΄ q) and the modus tollendo tollens (p β?? q. ~q. β?΄ ~p). Something that people often don’t realize is how the very same reasoning could be used to set up either a modus ponens or a modus tollens in the last step. Here’s an example drawn from real life. Walter Williams argues:

  1. If there were something wrong with slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of military victory today, there would have been something wrong with the Allied governments’ massacre of half a million or more innocent people in the name of military victory during the firebombing campaigns of World War II. (lemma)
  2. There was nothing wrong with the Allied governments’ massacre of half a million or more innocent people in the name of military victory during the firebombing campaigns of World War II. (premise)
  3. Therefore, there must be nothing wrong with slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of victory today. Q.E.D. (M.T. 1, 2)

But someone or another just might use the same line of inferences that Williams drew in order to establish a different conclusion:

  1. If there were something wrong with slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of military victory today, there would have been something wrong with the Allied governments’ massacre of half a million or more innocent people in the name of military victory during the firebombing campaigns of World War II. (lemma)
  2. There is something wrong with slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of military victory today. (premise)
  3. Therefore, there must be something wrong with the Allied governments’ massacre of half a million or more innocent people in the name of military victory during the firebombing campaigns of World War II. You dick. (M.P. 1, 2)

For some people’s argumentative purposes the Allied war effort in World War II is not so much just as the paradigm for justice itself; like the meter stick in Paris, it doesn’t even make sense to say that it is just, because the possibility that it even might have been less than just is simply unintelligible. Those who have a less reverent view of the single most destructive total war in the history of the entire world may not share the same premises. And thus may draw quite a different conclusion. I’m just sayin’.

I’d like to thank the War Party for offering yet another opportunity for an important lesson on informal logic.

Update 2006-09-02: Commenter Adam B. pointed out that the full Latin name for modus tollens is the modus tollendo tollens, not modus ponendo tollens as I’d originally written. This has been fixed in the text.

Further reading:

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 Snuŏl, 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.

Over My Shoulder #14: Robin Morgan (1981), Blood Types: An Anatomy of Kin

You know the rules; here’s the quote. This one has been delayed from Friday to Saturday by the government attacks on women at a International Women’s Day commemoration in Tehran. So in commemoration of those women, and of what they put their bodies on the line for, here’s something on the theme of feminist internationalism, women, and governments. This is bus reading, collected in Robin Morgan’s The Word of a Woman: Feminist Dispatches 1968–1992 (ISBN 0-393-03427-5): specifically, Blood Types: An Anatomy of Kin a meditative discussion on family, identity, sex, and race, written in 1981.

Mary Daly’s turn-the-concept-inside-out phrase, The Sisterhood of Man seems not only a hope but a dynamic actuality–since it’s grounded not in abstract notions of cooperation but in survival need, not in static posture but in active gesture, not in vague sentiments of similarity but in concrete experience shared to an astonishing degree, despite cultural, historical, linguistic, and other barriers. Labor contractions feel the same everywhere. So does rape and battery. I don’t necessarily always agree with many feminists that women have access to some mysteriously inherent biological nexus, but I do believe that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was onto something when she signed letters, Thine in the bonds of oppressed womanhood (italics mine). Let us hope–and act to ensure–that as women break those bonds of oppression, the process of freeing the majority of humanity will so transform human consciousness that women will not use our freedom to be isolatedly individuated as men have done. In the meanwhile, the bonds do exist; let’s use them creatively.

Not that the mechanistic universe inhabited by the family of Man takes notice of this quarky interrelationship between the hardly visible subparticles that merely serve to keep Man and his [sic] family alive. No, such particles are unimportant, fantastical, charming perhaps (as quarks or the fair sex tend to be). But they are to be taken no more seriously than fairytales.

Yet if Hans Christian Andersen characters so diverse as the Little Mermaid, the Robber Girl, the Snow Queen, and the Little Match Girl had convened a meeting to discuss ways of bettering their condition, one could imagine that the world press would cover that as a big story. When something even more extraordinary, because more real, happened in Andersen’s own city for three weeks during July 1980, it barely made the news.

Approximately ten thousand women from all over the planet began arriving in Copenhagen, Denmark, even before the formal opening on July 14 of the United Nations Mid-Decade World Conference for women. The conference was to become a great, sprawling, rollicking, sometimes quarrelsome, highly emotional, unashamedly idealistic, unabashedly pragmatic, visionary family reunion. In 1975, the U.N. had voted to pay some attention to the female more-than-half of the human population for one year–International Women’s Year–but extended the time to a decade after the indignant outcry of women who had been living, literally, in the International Men’s Year for approximately ten millennia of patriarchy. Still, here we were, in the middle of our decade, in Copenhagen. We came in saris and caftans, in blue jeans and chadors, in African geles, pants-suits, and dresses. We were women with different priorities, ideologies, political analyses, cultural backgrounds, and styles of communication. The few reports that made it into the U.S. press emphasized those differences, thereby overlooking the big story–that these women forged new and strong connections.

There were two overlapping meetings in Copenhagen. One was the official U.N. conference–which many feminists accurately had prophesied would be more a meeting of governments than of women. Its delegates were chosen by governments of U.N. member states to psittaceously repeat national priorities–as defined by men.

The official conference reflected the government orientation: many delegations were headed by men and many more were led by safe women whose governments were certain wouldn’t make waves. This is not to say that there weren’t some real feminists tuckd away even in the formal delegations, trying gallantly to influence their respective bureaucracies towards more human concern with actions that really could better women’s lives. But the talents of these sisters within were frequently ignored or abused by their own delegations for political reasons.

A case in point was the U.S. delegation, which availed itself greedily of all the brilliant and unique expertise of Koryne Horbal (then U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women), and of all the groundwork she had done on the conference for the preceding two years–including being the architect of CEDAW, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women–but denied her press visibility and most simple courtesies because she had been critical of the Carter administration and its official policies on women. But Horbal wasn’t the only feminist within. There were New Zealand’s member of Parliament, the dynamic twenty-eight-year-old Marilyn Waring, and good-humored Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo, former prime minister of Portugal, and clever Elizabeth Reid of Australia–all of them feminists skilled in the labyrinthian ways of national and international politics, but with priority commitment to populist means of working for women–who still managed to be effective inside and outside the structures of their governments.

The other conference, semiofficially under U.N. aegis, was the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Forum. It was to the Forum that ordinary folks came, having raised the travel fare via their local women’s organizations, feminist alternative media, or women’s religious, health, and community groups. Panels, workshops, kaffeeklatsches, cultural events, and informal sessions abounded.

Statements emerged and petitions were eagerly signed: supporting the prostitutes in SΓ£o Palo, Brazil, who that very week, in an attempt to organize for their human rights, were being jailed, tortured, and, in one case, accidentally executed; supporting Arab and African women organizing against the practice of female genital mutilation; supporting U.S. women recently stunned by the 1980 Supreme Court decision permitting federal and state denial of funds for medical aid to poor women who need safe, legal abortions–thus denying the basic human right of reproductive freedom; supporting South African women trying to keep families together under the maniacal system of apartheid; supporting newly exiled feminist writers and activists from the U.S.S.R.; supporting women refugees from Afghanistan, Campuchea [Cambodia], Palestine, Cuba, and elsewhere.

Protocol aside, the excitement among women at both conference sites was electric. If, for instance, you came from Senegal with a specific concern about rural development, you would focus on workshops about that, and exchange experiences and how-to’s with women from Peru, India–and Montana. After one health panel, a Chinese gynecologist continued talking animatedly with her scientific colleague from the Soviet Union–Sino-Soviet saber-rattling forgotten or transcended.

Comparisons developed in workshops on banking and credit between European and U.S. economists and the influential market women of Africa. The list of planned meetings about Women’s Studies ran to three pages, yet additional workshops on the subject were created spontaneously. Meanwhile, at the International Women’s Art Festival, there was a sharing of films, plays, poetry readings, concerts, mime shows, exhibits of painting and sculpture and batik and weaving, the interchanging of art techniques and of survival techniques. Exchange subscriptions were pledged between feminist magazines in New Delhi and Boston and Tokyo, Maryland and Sri Lanka and Australia. And everywhere the conversations and laughter of recognition and newfound friendships spilled over into the sidewalks of Copenhagen, often until dawn.

We ate, snacked, munched–and traded diets–like neighbor women, or family. A well-equipped Argentinian supplied a shy Korean with a tampon in an emergency. A Canadian went into labor a week earlier than she’d expected, and kept laughing hilariously between the contractions, as she was barraged with loving advice on how to breathe, where to rub, how to sit (or stand or squat), and even what to sing–in a chorus of five languages, while waiting for the prompt Danish ambulance. North American women from diverse ethnic ancestries talked intimately with women who still lived in the cities, towns, and villages from which their own grandmothers had emigrated to the New World. We slept little, stopped caring about washing our hair, sat on the floor, and felt at home with one another.

Certainly, there were problems. Simultaneous translation facilities, present everywhere at the official conference, were rarely available at the grass-roots forum. This exacerbated certain sore spots, like the much-ballyhooed Palestinian-Israeli conflict, since many Arab women present spoke Arabic or French but not English–the dominant language at the forum. That conflict–played out by male leadership at both the official conference and the forum, using women as pawns in the game–was disheartening, but not as bad as many of us had feared.

The widely reported walkout of Arab women during Madam Jihan Sadat’s speech at the conference was actually a group of perhaps twenty women tiptoeing quietly to the exit. This took place in a huge room packed with delegates who–during all the speeches–were sitting, standing, and walking about to lobby loudly as if on the floor of the U.S. Congress (no one actually listens to the speeches; they’re for the recrd).

Meanwhile, back at the forum, there was our own invaluable former U.S. congresswoman Bella Abzug (officially unrecognized by the Carter-appointed delegation but recognized and greeted with love by women from all over the world). Bella, working on coalition building, was shuttling between Israelis and Arabs. At that time, Iran was still holding the fifty-two U.S. hostages, but Bella accomplished the major miracle of getting a pledge from the Iranian women that if U.S. mothers would demonstrate in Washington for the shah’s ill-gotten millions to be returned to the Iranian people (for the fight against women’s illiteracy and children’s malnutrition), then the Iranian women would march simultaneously in Teheran for the hostages to be returned home to their mothers. Bella’s sensitivity and cheerful, persistent nudging on this issue caused one Iranian woman to throw up her hands, shrug, and laugh to me, What is with this Bella honey person? She’s wonderful. She’s impossible. She’s just like my mother.

The conference, the forum, and the arts festival finally came to an end. Most of the official resolutions were predictably bland by the time they were presented, much less voted on. Most of the governments will act on them sparingly, if at all. Consequently, those women who went naively trusting that the formal U.N. procedures would be drastically altered by such a conference were bitterly disappointed. But those of us who went with no such illusions, and who put not our trust in patriarchs, were elated. Because what did not end at the closing sessions isthat incredible networking–the echoes of all those conversations, the exchanged addresses–and what that will continue to accomplish.

— Robin Morgan (1981): Blood Types: An Anatomy of Kin, reprinted in The Word of a Woman: Feminist Dispatches 1968–1992, pp. 115–120.


For the past week, there’s been a lot of hubbub over All Things Beautiful’s Ten Worst Americans challenge. For a lot of reasons, I don’t have a comprehensive list, and I’m not that keen on the whole project (there’s lots of evil and ugliness in the world without going out of your way to seek it out, compile it, and cross-index it; I have no idea what the criteria would be for choosing ten people as more evil than any others; and I think that most of us are already far too fascinated with and fixated on demonology as it is). So I don’t have a Worst Ten list to provide. But I do have a list of additions that I think ought to be there, if lists are to be made. Coming out for the left-liberal corner we have Ampersand at Alas, A Blog (2005-12-27) with a list of seven villains, Patrick at Tiberius and Gaius Speaking… with a list of ten, and Glenn Greenwald and Hypatia at Unclaimed Territory (2005-12-28) with another ten to throw on the barbie. With the exception of Glenn’s silly inclusion of Harry Blackmun, they are pretty much right, as far as it goes, but there are some notable names that I notice tend to get left out. I suggested some additions at Alas and some dishonorable mentions at Tiberius and Gaius, which have been followed up with some debate.

Here’s my contribution of evildoers. I make no attempt to be comprehensive — there are lots of truly rotten people who aren’t on the list, mainly because they are mentioned elsewhere. But these folks are truly rotten, and often overlooked — sometimes because they get shoved out of the way by contemporary contenders that contemporary writers tend to give disproportionate space to, sometimes because the villains are overlooked by pop history anyway, and sometimes simply because political blinders prevent their names from being given serious consideration. The interesting thing is that the blinders rarely constitute defenses of their deeds — although in at least two of the three cases I discuss with Patrick that is what’s happening. It’s just that, for whatever reason, some folks whose crimes are readily admitted, if mentioned, aren’t thought of when you sit down thinking Who should I put down as a terrible evil-doer? I have some ideas about the reasons behind that, but I’d be interested to hear what you think in comments, too.

In any case, here’s my unordered list of overlooked evildoers, cobbled together from my suggestions elsewhere:

  • Harry S. Truman. He ordered or approved the murders of 500,000 – 1,000,000 Japanese civilians over the course of half a year in 1945.

  • Curtis LeMay. He carried out the murder of 500,000 – 1,000,000 Japanese civilians over the course of half a year in 1945. He planned and carried out the low-altitude firebombing of Kobe, Tokyo, and 65 other Japanese cities. A nuclear maniac who explicitly denied that there were any innocent bystanders in war, went on to coin the phrase bomb them back into the Stone Age (in reference to the Vietnam War), and went on to become George Wallace’s running mate in 1968, on a platform of white supremacy and more militant anticommunism. During World War II, he repeatedly indicated his belief that the Japanese deserved wholesale slaughter of civilians, and his own public statements and the reminiscences of the soldiers who served under him reveal him as simply reveling in death and destruction.

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a pseudo-leftist demagogue who created the military-industrial complex; imprisoned political opponents; seized sweeping censorship powers; pandered to the worst sorts of racism, first in his political alliances with arch-segregationist Dixiecrats and then in whipping up war fever for war against Japan; ordered internment of Japanese-Americans; happily allied with, propagandized for, and consigned 1/2 of Europe to the totalitarian terror of, Joseph Stalin; and became one of the three men who came the closest to becoming a dictator in the United States.

  • Woodrow Wilson, unreprentant liar and war-monger, KKK fan, arch-segregationist, ardent anti-feminist. His published academic work delighted in white supremacist myth-making; his warmongering drew the United States needlessly into one of the worst and most senseless wars in world history; he built a slave army with the second federal draft in American history, and shredded civil liberties with abandon, happily imprisoning political opponents both during and after the War and presiding over the devastating Palmer Raids. Wilson is one of the three men who came the closest to becoming a dictator in the United States.

  • George Fitzhugh, who fused the worst elements of statist utopian socialism with a nostalgic view of feudal hierarchy to provide the most militant theoretical defense of white supremacy and race slavery in the prewar South. He authored Slavery Justified, Sociology in the South, and Cannibals All!.

  • William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the inventors of modern scorched-earth warfare, ravager of the South and murderer of Southern civilians. Sherman followed up his most famous role by pursuing genocidal campaigns against the Plains Indians and Indians in the Southwest from 1869 until his retirement in 1884.

  • James Eastland, the militant white supremacist Senator from Mississippi, mad dog McCarthyist, and founding father of the White Citizens Councils.

  • In addition to another Alas commenter’s suggestion of Larry Flynt, I’d also like to add Chuck Traynor, the pimp / pornographer / rapist / batterer / slave-driver who forced Linda Boreman into Deep Throat (among other pornography) and played an instrumental role in founding the mass-market, above-ground film pornography industry in the U.S. through repeated filmed rapes.

  • Sergio MΓ©ndez reminded me that Ronald Reagan certainly needs a mention, yet he seems notoriously absent from many of the lists. I mention him here not because I think he’s often overlooked on lefty lists of rotten people, but rather because I think the primary reasons to include him — his complicity in the formation of the death squads of El Salvador and the plainly genocidal massacre of some 200,000 Indians in Guatemala — is often overlooked in favor of a frankly silly focus on his contributions to the rhetoric of the contemporary Right in America.

The exercise, whatever its demerits, does seem to be a good conversation-starter. What do you think?

Conventional weapons

US forces yesterday made their clearest admission yet that white phosphorus was used as a weapon against insurgents in Iraq. A Pentagon spokesman told the BBC last night that it had been used as an incendiary weapon during the assault last year on Falluja in 2004.

— The Guardian 2005-11-16: US admits using white phosphorous in Falluja

But it’s not, technically speaking, a chemical weapon. And it doesn’t violate any international treaties. That the U.S. has ratified, anyway.

WASHINGTON, Nov 16 (Reuters) — The Pentagon on Wednesday acknowledged using incendiary white-phosphorus munitions in a 2004 offensive against insurgents in the Iraqi city of Falluja and defended their use as legal, amid concerns by arms control advocates.

It’s part of our conventional-weapons inventory and we use it like we use any other conventional weapon, added Bryan Whitman, another Pentagon spokesman.

— Reuters 2005-11-16: US defends use of white phosphorus weapons in Iraq

Emphasis is mine.

Here are some legal uses of conventional weapons.

Napalm. Tokyo, 10 March 1945.

ashes and charred bodies in a desolate street

Napalm and white phosphorus. Trang Bang, Vietnam, 8 June 1972.

White phosphorus and napalm explode over the village of Trang Bang
Phan Thi Kim Phuc screams in pain after being burned by napalm in her village

White phosphorus. Fallujah, November 2004.

shower of white fire exploding over Fallujah FallujahRainingFire.jpg

a baby, dead, with severe burns a boy, dead, with skin burned black

a dead woman's hand, charred down to the bone, still clutching subha prayer beads FallujahAerialPhoto.jpg

White phosphorus firebombing of Fallujah

This is conventional aerial warfare using conventional weapons adhering to the letter of all the treaties that the goverment of the United States is a party to. This is imperial power in its fullest glory, restrained by all the civilized restraints that it deems necessary and proper for itself. This is its morality. This is its justice. This is its law.

engraving: a ghastly skeleton, robed and crowned, holds a scepter and a polished glass with the words, THE MIRROR THAT FLATTERS NOT
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