Devil’s Advocation of the Day

Earlier this year I had a lively discussion with a BA student regarding the video of marines urinating over the dead bodies of their dead opponents. The argument boiled down to the questions of whether we need to understand their mindset prior to judging their actions, or whether we need or should even attempt to do so (NB: My argument was yes on both counts). This week, the LA Times brought the issue of trophy pictures back to the top of the news agenda. Of course, such acts were immediately condemned by Leon Panetta and President Obama. Before we jump to conclusions, let’s remember that not all official apologies are shared by the perpetrators of similar actions.

Here’s a thought – maybe these pictures are a long-term good.

I’ve been re-reading Michael Ignatieff’s Virtual War recently, and gauging how it holds up. Some bits have taken a dent (both his and Luttwak’s writings on post-heroic war definitely need an update), but others remain as clear now as they were back in 2000, prior to the decade long war on terror. The last paragraph always sticks with me, particularly:

“We see ourselves as noble warriors and our enemies as despicable tyrants. We see war as a surgical scalpel and not a bloodstained sword. In so doing we mis-describe ourselves as we mis-describe the instruments of death.”

My reading of Virtual War is that it documents an important milestone in the idea of rational warfare, a concept which I personally consider to be a tad bizzarre. Photos of soldiers posing with mutilated bodies provide a very direct reminder that war isn’t rational, and can never be so, despite the language we use and the way it is viewed by politicians and the public. In short, pictures of soldiers desecrating the dead don’t bring home the ‘reality’ of war, but they drive home its inherent irrationality. Rupert Smith might have made a meal out of ‘killing people and breaking things’, but he still called his book The Utility of Force, which hints at the way in which the very people apologising for marines and soldiers view war – as a tool or implement. Most of the language and way we think of war involves attempts to rationalise or process it, from Robert McNamara through to today’s metrics-based operations. The people that are honest about war recognise that there are irrational elements beyond ‘uncertainty’ which are part and parcel of warfare. Almost everyone involved in conducting war, at least on our side, has a reason for downplaying the barbaric/undisciplined/’conduct… [that] does not in any way represent the high standards of the US military’ bits that will happen in any war. As revolting as pictures of desecrated dead are, they serve to remind everyone that this will happen when young men (and women) are trained to kill people and put in stressful situations.

It is natural to rationalise war (as anything else). Being an academic, studying war, I rationalise it all the time. We use analytical tools to try and draw some semblance of objectivity from extreme subjectivity. I’m well aware of the odd looks I get from my non-academic/non-military friends when I say things like ‘It’s not as simple as that’ in response to issues of dead civilians, because I study the internal rationalisations of war (just war theory and international humanitarian law) and through those lenses there is a perspective where it is okay to kill non-combatants because of proportionality, necessity, double-effect etc. At the same time, I’m well aware that certain aspects of war are irrational – we expect people to be okay with killing another human being, normally among the most abhorrent acts in a criminal code, but at the same time to respect their body. We view pictures of desecration and are horrified at urine, rather than the corpse. In the long run, photos like those published this week remind everyone of what happens in war – that despite the rationalisations, and the necessity, and the values: soldiers will commit terrible acts and desecrate one another. In other words, there are undefinable, but present, limits to the extent to which war can be rationalised, and the extent to which the irrational aspects of the phenomenon can be exorcised.

To re-cap the advocation – maybe the photos are good because they remind everyone (politicians, soldiers, public, press) that war is a really bad thing, not simply a foreign policy tool.


17 thoughts on “Devil’s Advocation of the Day

    • It is a really interesting topic. I suppose I’m more interested in the rational/irrational dichotomy than the real/unreal dichotomy.

      I think there is a third dimension caused by history – Iraq and Afghanistan are very close to us, but the nature of information distribution is such that the ‘immediate’ image has a very short half-life. In one sense we are ‘closer’ to the war, but at the same time it travels faster away from us (to be replaced by LOLcats and other such daily barrages of imagery and information). I wonder how long after the inevitable Afghanistan withdrawal that the visceral memories will last, I’m half minded to think that it will be ‘gone’ quicker than previous wars, despite all the grating talk about ‘blood and treasure’.

  1. Jeni Mitchell says:

    On the ‘rational/irrational dichotomy’:

    I’m not sure many people try to find rationality at the level of the individual fighter — it is at the collective level that people assume rationality or utility of force. An individual may engage in transgressive or irrational behaviour, but the collective use of violence — whether by a state armed force or a non-state militia — is presumed to have at least a basic level of instrumentality.

    As well, if you look at the full range of influences upon behaviour in warfare — from ideology and norms to political and criminal motivations — then a lot of seemingly irrational behaviour actually appears much more logical (subjectively, in any case).

    I agree that many aspects of war can be over-rationalised, but it’s easy to go too far the other way in attributing irrationality.

    • Anthony says:

      Whilst I agree that we presume a certain degree of instrumentality in the decision to go to war/use armed force at the national level, this presumption may tell us more about who we think we are than how we really behave. History (and Clausewitz) suggest that the irrational is deeply embedded in how people and their leaders react to war. Any number of countries have continued hopeless struggles well beyond the point where the potential for any sort of positive outcome had vanished (Japan after 1942, the Confederacy after Gettysburg, etc etc). In 1962 many of the senior military and civilian leaders of the US advised JFK that it would be a good idea to provoke a fight with a nuclear-armed superpower over some missiles in Cuba. While they doubtless would have claimed to be acting rationally, in retrospect it is clear that false analogies to emotive defeats (Cuba = Pearl Harbour) and irrational fears of losing face were to blame for what was by any practical measure exceptionally stupid advice.

      Thus while we do and should take a very dim view of soldiers behaving like barbarians, in doing we should recognize that it’s easy to make cool rational judgements when we are (a) distant spectators and (b) relatively confident that the local shopkeeper won’t decide to blow us up when we go to pick up a pint of milk. The last time our collective backs were to the wall and v-weapons were raining down on London it seemed like a rational idea to obliterate Dresden and everyone in it. In human activity context is never irrelevant.

      Or as Jack more eloquently put it, “…there are undefinable, but present, limits to the extent to which war can be rationalised, and the extent to which the irrational aspects of the phenomenon can be exorcised.”

      The punishment that will be meted out to the trophy photo offenders needs to at least take into consideration the context in which these acts took place. BTW this is no different from the way the civilian criminal justice system treats any other major crime – the Mafia contract killer will draw a higher penalty than someone who kills an adversary in a drunken fight outside a bar.

      The lesson of the latest set of atrocity photos ought not to be obfuscated by the standard line about a few bad apples. “Intervention”, humanitarian or otherwise, is Newspeak for war. War creates chaos. Soldiers in war get desperate and crazy. Absent a threat to national survival those who put them into situations where even a few will do crazy things need to share in the blame.

    • Jeni Mitchell says:

      But ‘rational’ is not equivalent to ‘correct’ or ‘successful’. All of your examples, as you say, were considered rational at the time — people believed they would lead to some positive outcome (or saw the alternatives as leading to worse outcomes).

      To be truly irrational, from a social science point of view, someone would have to argue (for example): ‘I think this decision will lead to global thermonuclear war but let’s do it anyway’.

      There are many mechanisms by which both states and individuals can rationalise atrocities. I think it’s possible to judge those rationalisations as immoral instead of claiming there are no rationalisations at all (i.e., I think often it’s more accurate to say ‘this act was rational but immoral’ than ‘this act was irrational’).

    • Anthony says:

      I agree that rational need not necessarily mean successful. However a rational choice ought to mean a weighing of possibilities and an informed decision balancing the probability and desirability of success against the risks of failure. In the cases of Japan and the Confederacy, as the wars went on the likelihood of any positive outcome from continued combat became vanishingly small, while the cost increased inexorably. How then to account for their failure to sue for peace and attempt to save something from the holocaust? Hoping for some completely improbable black swan event is a very human tendency, as is the propensity to throw good money after bad (Clausewitz would group these under the moral factors that make war so chaotic and unpredictable). In good old civilized Canada there are people arguing that we ought to stay in Afghanistan because if we don’t the losses will have been in vain. All of this is very human but in my view it’s a stretch to call it rational.

    • Jeni Mitchell says:

      Suing for peace would not have appeared a rational act in a normative context where suicide is preferable to defeat. That may seem irrational to us, but it’s logical within that mindset.

    • Anthony says:

      I’ll stipulate that attitude in the case of Japan, though the literature on mass suicides after the Confederate defeat is somewhat limited…
      I’m more concerned with the idea of “logical within that mindset”. Being a tiresome old philosophy grad I have a problem with defining “rational” as “following the format of a syllogism, but accepting magic thinking, cultural prejudice or reality denial as valid premises”.

  2. Interesting post. Is the implication that we do not condemn such behaviour (because we have to understand the perpetrators’ mindsets, and because this sort of thing happens in war)?

    I see some merit to that argument, but by this logic what else can we not judge? Breivik happens when you force a bunch of different cultures and ethnicities to live together in a society. Some go nuts and kill people.

    But many people don’t. I think that is the basis for the judgement here – that fact that most uniformed personnel in Afghanistan do not, it would seem, desecrate corpses. So where does this leave the minority that do? If we give them a free pass because ‘war is irrational’, what of the majority that somehow manage to retain some level of what is right and wrong, even in war?

    Again, an interesting post.

    • SEAl 6 says:

      Dear mr. Professor, thank you for your interesting article. As i do not live in Britain and i am a very high /6/intellectual of thirty three, very discriminated by the not-educated people of all sorts(starting from the people in the families and those in the Socialist or Left Government, no matter the party they are part from) : i am glad i could see the meaning of ‘patriotism’ is well understood by the top intellectuals in the U.K., like you also are. And this is the reason for i completelly understand the real diplomatic significance of your term ‘majority..(don’t).
      All in all, i have a difficult experience in life, i know what a harsh military training is for a nice and sensitive person like a minor part from the majority is, and i know from my own life and day after day experience it is not easy to completelly manipulate any one’s brain. In harsh conditions, it’s even the most educated military who can urinate on the corpse of a former military, no matter who he’d been. After all, the human body is universal and the science persons couldn’t understood, up to now, but only a minor part of the brain’s structure, as all the medical Encyclopaedias assume, isn’t that right?
      All in all, we are so differently developped as individuals and from that point of view we are all ‘unique’. And, contrary to the special training with experience and education , make up the difference and separate us all, we’ll be animals, more or less, until the end of our lives., isn’t that real? While the angels could never be comprehended, in our lives. In my opinion, the world and all the professions and jobs and your article too, are dominated by the politics and its use in the politics and religion and philosophy or specific regardings twds. a job. I think the press and the mass-media are so curious and less-educated in the schools as they do picture notsegnificant attitudes of a combative in a war, after a private victory of him. In my opinion, people should be educated in making a difference btwn. spaces and the public opinion should be kept apart from particular actions like this is, within specific places , afterall. Thank you.

  3. Tom Wein says:

    I think David U’s point about frequency touches on something important. A proper historical view notes that these things have occurred in most wars. So therefore you condemn them all the same, but condemn them knowing they are not unique aberrations. The official condemnation is therefore complicated. It is not just moral outrage: it becomes a deliberate attempt to police this line of permitting killing but not urination, because it makes sense to try to make force more of a rational instrument, even if we know we will never quite succeed. We know the killing is necessary, but we can attempt to limit extraneous immoral actions, such as humiliating corpses (which are also counterproductive, of course).

    With Breivik we can condemn uncomplicatedly, because the entirety of the action is immoral, from the ideology to the conception to the carrying it out. Further understanding of the mindset just confirm this. The more aberrant it is, the easier it is to condemn, not least because we have no real interest in defending a part of it.

  4. Richard Deldonna says:

    Rationalize all you want. If politicians do not want to see our solders urinate on their enemies, then maybe our politicians should find another solution to war. To tell a solder who has, killed another human being to not pee on their enemy escapes their mind the second they realize that the corpse they are looking at could have been them. At that point NO ONE can know what is going through that solder’s mind. No matter how well trained they are. At that point it is not the corpse who is the causality of war. It is that solder that this country sent to kill people. All the analysts should stop trying to analyze something they will never understand!!

  5. SEAl 6 says:

    Dear Richard, as few know what it means a real training and how many complexities there are in an apparently ordinary combat training apart from the complex individual psychology of a military which goes to war, i’m sure there are little persons to find out the real significance in what you tell us. Contrary to that, as far as i know the status and penalties for a military are distinct from that a civilian or a politician has, true?

  6. Richard Deldonna says:

    True Mr. 6. What irks me is that “professionals” who have never been there have the audacity to write on topics they are not qualified to write on. These solders did what they did. The failure here is that someone photographed it. That photographer is in desperate need of some R&R in a rack, and a good cleaning with a warm towel and soap…. Am I that far off??

  7. SEAl 6 says:

    No, Richard, you’re not far from at all. This is another part from that freedom of expression i might have mentioned above, in my interest twds. the foreign affairs of a nation. In my opinion, the photograph only did a part of his job, but i think the mass-media should be controlled more in the close future, for reaching the security of a country, don’t you? Regards..

  8. Richard Deldonna says:

    6, absolutely! I live every day with the saying “loose lips sink ships” If my friends out side of my job knew exactly what I do. They would not be so friendly to me knowing their “wonderful, carefree world” in which they enjoy the safety that many provide them. As they bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the true knowledge of what it takes to provide “their” freedom. Allowing the press into the arena is like allowing the terrorist the freedom to take flying lessons…..

  9. SEAl 6 says:

    I’m glad i am not part of that press you mention about and this is another reason for why i prefer to keep the silence, from now on..meanwhile, i do not understand that quatation from you’loose lips, sink ships’, as i am not student in London, as you are…so..talking later to you! Regards!

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