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Archive for June, 2006

Haditha and My Lai: The Image of War and Irony

[ 1 ] June 1, 2006 |

Those who declared irony dead after 9/11 were infidels. Irony is alive and well. Ironic, isn’t it?

The similarities and differences between the killings at Haditha and My Lai are clear. But it remains to be seen into which of these columns we will be able to place the public reaction. My guess is that you will not see the same sort of outrage, but either way it will be able to be placed snugly into the “best laid plans of mice and men” file.

Part of the reaction to My Lai was justified moral outrage. Part of it was the edge of the times. But part of it was the piercing of the John Wayne/noble warrior bubble. The disconnect between the romanticized image of battle and the reality on the ground finally became too overwhelmingly great to fit into all but the most double-jointed pro-war intellect (back in the late 60’s, of course, there were many double-jointed intellects). The report of the horrific incident made it impossible to maintain the sort of fictitious picture of the brave, bold, and handsome good guy arriving to save the day. For those who needed such a cerebral crutch to justify their support of the military action, it was like that day when you first find out that the cone is not really filled to the bottom with ice cream. The world, especially the world at war, is a horrible place where horrible things happen. My Lai forced us to face it with no illusions and that changed the calculus in a subtle, but important way.

But an interesting thing happened after Viet Nam. That evil, liberal Hollywood changed the way it made war movies. All of a sudden, we were seeing the horror. We were seeing the trauma. We were seeing the complexities. The cavalry coming to the rescue defeating the bad guys, that just didn’t happen so much anymore. American soldiers could be portrayed as shallow, course and ragingly bloodthirsty just as much as they could be portrayed as moral, dependable, and disciplined. The image of war took pains to be honest in an effort to strip it of its old facade. Where there is war, we were shown that there will be atrocities. War is hell and we were shown hell.

At the same time, those on the right were largely convinced that the failure in Viet Nam was a result of the press. TV images of coffins and those bleeding hearts in the newsrooms. They did away with McCarthy and Nixon and they undermined support for the war. The war was not lost in Asia, it was lost on the TV at home. And so they came to realize that PR was every bit as much a part of the war effort as the infantry. The battle plan needed an “in theater” component and an “in theaters” component. And so we got smart bombs — munitions that restore the cleanliness to warfare. Indeed, we got the same one shown over and over again. We got pictures of Patriot missiles shooting down SCUDs — whether they did or not — the idea being that the war is happening in the sky, safely away from the people on the ground. We got briefings from Pentagon spokesmen in very professional, CNN knock off, spit polished briefing rooms. And then we got embedded reporters. Get to know the troops. Send back touching stories about the guys. The right was trying to rebuild the image that My Lai seemed to have buried.

So the question is which PR campaign was the most successful? The answer may be one factor in how we as a nation respond to the tragedy in Haditha. If those who tried to warn us away from war succeeded in convincing us that military conflict creates an all-permeating cloud of despair from which the dreadfulness of incidents like this one will necessarily follow, then the response may be a mere sad shrug of shoulders. “What did you expect? This is just how war is.” We may have been so desensitized to atrocities that we can’t muster outrage at the outrageous. But if the pro-war forces succeeded in rehabilitating the old picture in which war was only nasty to those who deserved it; if the hospital corners on phrases like “collateral damage” managed to work like All-Temperature Cheer on the bloodstains of the past, then the story of this massacre may again lead us to that place where sadness turns to indignation.

It seems that both sides were right that the images of war that made it into the common consciousness would be crucial when the time really came. But they didn’t realize that when the cartoons are over and the film itself is shown that the winners lose and the losers win. Whoever won the PR battle may have just lost the war. Irony can be so ironic.


Lawless and Proud of It

[ 0 ] June 1, 2006 |

Wow. In the race for the Alabama Supreme Court, the nominees are openly advancing the “let’s pretend Article VI doesn’t exist” theory of the Constitution you may remember from attempts to nullify Supreme Court decisions during the civil rights era:

Yet Justice Tom Parker, who is running for chief justice, argues that state judges should refuse to follow U.S. Supreme Court precedents they believe to be erroneous. Three other GOP candidates in Tuesday’s primary have made nearly identical arguments.”State supreme court judges should not follow obviously wrong decisions simply because they are `precedents,'” Parker wrote in a newspaper opinion piece in January that was prompted by a murder case that came before the Alabama high court.

Um, actually, they should. This is not ambiguous. The Supremacy Clause doesn’t have a “unless we would have ruled differently if we were sitting on the federal courts” exception. This is not a dispute about constitutional interpretation; this is about the rule of law, and these candidates seem to oppose it.

Make It Stop.

[ 0 ] June 1, 2006 |

The BBC has evidence of another group killing of civilians by American soldiers, this one in Ishaq, north of Baghdad– 11 Iraqis, ranging in age from 75 to 6 months, were killed. The US military account of the incident in March is that a building collapsed under heavy fire, killing four people inside; the Iraqi police accused the US military of rounding up the 11 civilians and shooting them. The BBC now has a videotape showing 11 bodies, killed by gunshots rather than by a building collapse, which they believe to be geniune based on comparison to other images of the scene known to be genuine.

Please, can we just bring our armed forces home? We can spend as much as anyone wants on aid to Iraq, and on trying to hold the country together diplomatically, or through providing support and training to Iraqi forces, given that the state Iraq is in is our fault. But can we stop killing people? (Via Kevin Drum.)

Long Beach Blogging

[ 0 ] June 1, 2006 |

A quick note to pass on while I sit here in the tiny (but free-wireless equipped) terminal:
When discussing the various gross irrationalities and inequities of the election system, I think it’s important to note that the system is a scandal whether or not it can be proven that it swung the 2004 election. Given the margin and the number of unknowable variables, I don’t think it can. But that doesn’t make the system any less unjust. I would also repeat again that the American electoral system represents the a priori veneration of federalism at its most damaging.

Speaking of the "terrorism industrial complex"

[ 0 ] June 1, 2006 |

I know I’m late to the story, but according to ABC’s “The Blotter”:

New York has no national monuments or icons, according to the Department of Homeland Security form obtained by ABC News. That was a key factor used to determine that New York City should have its anti-terror funds slashed by 40 percent–from $207.5 million in 2005 to $124.4 million in 2006.

The formula did not consider as landmarks or icons: The Empire State Building, The United Nations, The Statue of Liberty and others found on several terror target hit lists. It also left off notable landmarks, such as the New York Public Library, Times Square, City Hall and at least three of the nation’s most renowned museums: The Guggenheim, The Metropolitan and The Museum of Natural History.

The form ignored that New York City is the capital of the world financial markets and merely stated the city had four significant bank assets. (via Political Wire)

Back when the Republicans introduced their poison pill into the act establishing the DHS, the one that stripped civil-service protections from its employees and thereby forced many Democrats who supported the creation of the Department to vote against it, a relative of mine pointed out that doing so not only provided Republicans with a way of smearing the Democrats as being “soft on terror” during the 2002 midterms… the act would turn the new DHS into a patronage mill for the administration.

Since then we’ve had ample indiciation of the administration’s desire to politicize the executive branch. We also have a pretty good idea what the erosion of executive-agency professionalism is doing to the workings of the federal government.

I have no direct evidence, of course, that this insane decision stemmed from the way the Bush administration structured the DHS, but it does provide further evidence that John Mueller is correct about at least one thing: the War on Terror continues to degenerate into another excuse for big pork. If he’s right, of course, New York is getting too much money as it is. But at least we ought to make some effort to distribute such money properly, no?

It would be really nice for a week to go by without additional proof that the Bush administration has given us the worst of both worlds: incompetent big government.

Garcetti v. Ceballos Isn’t All That Bad

[ 0 ] June 1, 2006 |

I’m going to jump into my guest-blogging stint here by disagreeing with my esteemed host; surprising though it is, given the makeup of the majority and the dissenters, I think Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Garcetti v. Ceballos gets it right, and the Breyer and Souter dissents get it wrong. Speech made by a government employee as an integral part of the employee’s duties, even on a matter of public concern, shouldn’t be protected against retaliation by the First Amendment.

I’m somewhat disturbed by the company I’m keeping here, so let me lay out my thinking explicitly. The case originating current doctrine on the First Amendment protection of government employees’ speech is Pickering v. Board of Ed., 361 US. 563 (1968); which stands, essentially, for the proposition that the First Amendment protects government employees against retaliation for speech on matters of public concern — in that case, a teacher writing to a newspaper and accusing the Board of Education of wrongdoing. Pickering sets up a balancing test as follows:

At the same time it cannot be gainsaid that the State has interests as an employer in regulating the speech of its employees that differ significantly from those it possesses in connection with regulation of the speech of the citizenry in general. The problem in any case is to arrive at a balance between the interests of the teacher, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.

Under the Pickering balancing test, the State can regulate speech to the extent that its interference with the ‘efficiency of the public services it performs’ outweighs the speaker’s interest in commenting on matters of public concern. This has proved to be a perfectly workable test: it turns on such things as whether the speech is being made in the speakers’ role as a citizen or as an employee, whether it is actually disruptive to the place of employment, and other similar issues. The question posed by this case is: how does that balancing play out when the speech in question is the ‘public services’ being performed? And when it’s put like that, I think the conclusion that the State, as an employer, is entitled to control the manner in which its employees perform their services, and that the First Amendment does not allow state employees to override the employer’s judgment as to how their duties should be performed, is inescapable.

The problem with Garcetti is that the facts are so sympathetic — if they are as stated, Mr. Ceballos was attempting to correct a severe and inexcusable case of wrongdoing by the L.A. Sherriff’s Department, and the District Attorney’s office was absolutely wrong to have retaliated against him for it. But this is persuasive only to the extent that Mr. Ceballos was right — if, instead, the memo he wrote were incompetent nonsense, containing unfounded allegations against the Sherriff’s Department (I don’t mean to imply anything about Mr. Ceballos — I’m thinking of a possible next case), it’s obvious that the District Attorney’s office would have to be able to ‘retaliate’ against him for it. Where someone’s job consists of speech, in the form of memos, briefs, court appearances and such things, the content of that speech determines whether the job is being done well or badly; and the employer has to be able to regulate that content and ‘retaliate’ against the employee when the content is not what the employer wants, or it has no control at all over the job it has hired the employee to do.

Souter and Breyer both nod to this issue. Souter contemplates that speech by government employees in the course of their duties should only be protected only insofar as it meets a high standard of responsibility and consists of “comment on official dishonesty, deliberately unconstitutional action, other serious wrongdoing, or threats to health and safety”; Breyer believes that even that standard would unworkably deprive state employers of control over their employees, and suggests that the First Amendment should protect such speech only where “professional and special constitutional obligations are both present”. Either of those standards, still, either: (1) ends up protecting employees whose duties consist of speech from management action even where they are wrong or incompetent in what they have said, which seems absurd, or (2) ends up extending First Amendment protection to speech only when a court considers the speech correct or valuable, substituting the court’s opinion on how to perform the employee’s duties for the employer’s, which seems, likewise, absurd.

I’d love to be talked out of this position — I’m uncomfortable with the company I’m keeping. Comments, anyone? (Also posted at my home blog, Unfogged.)

John Mueller on Terrorism: we have little to fear but fear itself

[ 0 ] June 1, 2006 |

From a letter published in the Columbus Dispatch:

“Marathon to uproot more trees” was a fantastic report, complete with pictures and the location of the Marathon oil pipeline.

I am sure the terrorists were thrilled to see this report with the pictures – especially the sign, “Warning petroleum pipeline” – and the location of the pipeline.

The media do a beautiful job of telling terrorists all about America’s weaknesses. I am sure the terrorists have so much information from the media on points to strike the United States that they have a hard time deciding which location to strike first.

The notion that terrrorists are sitting around waiting for local newspapers to point them to appropriate targets in central Ohio seems a bit absurd. In “Six Rather Unusual Propositions about Terrorism,”(Terrorism and Political Violence, 17:487-505, 2005) John Mueller argues (PDF) that the real problem isn’t the objective threat posed by terrorism, but the political consequences of the kind of irrational fears expressed in this letter.

Mueller’s six propositions:

1. Terrorism generally has only limited direct effects

[The] likelihood that any individual will become a victim [of terrorism] in most places is microscopic. Although those adept at hyperbole like to proclaim that were live in an ‘age of terror,’ the number of people worldwide who die as a result of international terrorism is generally only a few hundred a year, tiny compared to the number who die in most civil wars or from automobile accidents.

2. The costs of terrorism very often come mostly from the fear and consequent reaction (or overreaction) it characteristically inspires

The costs of reaction outstripped those inflicted by the terrorists even in the case of the September 11 attacks, which were by far the most destructive in history. The direct economic costs of September 11 amounted to tens of billions of dollars, but the economic costs in the United States of the much-enhanced security runs several times that. The yearly budget for the Department of Homeland Security, for example, is approaching $50 billion per year while state and local governments spend additional billions.

3. The terrorism industry is a major part of the terrorism problem

Meanwhile, Bush’s hastily assembled and massively funded Department of Homeland Security seeks to stoke fear by officially intoning on the first page of its defining manifesto that ”Today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon.” This warning is true in some sense, of course, but it is also fatuous and misleading. As Benjamin Friedman notes, ”Telling Kansan truck drivers to prepare for nuclear terrorism is like telling bullfighters to watch out for lightning. It should not be their primary concern. For questionable gains in preparedness, we spread paranoia.” Such warnings, continues Friedman, also facilitate the bureaucratically and politically appealing notion that ”if the threat is everywhere, you must spend everywhere,” and they help develop and perpetrate ”a myth of the all-knowing, all-seeing terrorists.” Threat exaggeration is additionally encouraged, even impelled, because politicians and terrorism bureaucrats also have, as Jeffrey Rosen points out, an ”incentive to pass along vague and unconfirmed threats of future violence, in order to protect themselves from criticism” in the event of another attack.

4. Policies designed to deal with terrorism should focus more on reducing fear and anxiety as inexpensively as possible than on objectively reducing the rather limited dangers terrorism is likely actually to pose

The reduction of fear and anxiety is in fact actually quite central to dealing with terrorism. The revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, reportedly held that ”the aim of terrorism is to terrify.” And the inspiration of consequent overreaction seems central to bin Laden’s strategy. As he put it mockingly in a videotaped message in 2004, it is ”easy for us to provoke and bait. . . All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin . . . to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses.” His policy, he extravagantly believes, is one of ”bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,” and it is one that depends on overreaction by the target: he triumphally points to the fact that the September 11 terrorist attacks cost Al Qaeda $500,000 while the attack and its aftermath inflicted, he claims, a cost of more than $500 billion on the United States.

5. Doing nothing (or at least refraining from overreacting) after a terrorist attack is not necessarily unacceptable

Although it is often argued that it is imperative that public officials ”do something”—which usually means overreact—when a terrorist event takes place, there are many instances where no reaction took place and the officials did not suffer politically or otherwise.

6. Despite U.S. overreaction, the campaign against terror is generally going rather well

Despite [the war in Iraq], the campaign against terrorism is generally succeeding because, no matter how much they might disagree on other issues(most notably on America’s war on Iraq), there is a compelling incentive for states—including Arab and Muslim ones, who are also being targeted—to cooperate to deal with this international threat. And since methodical, persistent policing of individuals and small groups is most needed, the process seems to be on the right track. It is not clear that this policing has prevented international terrorism in the United States, however. The number of such incidents in the three years after September 11 was zero, but that was the same number registered in the three years before the attacks at a time
when antiterrorist policing exertions were much lower.

I highly recommend that you read Mueller’s entire piece. If you can think of a counter-argument, the chances are he’s addressed it brilliantly. The best example of this is the question of terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction. Mueller is certainly right about the relative risks — and the cost-benefit calculations — associated with terrorism. But if you think at all like I do, the nightmare scenario of terrorists with WMD always throws a wrench into such levelheaded assessments. Mueller admits that the risks posed by terrorism “could change if international terrorists are able to assemble sufficient” capabilities to “kill masses of people and if they do so routinely” but points out a number of reasons why we should be wary of the hype surrounding such scenarios. He notes, for example, that chemical weapons just don’t do the trick. During World War I, for example, “it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality.” He argues that the threat posed by biological weapons “remains theoretical because biological weapons have scarcely ever been used…. biological weapons are extremely difficult to deploy and control.” Aum Shinrikyo actually made a number of bioweapons attacks without anyone noticing. So what about nukes? Expensive, difficult, and generally unlikely.

Mueller now speaks of a “terrorism industrial complex” (i.e., the new version of the famous military industrial complex). For those of us who live in Washington, DC, the growth of DHS funded industries looks an awful lot like the explosion of “Beltway Bandits” that developed after the Reagan administration started throwing money at the Strategic Defense Initiative.

The weakest part of the article comes under his fifth proposition. He notes that political inaction in the face of terrorism — such as Reagan’s response to the Lebanon marine-barrack bombing — rarely carries with it political costs. But one could argue, as many do, that the history of American inaction encouraged further attacks that culminated in 9/11. Mueller’s main argument here is that overreaction is a greater risk than under-reaction, but inaction strikes me as a different matter entirely. What Mueller’s driving at, in large part, is that the use of military force is often not the best policy. Policing has, and continues to, prove more effective than military options. Afghanistan probably constitutes the major exception to this rule; yet I would caution against extrapolating too much from the rather specific circumstances surrounding the US-led overthrow of the Taliban. Afghanistan certainly proved a poor analogy for justifying the invasion of Iraq.

Deja Vu: Sir, Yes, Sir

[ 0 ] June 1, 2006 |

So the official response to the massacre and cover up in Haditha is … wait for it … “core values training on moral and ethical standards on the battlefield”. Now, I have no battlefield experience myself, but I am a veteran of the fight over core values training on moral and ethical standards on the battlefield having been in the Leadership, Ethics, and Law department at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis where they brought me in to teach a couple of courses in philosophy and to help develop supporting materials for their version of ethics training. That was also a response to several scandals that had hit the Academy. This one will no doubt be as well thought out as that one.

In the Annapolis version, all second year midshipmen take a required course that consists of a one-hour lecture on Mondays delivered by a professional philosopher on Aristotle, Mill, or Kant (we weren’t allowed to even mention Locke or Hobbes because they had been conscripted by the Political Science faculty) and then smaller group meetings on Wednesdays and Fridays led by Naval officers who had to teach two hours on difficult philosophical texts that they had only seen for the first time days before in a one hour prep meeting. In addition, they were mostly hostile to the entire project because it was not there when they were midshipmen and any change is necessarily a sign of softness.

This call is no different from the one in Annapolis, it is a band-aid. No, it will not do anything. Very simple. Acting in an ethically proper sense is a two step process. Step 1: determine what is the right thing to do in the situation. Step 2: do it. In most cases step 1 is trivially easy; it is step 2 — having the moral courage to stand up and do what is right, even when it is not expedient –that is most frequently the tricky one. This is why moral philosophy is so easily made fun of; most of the time telling right from wrong is so obvious that it seems as if there is no rational process at all, as if we simply have a sixth sense in which the morally acceptable options just appear before our mind’s eyes.

But there are a few questions for which step 1 is not only non-trivial, it is incredibly difficult. This is where you bring out philosophers to set the table by clarifying the issue and then everyone joins in to engage in the moral side of deliberative democracy or what I like to call “civil fucking discourse”: it’s civil in that it is an open-minded, good faith attempt to find truth, but it is not civil in that it is a knock-down, drag-out, intellectual cage match where all ideas are welcome in the ring regardless of where they sit on the political/religious/ideological spectrum.

“Ethics training” is an insult to step 1 in that it treats the trivial cases (don’t assassinate little children) as if they weren’t trivial and treats the hard cases (you have a family that you need to come home to, you are in a war zone where people are trying to kill you, but you don’t know the language or the culture or exactly who the people trying to kill you are. what do you do?) as if they are a matter of following a few simple rules. It is an insult to step 2 because it treats the notion of character as if it were something you could acquire by sitting in a Tony Robbins seminar. I’ve got 18-21 year-olds who flip out over a logic final and threats to one’s GPA are a little less traumatic than watching your friend get blown up by an IED. Yes, the massacre is indicative of an ethical problem (I’m a philosopher, I say deep things), but it is one in which step 2 is hampered by psychological issues arising from extreme stress and trauma on young adults who have not fully matured. Stress and trauma that are the result of political and diplomatic immaturity and incompetence and irrational degrees of belief in neo-conservative doctrine. With the real problems underlying the situation, to have ethics training served up again as a finger in the dike just makes me want to scream.

That’s not to say that the whole Naval Academy experience was a complete waste. I learned that “making a head call” was a lot less exciting than it sounded at first.

Now Appearing on the Main Stage

[ 0 ] June 1, 2006 |

Like Rob, I will be spending much of June out of town before returning to the teaching grind in July. After spending this weekend in Vegas with my colleagues, I will return briefly and then head off to France for a couple weeks. I will have intermittent access and will be poppin in occasionally during this time, but for most of June the “Lawyers” component of our title triad will be manned by two actual lawyers (although, frankly, half of either would have been a more than adequate replacement), who in addition to keeping you abreast of Supreme Court news and other legal developments will also have interesting posts about feminism, pop culture, social mores, etc. Our first guest, iocaste of Fantasy Life, has guest-blogged here as well as at more prestigious addresses. Our new guest-blogger is Lizardbreath of Unfogged, and I hope she’ll be bringing some members from one of the blogosphere’s best commenter communities over here in addition to her own more-than-estimable writings. Best of all, both promise severe reductions in blogging about hockey and Canada. Please welcome them and enjoy their writings; between the four people we’ve brought in, L G &M readers are in for a treat (and God knows they deserve one!)

Meanwhile, remember that you have to love a pitcher’s duel, men can of course be feminists, and the Online Integrity Manifesto might actually be more abjectly useless and silly than the Euston Manfiesto. Having never gone through multiple phases of outing people (or their family members) or having gone through a dalliance with Stalinism, I personally don’t have to sign notes reminding myself to act with integrity or to support pluralistic liberal democracy. What it says about the signers that they need such reminders I leave up to the reader…

Have fun, and there had better be some beer left in the fridge when I get back…

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