consumed with legality while ignoring morality

Law Books

We live in a society where questions of legality abound and questions of morality are all but ignored.  When deciding a course of action, we have little hesitation about asking “Is it legal?” but typically fail to ask “Is it right?”  A recent example comes from the leaked DOJ memo containing legal rationale for the killing of American citizens who have joined Al-Qaida or an ill-defined “associated force.”  The memo outlines why, in the opinion of the DOJ and current administration, such activities are considered legal.  Following its release and subsequent public outcry, Sen Lindsey Graham (at the opposite end of the political spectrum) supported the President’s position and issued a statement saying, “The process of being targeted I think is legal.”

One of the many issues in this scenario is the question of legality vs. morality.  Lawmakers (like Obama [as Senator] and Graham) make laws.  Lawyers (like Obama and Graham) practice law.  In theory, I’m certain that most lawyers, judges, and lawmakers genuinely desire moral laws…but there is absolutely zero guarantee that what is legal according to the law is also moral (exhibit A: slavery).

Where are those asking whether such things as targeting killings (of American citizens or others) are morally right?  Reading the outcomes of our judicial system, it seems that just about anything can be argued to be legal, but where are the discussions of morality?  They are, in large part, nonexistent.

This is true not only in politics.  As a military chaplain, one of my mandated charges is to serve as a moral and ethical adviser to the chain of command.  While I have been consulted on personal ethical matters time and time again by commanders and individual airmen, I have never once been consulted on matters of morality regarding command decisions.  The JAG, of course, is consulted routinely to ensure whatever course of action is legally defensible.  It seems commanders can be easily removed for taking actions that are illegal, but as long as they are legal there seems to be little concern for whether or not they are ethical.

Simply because something is legal does not mean it is right.  We must to be concerned with both.

photo credit: Creative Commons | Mr. T in DC

Dehumanization and its Effects on Society

Over the weekend, NPR ran a story/review of Jonathon Littell’s book, The Kindly Ones, which they describe as “the fictional first-person memoir of a cultured German who loves Bach, cherishes great literature — and also happens to be a former Nazi exterminator.”  Interestingly, the writeup on NPR’s website focuses on the sexualization of violence and draws parallels between Nazi Germany and Abu Ghraib at the exclusion of what I think is Littell’s  larger point.  During the broadcast (available on the same web page linked above), Littell talks about the capacity of ordinary Americans (and others) to carry out atrocious acts against other people when placed in positions of “absolute power of life and death over people that their bosses tell them are not human beings and [are told] they can do anything they want with them.”  With this suggestion posed, he goes on to illustrate and support it with comparisons between Nazi Germany, the Balkan wars, and Abu Ghraib.Pain

The larger issue, however, is one that peaked my interest.  Almost two years ago, I wrote about the military’s use of desensitization as a part of military training.  In concert with this sort of training, nations and militaries have often resorted to dehumanization to bolster support for their cause during times of war.  If you don’t believe this, take a look at how we depicted Germans and Japanese on our own propaganda posters distributed during WWII.  Talk to a veteran of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, or the Middle Eastern theater and listen to the words they use to describe the enemy.  Without using the terms here, I think everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about.  By distancing ourselves from our enemies and suggesting that they are somehow subhuman, it becomes easier for us to rationalize and accept killing them, an act that at a very base human level is repulsive.  The atrocities of Abu Ghraib are one of the most poignant reminders that this kind of activities still take place, either as formal training or simply stemming from the individual soldier’s coping mechanisms.

This sort of dehumanization goes beyond times of war, however, and extends to most all acts of hatred and so-called ‘hate crimes’–from the cross-burning racism of the American South to genocide in various parts of Africa to the painting of swastikas on Jewish synagogues around the world to acts of harassment and brutality against homosexuals in the United States.  Look and listen to how people write and speak of those against which they wage any sort of these kinds of deeds.  They are presented as subhuman, unworthy, illegitimate, or (fill in the blank).

One of the very obvious yet unmentioned targets of dehumanization and its resulting atrocities are the unborn.  For many years now, those in positions of real power (government, courts, etc.) or perceived power (academia, special interest groups, etc.) have repeatedly told us that the unborn are not really children in the proper sense and so there is no issue in ‘aborting’ them.  This tactic is nothing more than what Littell described above.  Specifically, our ‘bosses’ have been telling us–we who have the power of life and death via our democratic process–that the unborn are not human beings and we can do anything we want with them.

So what am I saying?

  • Should we continue to ignore the widespread dehumanization of those different from us?  No.  We must be agents of change in spite of the very ‘deep ruts’ of history.
  • Should we marginalize and treat with disdain those who have had abortions?  No.  On the contrary, we should do everything in our power to help them heal.
  • Should we rally the voters to try an overturn Roe v. Wade?  Perhaps surprisingly, no.  As has been pointed out by Little Cog, “abortion is a moral decision…the state should keep its inept hands off of
  • Should we continue to condone desensitization/dehumanization as a means to advance our agendas, political or otherwise?  No.  If we cannot bring others to share our viewpoint without resorting to such despicable practices, perhaps this should be a clue that we are probably wrong to begin with.

Instead…

  • To social conservatives and social liberals alike, you must realize that you cannot rely on government to legislate your understanding of morality because ‘we the people’ are often as guilty of this wrong on the societal/governmental level as we are on the individual level
  • To social conservatives and social liberals alike, you must realize that no one wins when you resort to these tactics to make your case, pass your legislation, or further your agenda
  • To all, we must recognize the powerful effects of dehumanization as it rears its head in many different areas and in many different agendas…in order to reject it

Hurt

Thoughts on the War in Iraq…

I have deliberately kept this blog apolitical in the past, and I’m not intending to make this a political arena now, but there is something I noticed in the debates last week that all the presidential candidates on both sides of the fence fail to understand:

The war in Iraq is political…in fact, all war is politics.

In the early nineteenth century, Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote, “War is an extension of politics by other means.” In other words, the continuum of political action that contains such things as diplomatic negotiations, treaties, embargoes, sanctions, trade, and other day-to-day things also contains, on its outer fringes, war. War is politics–bloodier, louder, and more costly (in terms of human life) than other areas of politics. But at the end of the day, war is always political…and that is neither good nor bad, it just is.

Specifically with regards to the war in Iraq, the political ideology behind the war (from the beginning) was to replace a heinous, murderous dictator with a democracy. Whether one agrees with the premise or not, this is why the was began.

As a military officer and armchair military historian and tactician, it seems evident that this ideology requires several long-term political goals, including:

  • Development of an internal police force / military capable of protecting the citizens of Iraq against internal and external threats
  • Creation of the ability to repair and extend the national infrastructure
  • Development of the ability to create / foster international relationships with the goal of increasing domestic security and providing the opportunity for foreign and domestic economic growth
  • Establishment of a viable democratic government able to maintain control of the nation in order to a) make democracy a more alluring form of government than other alternatives (willing change) and b) make democratic government ‘worth fighting for’ against those who would subvert it (unwilling change)

In order to achieve the long-term goals, this ideology immediately requires tactical and strategic military victories in order to establish an environment conducive to the growth, nurture, and development of the long-term objectives.

So how are we doing?

  1. We are relatively successful with our immediately necessary goal of tactical military victories
  2. We do not seem to be seeing any significant progress toward achieving our long-term political goals
  3. We appear to be losing military advantage and political / national will

Unless there are significant improvement in areas two and three, above, we run the risk of losing the war in a manner not all that different from what we experienced in Vietnam, where we were tactically successful (militarily) but failed strategically and politically. Am I making hasty and emotional comparisons to the Vietnam War? No! However, as time progresses, the risk of losing the war increases and the likelihood of victory decreases, similar to what we saw in another decade in another theater.

Our military power is weakening over time due to troop burnout, aging equipment, troop retention issues, a loss of battle-experienced soldiers/officers, and lack of timely tactical adaptation from convention to low intensity (i.e., guerrilla warfare) tactics. To argue to the contrary is nonsensical. Simultaneously, our political power and national will are weakening due to the length of the war and the questionable legitimacy (in the eyes of many) of the original ideology. Two hundred years ago, Clausewitz cited the need for overwhelming military strength and national will as essential for victory in war. Based on his wisdom and our current situation, are we currently in a situation where the war is unwinnable? I don’t think so…not yet, anyway.

Despite what we may see and hear in the media, there is no reason why the US should not be able to achieve victory in Iraq:

  • We are familiar with the terrain and physical environment
  • We are equipped with the proper equipment (though we need to continue upgrading, maintaining, and replacing that equipment as it ages)
  • We are prepared at some level to train for, fight, and win in low-intensity conflicts (though I think we have forgotten some of the tactical lessons from Vietnam)
  • As a nation we largely (?) believe in the legitimacy of fighting for causes of right and wrong

Given these reasons, it is reasonable to expect that victory is possible even without the benefit of a powerful multinational coalition. As in Vietnam, we must be acutely aware at all levels that tactical victory does not necessarily translate into strategic victory (militarily) or overall political victory (achieving our political ends). Additionally, we must also be aware of the reality that war is an extension of politics–our ultimate aim here is political, not merely (or even primarily) military. Consequently, we cannot expend all our attention or resources trying to achieve military victory while letting political ends languish. In short:

  • If we are militarily superior but fail to realize our political goals, we can never reach the point of military withdrawal without admitting defeat because…
  • Failure to achieve our political ends is defeat

Maybe later I’ll put on my chaplain hat and write some thoughts on what our course of action as a nation must be morally if we reach the point where the war becomes unwinnable…but those are different thoughts for a different day.