Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

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When is it right to stop mass murder?

Jerry Stratton, August 12, 2005

I recently attended a talk by a conscientious objector returning from Iraq. During the extremely interesting talk, a peace group passed around a petition to stop the genocide in Darfur. I was intrigued that at a talk in favor of peace, we’d see a petition for war; but war turned out not to be the point of the petition. This was a petition aimed at the Sudanese government, requesting that they stop the killings in Darfur.

It would be wonderful if peaceful petitions could stop all mass murders by governments. It doesn’t look as though the murders in the Sudan can be stopped that way, however. I think that if we want to stop the killings in Darfur before they run out of people to kill, we’re going to have to do some killings ourselves; we’re going to have send an army, either under U.N. control or under our own, and that army will need permission to fight. Any intervention forces will need to be empowered to kill.

If we intervene with force in Darfur, we will kill innocent civilians. If the U.N. had intervened with force in Rwanda, the U.N. would have killed innocent civilians. That’s the nature of military force.

After we learned the extent of Germany’s genocide at the end of World War II, we vowed “never again”. We’ve failed that pledge several times. But if we are ever to live up to it, we will need to intervene, with force, against mass murderers. Preferably, before their murders become genocide.

And if we want to stop tyrannical governments before their mass murder become genocide, the choice to oppose tyranny never ends. If we had chosen to intervene in Czechoslovakia, or Poland, before World War II, there might never have been a World War II. But we would almost certainly not have prevented Germany’s concentration camps. To stop the camps, we would have had to invade Germany--and we would probably have had to legally justify that choice on something other than “he’s become a dictator who will soon try to exterminate Jews”.

I’m uncomfortable with going to war and killing in order to “grant” freedom to someone else. But I’m far more uncomfortable with not doing anything to assist others in gaining their freedom--and with doing nothing to stop mass murderers, especially when it is within our power to take action.

When discussing the Iraq war recently, Danish Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen said:

“We share the belief that freedom is universal and we share the belief that in the struggle between democracy and dictatorship you cannot stay neutral.”

Much of the debate over the Iraq war is muddled by the wrong questions. We hear that so many more soldiers died during the occupation than during the invasion. But that’s a silly argument: does it mean that more soldiers should have died in the invasion? So few soldiers died in the invasion that any number of deaths post-invasion would be several times the invasion death count.

And does it mean that the invasion would have been the right thing to do if we could have done the same thing solely through aerial bombing and lost no soldiers at all?

No, if the invasion was right, it was right despite the relatively few deaths during the invasion. If it was wrong, it would have been wrong even with no casualties. All a no-casualty attack would do is make it easier for us to ignore whether we are right or wrong to intervene.

The real questions are, are there times when it is right for us to invade another country, and was this one of those times? Certainly, United States intervention in other countries have been wrong in the past: one need only look across the Iraqi border to Iran and the ouster of Mohammad Mossadegh. Still, no one is claiming the stature of Mossadegh for Hussein.

Moralists and patriots

When is military intervention the right choice, and when is the right choice standing back and using other forms of influence? It seems to me that, today, we don’t ask that question. We only ask whether we are ideologically aligned with the side that initiates the war. So it ends up being right to intervene if the intervention is started by a president who we already agree with. Democrats supported intervention in Serbia, while Republicans opposed it. And Republicans support intervention in Iraq, while Democrats oppose it.

In Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, Albert Camus writes about the partisan bickering surrounding French actions in Algeria, and about the willingness of both sides to endanger their values solely in order to oppose their opponents. Despite the differences between France in Algeria and the United States in Iraq, some things in politics never seem to change:

We could have used moralists less joyfully resigned to their country’s misfortunes and patriots less ready to allow torturers to claim that they were acting in the name of France.

If it is true that in history values do not survive unless they have been fought for, the fight is not enough to justify them. The fight must be justified by those values. When fighting for your truth, take care not to kill it with the very arms you are using to defend it.

When is it right to use military force to stop mass murder in another country? How long, for example, before the thousands of gays and lesbians killed in Iran becomes genocide? How long before the world decides it is worth stopping?

If it is sometimes right to intervene militarily in other countries in order to stop mass murder, we need to seriously address the issue of when it is right to do so. This will always be a difficult choice, not just because we will lose soldiers when we go to war, but because we will kill innocent bystanders. But if we want to stop mass murderers, there will be times when military intervention will be necessary.

We have to make that decision ourselves. Handing responsibility to another organization, even if that organization is the United Nations, doesn’t answer the question. It is just another form of the partisan reasoning that says it is right to intervene when “our side” does it, but not when “their side” does it. It doesn’t answer the question of when it is right for our side to do it. It is wrong to avoid the responsibility for this decision by pushing that responsibility off onto some other organization.

We have to be responsible for both the actions and inaction of whatever international organization we give that task to. If the U.N. refuses to intervene at the right time, the mass murders won’t stop. If the U.N. intervenes when it shouldn’t have, we share the responsibility.

That’s not why we went to war

It isn’t completely true that we didn’t go to war to free Iraq from Saddam Hussein. President Bush and his advisors were clear that that’s what they wanted to do. They wanted to take Saddam Hussein out of power. That’s one of the things his opponents complained about at the time.

Hussein’s refusal to let the U.N. inspectors work was the tool that could be used to get Hussein out of power. It was the justification, but the reason was that we wanted to depose Saddam Hussein.

Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast, and I have a message for them. If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you. As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free. In a free Iraq, there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms. The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of your liberation is near.

Sometimes when we go to war, there are wrong reasons mixed in with the right reasons. Was the North wrong to go to war against the South, and only later justify it as a fight to free slaves? Should we have ended the Civil War and let slavery continue when the South offered to stay within their own borders, because “that wasn’t why we went to war”?

Would it have been right to force Germany out of Czechoslovakia, and then let the Nazis complete their murderous plans?

Was it right to ignore Stalin’s mass murders because we wanted Russia’s help at the end of World War II?

Sometimes it is expedient to let evil continue. But that doesn’t make it right.

But there are worse places we could have invaded

It is true, there are probably worse governments in the world than Saddam Hussein’s. But because Iraq invaded Kuwait we were already in Iraq. Whether we went in to restore Kuwait’s original government, or to use Kuwait as an excuse to go to war for oil, we were still there. We were in a position to do something about the mass executions and torture in Iraq.

If you see a rape or a murder in progress, and you are in a position to stop it, you do so. You don’t ignore it because there are worse crimes happening somewhere else and you can’t stop them all. It isn’t more moral to let murder happen because we can’t stop murder elsewhere. Even though you have every legal right to just walk on by, it still would be wrong to do so.

When it comes to individual crimes, however, it is easier to stop them without harming bystanders. When we try to stop another government from committing mass murder it is far more difficult, if not impossible, to ensure that we ourselves will not kill innocents.

When is war worth the killing?

When is it right to go to war to bring evil to justice, if it means good people will also die? How many innocent lives must we allow to be killed in order to avoid going to war? Conventional wisdom in criminal trials is that it is better to let ten guilty persons go free than to convict one innocent person. I’d opt for an even higher number. When we are going to be responsible for the deaths of good people, we need to be sure that our actions aren’t just justified. They need to be absolutely right.

It is horrible to read about wedding parties bombed; it is also horrible to read about the exhumation of mass graves. It is unquestionable that stopping mass murders is a good thing to do. The question becomes, is it worth it when we know innocent people will die in the attempt? Does that make it wrong? Does it matter how many innocent people will die stopping the mass murders, compared to how many innocent people have and will continue to die because of our inaction?

If we truly mean “never again”, we have to find the answer.

When is it right to kill to stop mass murder?

When writing about his experience volunteering for the Spanish war, George Orwell wrote that “A louse is a louse and a bomb is a bomb even though the cause you are fighting for happens to be just.”

Orwell was on the losing side, but he did not believe that made it wrong to kill for a free Spain. “I believe that it is better even from the point of view of survival to fight and be conquered than to surrender without fighting.”

But I do think that, given that we must make choices about where to intervene, some of our choices must consider success. Our choices should reduce the number of innocent deaths for which we are responsible. Being successful means that fewer people will die.

  • Would it be easier and safer to accept the oppressed group as immigrants? Is that a reasonable choice?
  • Can we go in? Do we have forces in the area already? If so, why? Can we maintain lines of support? Do we have friendly nations in the area? Do we have legal justification?
  • Are we willing to fight and die for this cause? Are we willing to send in soldiers if we need to in order to complete the job?
  • Can we stop the murders? Are the crimes we’re trying to stop being committed by a small group in power, or by a large portion of the population against another part? Will removing a small group from power stop the murders? If not, is it reasonably possible to separate the murderers from their victims?
  • Is there someone who can take over when we leave? Are there good people who can take the place of the government we’ve toppled? Will the population in general support their new government, or will they vote back more mass murderers? Will it be possible for us to leave and be reasonably certain that the mass murders won’t just start up again? In other words, how long will our “success” last?

If we are going to stop mass murderers in other governments, we can’t expect perfection. What we can expect is a democracy, and a government that is far better than what we attacked. Condoleezza Rice hit it right on the money in San Francisco, when she answered a question about the new Iraqi government:

She acknowledged that Iraq’s new government has had difficulties, but she said the leadership has not made a compromise “as bad as the one in 1789 that made my ancestors three-fifths of a man, so let’s be humble about what they’re going through.”

Democracy takes time, and it is a very messy process. Our constitution was extremely flawed when it came out. We immediately amended it to add civil rights guarantees but left in the “three-fifths” compromise; and even that constitution was a second try.

The most important question, though, is whether we are willing to live up to the promise we made so long ago: never again. Some interventions may be military; sometimes, negotiations and petitions may work to stop mass murder before it becomes genocide. But whether we call it holocaust, or ethnic cleansing, or mass murder, if we are going to stop it we have to be willing to go to war, however messy it is. If we go to war, we will kill some of the people we are trying to save. Some of our soldiers will die. There is no way around that in war.

The questions, I think, need to be “should we stop it?” and “can we reasonably stop it?” But if “reasonably” means “with no accidental killings” we might as well just give up. On the other hand, we don’t want to cause more innocent deaths than we stop. Somewhere in the middle is the answer. But we won’t find the answer if we don’t ask the question.

“Nothing is given to men, and the little they can conquer is paid for with unjust deaths.”

“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”

--Albert Camus (Resistance, Rebellion, and Death)

December 27, 2011: A little hypocrisy in Ron Paul reporting

Despite the histrionics on display via Memeorandum, Ron Paul’s position against risking American lives to stop genocide is not outside of the mainstream. Jeffrey Scott Shapiro at Big Government describes his conversation with Paul:

And so I asked Congressman Paul: if he were President of the United States during World War II, and as president he knew what we now know about the Holocaust, but the Third Reich presented no threat to the U.S., would he have sent American troops to Nazi Germany purely as a moral imperative to save the Jews?”

And the Congressman answered:

“No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t risk American lives to do that. If someone wants to do that on their own because they want to do that, well, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t do that.”

Shapiro claims that “when I first presented the story of Paul’s comments about the Holocaust to major news media outlets two years ago, they were so stunned they were afraid to publish my story”.

Well, that was 2009, and we were still trying to convince ourselves that we should not have tried to stop the genocidal murderer in Iraq.

The reason we know we absolutely should have, had we known, stopped the Jewish genocide in Germany is because we didn’t do it and we know how it turned out. If we had known about it in time to stop it and we had stopped it before it reached that point, the same people who claim we should never have gone into Iraq would be claiming we should never have gone into Germany.

Iraq was a cake-walk compared to Germany. We can’t claim that hypothetical non-intervention in Germany is outside the bounds of rational discourse, and at the same time claim that intervention in Iraq was obviously unreasonable. If hypothetical intervention in Germany is so obvious that disagreeing with it is “disturbing” the same should be true of actual intervention in Iraq. We know, with as much certainty as we can know, where Saddam Hussein was headed.

Ron Paul’s position, misguided as it is, is a mainstream position within today’s media, within the left, and within a significant part of the right.

October 26, 2005: Peace and Democracy

Reason’s Hit and Run blog links to two articles of interest to the question of when war can be right. Nick Gillespie addresses directly the question of How Many Dead Iraqis? Make sure you also read the comments!

Another interesting bit is Doug Bandow’s A Capitalist Peace? whose subtitle is “Markets, more than democracy, may be the key to preventing war.” That subtitle is a bit misleading, because while free markets may be what leads to peace, according to the article democracy leads to free markets.

But Gartzke argues that “the ‘democratic peace’ is a mirage created by the overlap between economic and political freedom.” That is, democracies typically have freer economies than do authoritarian states.

The wider issue is important, though: “There’s no panacea for creating a conflict- free world.” The article does not (though the book might) address the issue of whether sanctions, which limit economic freedom, are bad for peace, nor whether peace is more important than what sanctions are in response to.

The discussion reminds me of a course I took in college, and instructor Richard Rosecrance’s book, Rise of the Trading State. Rosecrance had the misfortune of his book coming out just before the Internet changed the ground rules of global networking. It, and Bandow’s article, call to my mind Bill Moyer’s statement about Marshall McLuhan’s global village.

It strikes me that Marshall McLuhan was right when he said that television has made a global village of the world... but he didn’t know the global village would be Beirut.

In line with that, Rosecrance has written a new “Rise of” book, The Rise of the Virtual State. With its subtitle, “Wealth and Power in the Coming Century”, it sounds a lot like Alvin Toffler’s PowerShift. Toffler’s vision wasn’t as peaceful as Rosecrance’s. Rosecrance’s next book, “What is this state thing, anyway?” will be available in 2006.

Back to Bandow, open markets may be more important than democracy in encouraging peace, but a more important question is, is peace more important than freedom?

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