The “war is hell” justification for murder


Once again I had the experience of talking with a steadfast ‘liberal’ Obama supporter and we got into the issue of whether the president had the right to order the deaths of people without any due process. It was extraordinary the lengths he went to to say that Obama must have set up this extremely careful system to make sure that only guilty people are targeted, even though he had no evidence whatsoever to make such an assertion. He said that we had to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and that if there was the occasional mistake and an innocent person died, it must be due to faulty information that he received from others.

When I asked him whether he gave president Bush (of whom he was a harsh critic, especially of his decision to invade Iraq) the same benefit of the doubt, and that his actions could be similarly justified, he said no. In that case, he applied stricter rules of evidence to arrive at the conclusion that Bush had lied us into war.

Of course, the Obama supporter could not deny that in the course of the drone attacks that the US is conducting all over the world, innocent civilians are being killed, as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism painstakingly documents. But he said that this was inevitable and that “war is hell”.

That phrase makes me see red.

Not because it is not true. War is hell. It causes immense misery and suffering for everyone, except an elite few. What I hate about it is that you can be absolutely certain that when someone uses that phrase to minimize or excuse some military atrocity, none of their own loved ones are in danger of being victims of that hell.

When I asked this person whether he would so casually say ‘war is hell’ if one of the victims had been his own son or daughter, he was taken aback because it was clear that the thought had never occurred to him. He tried to imply that he might be persuaded that his child had been guilty of whatever Obama thought she or he was guilty of and thus deserving of summary execution, but it was totally unconvincing. His reaction would have been just like mine or any other parent of a child murdered by a government without due process, and that is pure unadulterated rage at the monstrous injustice.

And this is the problem. It is natural to care and grieve more for those who are close to us. I can understand that. What I find callous is the inability to feel, at least in some small part, the pain and grief that others might feel for their loss. The lives of poor people in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere are casually dismissed with facile justifications.

The people who glibly use the phrase ‘war is hell’ are those for whom it is not.

Comments

  1. says

    One of the things Altemeyer’s research on authoritarianism shows is that high authoritarian submissives are perfectly comfortable (in fact _enjoy_) what more rational people would expect to cause cognitive dissonance. We might expect someone to be uncomfortable with holding such a view because to us it’s self-contradictory, but to them it’s a sign that their guy is special. Exceptionalism lets people feel exceptional by supporting it – that’s how you get bizzare things like lower-income republicans, which would never happen if people were really rational.

  2. says

    The worst part about arguments regarding war, which drives me nuts, are the “they were defending themselves” argument. You know the one: troops are performing a sweep on a town in Afghanistan and come under fire, so they use heavy artillery and kill everyone in the town – they had to do it to defend themselves. It’s bizzare to me, the psychological gymnastics a person can perform so easily to turn an offensive operation (the sweep) into something that needs to be defended. It’s the people in the town who are the ones who are engaged in legitimate self-defense, damn it!

    That flip-around argument is one of the most-used methods for getting soldiers to commit atrocities. Because their commanders know that if you stick a group of young men in a dangerous situation – helicopter them in to the ass end of noplace where someone might shoot at them – they’ll fight their way out no matter the right or wrong of the whole thing. Throw in a bit of group solidarity or tribal cohesion and you can turn a normal human into a bloody killer in no time at all.

  3. dmcclean says

    I agree completely with this post.

    Except for this bit: “the issue of whether the president had the right to order the deaths of people without any due process.”

    In a series of recent posts you have phrased the issue that way or similarly, without acknowledging that the president (and even low ranking military members and local police officials) clearly do have that power in cases where harm is actually imminent. See, for example, Tennessee v. Garner at 471 US 1.

    The issue is more nuanced than this. I know it would be easier for everyone if there were a red line where you are trying to draw one, but there simply isn’t and never has been. The issue with the recently published memos is the smoke and mirrors the administration’s lawyers are using around the issue of imminence.

    In the hypothetical situation I posted in an earlier thread on this topic, where the Cleveland Police Department and FBI are responding to the Peter B. Lewis hostage taking crisis using an indoor drone, would you explain what due process you seek before they may use weapons on that drone against the hostage taker if video evidence from that drone indicates that he is waving a gun at hostages?

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    When I asked this person whether he would so casually say ‘war is hell’ if one of the victims had been his own son or daughter…

    Well, there’s the problem. Apart from 911, when were US civilians last seriously threatened? War is something that happens ‘over there’. Mark Twain: “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” (actually, I doubt it’s helped much).

    Civilian deaths in US wars (note: many more wounded, maimed, orphaned, displaced, etc)
    Iraq: 100,000-1,000,000
    Afghanistan: 10,000-20,000
    Vietnam: 195,000-430,000

  5. says

    In the hypothetical situation I posted in an earlier thread on this topic, where the Cleveland Police Department and FBI are responding to the Peter B. Lewis hostage taking crisis using an indoor drone, would you explain what due process you seek before they may use weapons on that drone against the hostage taker if video evidence from that drone indicates that he is waving a gun at hostages?

    Except in this case, nobody has actually has video of the hostage taker holding a gun, just the word of another convict who was promised a reduced sentence in exchange for information. The drone then takes out the alleged hostage taker as well as a few possible hostages, and then at the funeral another drone is sent in to take out possible hostage taking associates of the dead alleged hostage taker.

  6. left0ver1under says

    The people who glibly use the phrase ‘war is hell’ are those for whom it is not.

    Those who most romanticize war are those who most want to commit genocide.

    The difference between a serial killer and a war hero is a pair of dog tags. And the difference between mass murder by drones and mass murder by hijacked airplanes is where the terrorists operate the planes from – inside the cockpit or thousands of kilometres away.

    The ancient Romans gave their soldiers short swords so they could look in the eyes of the people they were killing. Any coward can kill from a distance, it’s why people love guns so much.

  7. arno says

    (I am unfamiliar with the details of US law, but I assume things are similar over there.)

    This is a minor, but not unimportant point: A police officer is not allowed to order the death of the offender, even if he is about to kill someone else. They may, however, use the required means to incapacitate him from doing the harm, even if he dies from the consequences.

    A more crucial aspect is the importance of a post-hoc investigation.

  8. Mano Singham says

    But that is the point. Very few would argue that violence against an imminent threat is not justified. Even I would use it in such cases. But as I have said before the government has made the meaning of that word so elastic that it now encompasses anything any time they want to kill someone.

  9. says

    Yes, war is hell. This is why we should be very, very careful about getting into them, and shouldn’t be starting them at all. Instead, we give every asshole in the Oval Office the authority to start them on a whim, and they do, and then instead of making the world a better place, we end up carefully parsing which methods of massacring random foreigners are acceptable. It’s sickening.

  10. says

    The ancient Romans gave their soldiers short swords so they could look in the eyes of the people they were killing.
    Not actually true; they did it because it takes less metal and less smithing skill than making a decent longer swords, and they had a whole lot of legionnaires to equip. The Roman army had no compunction about using missile weapons, siege engines, and anything else they could think of to kill the other side without giving them a chance to kill back. For that matter, they had no compunction about civilian massacres either, except insofar as if you massacre them you can’t make money selling them into slavery later on.

  11. dmcclean says

    I agree, which is why the question needs to be rephrased in some way to draw that distinction. Because there’s no debate over “whether the president had the right to order the deaths of people without any due process”, the answer is clearly that he does under some circumstances. (Or, alternatively, you can interpret it that sometimes the amount of process due is none, but that makes the question ill-posed.)

    The issue is about actual imminence, as you and Tabby Lavalamp say.

  12. dmcclean says

    Agreed. My point was addressed to the question as phrased, “whether the president had the right to order the deaths of people without any due process.” I chose to illustrate circumstances under which the answer to this question has long been held, with very little controversy, to be yes in order to show that that actually isn’t the question which concerns Prof. Singham and the administration’s critics on this matter, among whom I count myself.

  13. dmcclean says

    An investigation after the fact in cases where imminence is the justification is definitely essential. I’m not sure how we could best structure that to deal with situations where classified intelligence and political polarization is involved. Especially the political polarization, we have some ways of dealing with the issue of classified evidence that have shown themselves to be reasonably effective.

    I’ve said before that if we are going to issue standing orders to kill certain individuals when we become aware of their whereabouts and an opportunity arises to attack them, that we should establish an office to advocate for the targeted people. I also think there is something to be said for announcing those orders in public in advance, and offering the targeted people some period of time in which to turn themselves over to authorities. Ideally international authorities, but there barely are any. The ICC’s subject matter jurisdiction carries fairly narrow limits.

  14. says

    Because there’s no debate over “whether the president had the right to order the deaths of people without any due process”, the answer is clearly that he does under some circumstances.

    So does Kim Jong Un have the right to order the deaths of people without any due process? How about Xi Jinping of China or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

  15. dmcclean says

    Of course they do. I would go so far as to say that that is a rather silly question.

    (The only way they wouldn’t is if you wanted to take the position that, say, Kim Jong Un lacks legitimacy as the leader of North Korea and argue it from that perspective. But I think there is no question whatsoever for the other two. I’m assuming the lack of internal legitimacy claim was not your point and responding as if you meant to name legitimate leaders of foreign governments whom you assume I dislike.)

    If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, acting as commander of Iranian forces (a role I’m not sure he has, I’m no expert on Iranian government..), issues a standing order for his troops to respond to imminent attacks with lethal force, would you dispute that he has that power? If, acting as the source of executive authority for the police (same caveat), he or his deputy orders them to shoot an armed kidnapper, would you dispute that he has that power?

    You are drawing the line in the wrong place. I think I’ve established that with crystal clarity. I’m all for your agenda! As I keep saying over and over again. But you are going about defining what you [we] want in the wrong words, and its fatal to your argument. The issue is actual imminence. There is no bright line at procedural due process where you are trying to draw it, because there are and have always been recognized circumstances under which it doesn’t apply.

  16. MNb says

    “And this is the problem.”
    There is another problem involved, though the two are related. You mention it:

    “it must be due to faulty information that he received from others.”
    This is exactly the same argument Germans used between 1933 and -45: “if Hitler only knew ….”. In other words: our leader can’t be wrong.
    Skepticism should be trained on every single school.

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