Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category


Wise words

June 1, 2010

From Ross Douthat:

No ideology survives the collision with real-world politics perfectly intact. General principles have to bend to accommodate the complexities of history, and justice is sometimes better served by compromise than by zealous intellectual consistency.



We have to talk about this.

April 6, 2010

By this point, most of you have already seen the classified US military video over at WikiLeaks.  If you haven’t, you probably should (Go do that and come back.  I know it’s long.  Watch it anyway).

I watched it first thing this morning and have been stewing over it all day.  It leaves me thinking about the ethics of the war in Iraq, about the consequences of modern warfare technology, about the differences between policy and implementation with fidelity, about the future of investigative journalism, and on and on.

I’ll start out with a handful of qualifiers and then tackle the differences between policy and implementation.

Qualifiers:  First, the US military hasn’t confirmed or denied the authenticity of this video.  Second, the video doesn’t show any of the context preceding the shooting (if, for example, the military had legitimate reason to believe that this particular group of people was dangerous).  Third, I know almost nothing about the rules of engagement.  Fourth, war is horrible.  And for the most part, people on all sides do their best to survive and cope with what they have to.  They’re real people, just like all of us, with real limitations.  I don’t expect perfection.  But I do ask–as I believe all of us are obligated to–how we can minimize the consequences of those imperfections.

And now: policy versus implementation with fidelity.

We have pretty clear rules of engagement in Iraq.  They’ve been (perhaps rightly; again, I don’t know) criticized as being so restrictive that soldiers are unable to defend themselves.  But they exist.  And as far as I can tell, they were violated in this instance.

Which either means that 1) Command has encouraged soldiers to ignore them by looking the other way when they do or 2) Soldiers on the ground aren’t following the policies they’ve been given.

If it’s the first, then we should broaden the discussion of what the cover-up was covering up.

But let’s assume for a second that it’s the latter.  Implementation fidelity is never going to be 100%.  Add the stress of constant danger, the emotional impact of “The Enemy” rhetoric, the low value placed on Iraqi civilian life,  the emotional distance of long distance weaponry…and implementation fidelity plummets.

The problem with war is that infidelity often results in civilian deaths.

It’s not that we should be particularly surprised that soldiers don’t always follow the rules of engagement.  It’s that, rather than just wishing they would, we should be prepared to deal with it when they don’t.

Right now, it looks like our strategy is to cross out fingers and hope that no one finds out.  Which means that when a solider, inevitably, doesn’t follow the rules of engagement and kills a dozen civilians and a couple of journalists by bad coincidence, the competence of the military and the morality of the entire war is called into question.

I’m the last person to tell pro-war folks how to improve their position, but this seems like incredibly harmful framing for them.

At any rate, this is the hard position to hold.  To acknowledge that some of the horrors of war are because individual servicewomen and servicemen act outside the constraints they’ve been given.  And yet to avoid the temptation to demonize them and paint them as particularly evil people–people somehow different than us; we who would, of course, always implement with full fidelity.