When is a first strike not a first strike?
When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

December 14, 2004

Murder and Warfare

Bravo Romeo Delta

Ok, I’ve been dodging writing, which is just no good at all, so time to pick up the keyboard once again and get to work, so to speak.

So, where to begin? Well, this bit about the Marine shooting that guy in Fallujah brings to mind a whole lot of things about the nature of warfare that, I think, get lost in the airy-fairy discussion of the mechanics of killing people and breaking things. Donald Sensing, in this post, points out the first, and by far, the most disturbing, class of error made in understanding warfare. The notion that war isn’t about killing people, but rather some sort of arcane (possibly obsolete) form of political expression, is not just stupid, but downright deadly. For it ignores not only what the point of warfare is, but completely obscures the very features of warfare that distinguish it from mass murder. In fact, this kind of mistaken thinking is entwined with barracks lawyering about just war theory and the Geneva Convention.

The second, fairly pervasive misunderstanding is that war is only about killing people. Oddly enough, these two errors are often spouted by the same people (although not at the same time). On one hand, when war is thought of in the abstract, these folks will tend to view it as some sort of clinical form of the application of pressure, but once the balloon goes up, then they quite often revert to the industrialized slaughter view of warfare, particularly when confronted by images of the very real cost of the butcher’s bill. I suspect that the core of this is due to the fact that the Second World War generated so much film footage, that for many people, they can make no fundamental distinction between armor battles involving panzers and T-34s at Kursk, and the drive to Baghdad. Or to look at it another way, two noted futurists, Alvin and Heidi Toffler assert that, essentially, the lethality of weapons systems has increased by an order of magnitude every decade since the end of the Second World War. Thus, current systems would be more than six orders of magnitude – or a million times – more lethal than their Second World War counterparts.

There are a huge numbers of other common misperceptions on the nature and qualities of soldiers themselves, the purposes and effectiveness of weapons, the costs of war, and reasonable expectations about the realities of the battlefield. All these and more are things that are sources of error that pollute discussion about current events in Iraq, and, more generally, the employment of force in conflicts. But this incident in Fallujah effectively highlights the dangers of the first two kinds of errors.

Ok, having looked at some common errors, let’s see if we can’t, in one single blog entry, explain war.

To start with, there are only two things that govern wars: capability and fear of retaliation. That said, what, exactly, is war?

You’ve probably heard the notion that warfare is a continuation of politics by other means. Ok, so, what is politics? What does Clausewitz’s aphorism mean? Does this make warfare some sort of high-tech, high-lethality way of delivering bribes? Is this logrolling with cluster bombs?

Well, as I’ve mentioned in earlier writings, there are a number of analogies between organizations and organisms (see the things listed under the "Mother of All Blathers" on the right-hand side). Without rehashing that material in detail, let’s just cut to the punch line and note that organizations exist to allow both cooperation and specialization, such that the organization becomes more effective than the sum of its components. The role of politics is very tightly tied to that of leadership – getting other people to do things. Now that we’ve a broad definition of what politics is, I have a confession to make. There’s no really good definition of what politics, much less war, is. But at least in establishing this kind of basic notion, we can at least drill down a couple of things about warfare. First off, the purpose of a military is more than just fighting wars, but rather a large portion of their mission is not fighting, but rather retaining a credible and viable option to fight. This is the difference between compellance and deterrence. In either case, a negative incentive is used to either get people to do something. In compellance, force is used to get someone to do something or to stop them from continuing to do something. With deterrence, the threat of force is used to essentially used to preserve the status quo in some respect. In both cases, the military/warfare option is unique in that when all else fails and the object of control refuses to bend themselves to your will, they will then be made unable to resist, often because they will have been killed.

To put it another way, a distinguishing feature of warfare is that it does provide an answer, a rather final one at that, to the question of “What happens if I don’t want to?” Generally, the answer is that I’ll kill you. Now the astute observer will note that this says nothing, absolutely nothing, about whether the person in question is armed, unarmed, combatant, civilian, wounded, or healthy. This is where a lot of the just war theory comes into play.

Now, first off, just war theory is an incredibly useful tool, provided one is not getting shot at – in other words, it truly is a luxury afforded to the bystander. To the guy on point, he is final master and arbiter of his fate, and his choices are his alone. That out of the way, let’s look at what characterizes a non-combatant. A noncombatant is not simply someone in an active theater of conflict who doesn’t fight, but more accurately someone who, implicitly has agreed to follow the dictates of the guys with the guns. Conversely, a combatant has instead, opted to use force to resist the dictates of the other guys with guns.

Now, you’ll note that there is a class of people who may not be armed or may not be using force but still haven’t agreed to follow the dictates of the armed folks. This is a deceptive category, largely because it really doesn’t exist in a combat theater. The problem is that there aren’t really such things as dangerous weapons – only dangerous people. Now, before anyone goes off the handle, would you shoot a man on a plane with a box cutter? It’s not a dangerous weapon, per se. But in the hands of dangerous people…

That’s about it kids. Uniformed, not uniformed, wounded or not, the binary decision of whether or not you’re a combatant or not, is simply whether or not you’ve finally thrown in the towel and agreed to do what the people with weapons tell you to do. Once you’ve gone from the willingness to use force to resist the dictates of some soldier, to the willingness to submit to the directions of the guys with the guns, then you’ve gone from combatant to noncombatant.

The hell about this, is that it really is a question of state of mind, rather than any direct physical manifestation. As such, the decision of who to shoot and when becomes, essentially, an ethical question. Now, at this point, as a general background reference, I would recommend checking out part of a series on ethics run by the Annenberg CPB project (Episodes 6 & 7 - click on the "VoD" icon to view the episodes) on ethics in combat and war.

Now, at this point, I have another confirmed proof of my ongoing onset of senility (“For a purely untrustworthy human organ, the memory is right in there with the penis”), I swear high and low that there’s an exchange that I remember seeing when the series was aired, but doesn’t appear in the streaming video (and I’ve gone over the footage many times in the process of researching this post).

At any rate, the bit that I remember (perhaps erroneously) was a hypothetical scenario – went approximately something like this:

Moderator: Ok, let’s say that while you’re going up this hill, you capture some prisoners.

Panelist: Are they disarmed?

M: Yes, these guys have thrown down their weapons and have come out with their hands up. What do you do?

P: Well, assuming that the situation is now under control, I take control of the prisoners and assign a soldier to take them back for processing.

M: What do you do if they refuse to cooperate?

P: Well, I shoot one.

M (shocked): You just shoot one? Just like that, you kill them?

P: Well, yeah.

M: What happens if they still continue to refuse to obey your orders?

P: Well, I shoot another one. One way or another, they’ll either do what I tell them to do, or they won’t be my problem.

This exchange hit on the very core issue on half of what warfare is. It is the exercise of any means necessary, up to and including lethal force, to exert your influence over another individual or group of individuals. That’s the first half.

The second half is the fine tissue that separates warfare from organized murder. And that’s the existence of an overarching political direction to the conflict. When war edges into the realm of killing simply for killing’s sake, and ceases to have a distinct political objective (save that of racking up a body count) – we then have something similar to what Clauswitz called “Absolute War”. Somewhere in this notion of Absolute War lies the significance of 9/11 and bin Laden’s most recent tape – but that’s a post for a different day.

But the important thing to note that in a condition of Absolute War, there is no such thing, from a target eligibility point of view, as a non-combatant – and I mean No Such Thing. If you envision paratroopers assaulting an orphanage with the express intention of taking no child prisoner, then you’re thinking along the right lines. Beslan approached, but did not quite meet this standard – for hostages are, by definition, non-combatants of a sort. So, the reason that the existence and identification of non-combatants is a pretty significant thing.

This is why the brouhaha over the fabled Marine in Fallujah is important, not just locally, but as a snapshot into the controlled disaster that is warfare. And this is where it ties back to into the two factors that regulate warfare: capability and retaliation.

Right now, both sides have the capability to do things like play possum or take schools full of children hostage. There’s a specific reason that the US doesn’t typically engage in such behaviors: given the capabilities of our systems, and our troops, and whatnot it frankly isn’t the most efficient way to pursue our political goals. Now, the muj, on the other hand don’t really have a lot of capability to take us head on – so what to do? Well, bad guys have been pursuing an asymmetric strategy so they don’t have to take us on in our strong suit. This includes things like playing possum, holing up in mosques, and so on.

Above the capability based reason for the insurgents to pursue such tactics, there’s also the fact that these guys really don’t have any sort of retaliation to fear, largely because such “terrorist” tactics really aren’t the most efficient use of our forces from both a practical and political point of view.

Now, the bad guys have been banking on their ability to do stuff like this without fear of retaliation, but this notion implies two things. First, that such tactics will continue to be useful. This is a fair speculation, given our performance in Somalia and the continuing effort of political factions to “Vietnamize” the war. Although it is important to note that the change in tone of bin Laden’s last proclamation suggests that the terrorists may feel that such an approach may not yield the hoped for results.

From another point of view, the tactical effectiveness of such tactics also seems to be diminishing. This goes back to one of the first lessons of warfare “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Or, to put it a little more bluntly, the shooting of the insurgent in Fallujah is one of the most reliable ways to ensure that we never have another shooting of a legitimately wounded, non-combatant insurgent. As long as playing possum continues to work (or is thought to work), then legitimately wounded non-combatants will continue to die because they represent a risk to American troops if taken into custody.

But, you may ask one of the most often asked questions about treatment of prisoners in this conflict – “Won’t this cause the insurgents to treat any captured soldiers more harshly?” To which I have three words that don’t even form a sentence, but certainly describe a frame of mind: Beslan, 9/11, beheadings.

If that isn’t apparent to those who would stand in judgment, then I fear that the
entire lesson taught by the immolation of 3,000 people still hasn’t sunk in.

(Simultaneously launched by Bravo Romeo Delta from Demosophia, The Jawa Journal, & Anticipatory Retaliation)

Launched by Bravo Romeo Delta at December 14, 2004 06:12 AM
» Opinion8 - Not just one man's opinion Retaliates with: The how and why of action during war
» Murdoc Online Retaliates with: Happy Solstice
» The Jawa Report Retaliates with: Murder and Warfare, Redux

Retaliatiory Launches

If I understand your argument (and I'm not sure I do), it seems to boil down to the idea that it is irrational to expect soldiers to be able to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants in a situation like Iraq where the "non-combatants" are to some extent, an extension of the combatants, either voluntarily (because they believe in the cause) or involuntarily (because of fear). Consequently, we cannot morally judge the soldier for killing his prisoner. Did I get that right?

I certainly agree that, given what we know, civilians not in a combat zone are in no position to judge the appropriateness of the soldier's action. Part of the insurgents' strategy is, however, is to provoke the US troops into disproportionate responses that the insurgents use to discredit the American presence.

The Iraq War is not being fought in a vacuum. It is being fought in the context of a society that perceives itself as victimized repeatedly by the West, to the extent that every action by the US is perceived in the worst possible light. So that even when soliders are firing to protect themselves,the Iraqis do not perceive this as a human reacting as humans would to danger, but as a representative of the United States willfully killing Iraqis.

This attitude exists despite the fact that the insurgents have committed acts that are far worse on most people's scale than what the US troops ever do. But, as I think you may be intimating, a sort of Stockholm Syndrome exists where the Iraqi civilians identify with the insurgents at the same time they are threatened by them. This is accentuated by the fact that the Iraqis feel helpless both in the face of the insurgents' violence and the occupation by US forces. In this sense, whoever exercises the most effective use of power is likely to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. It's not a matter of do the Iraqis like the US or like the insurgents. It's a matter of who can project power the most effectively and make the Iraqis feel more secure. The insurgents provide an odd sort of security; if you don't help us, we will kill you. The Americans are aggressors because, although the people did not like Saddam Hussein, this particular violence did not occur until the Americans came. Plus, the American occupation, unlike the liberation of France in WW II, for example, is not aimed at restoring a pre-existing Iraq, but at creating a new Iraq that is not indigenous (however much Iraqis might like democracy) but imposed from without.

This is a lot of rambling, but my basic point is that, while I agree that the soldier is not a "villain" given the context in which he found himself, but nevertheless, his actions, however rational, only serve to strengthen the insurgents. This is the problem with the Iraq War in general. However much we may think that Iraq will benefit from eliminating Saddam Hussein, it is humiliating to the Iraqis to have this done by outside forces. It was humiliating for the French to be liberated by outside forces; witness the spectacle of having a French unit ostensibly lead the parade into Paris even though it had little to do with liberating the city.

I'm not sure this entirely relates to your post, but I think to the extent that you are suggesting that a soldier's actions must be judged in the context of war, that's true but secondary. Every time an American solider kills an Iraqi in a situation like that, it merely reinforces the idea that this is an occupation. Saying that the insurgents are worse is, from the standpoint of our professed goal, irrelevant. We are in a situation where there is a contradiction between what we want to achieve and our necessary means of doing so. This is why the Iraq War is, in my mind, so problematic.

Posted by: MWS at December 16, 2004 09:58 PM

"If I understand your argument (and I'm not sure I do), it seems to boil down to the idea that it is irrational to expect soldiers to be able to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants in a situation like Iraq where the "non-combatants" are to some extent, an extension of the combatants, either voluntarily (because they believe in the cause) or involuntarily (because of fear). Consequently, we cannot morally judge the soldier for killing his prisoner. Did I get that right?"

The terrorist that the Marine shot was not his prisoner. The day before the shooting, a different squad of Marines wounded those guys & captured them. They stabilized their wounds as best they could & radioed back to their HQ as to what happened & where these guys were. Their mission schedule was tight enough that they didn't have time to much around with prisoners. For whatever reason, the powers that be didn't follow up on that. No one knows why. Poor communications in the urban eviroment, "Wait, I thought you were sending someone", or just "Dang, we don't have anyone nearby who's free". FIrst law of combat is "**** Happens!" Next day, the Marine in question's patrol is in the area & is fired upon from the mosque. They day before, they had lost one Marine killed & several injured when a wounded terrorist played dead until they were close enough to use a grenade. They retake the mosque and two of the wounded guys left by the other squad the day before are still there. One seems to be playing dead & is shot. The other raises his hands where they can be seen and is taken prisoner & carted off. Had the terrorists not been using the ruse of played dead as a regualr tactic (An actual honset-to-Bob war crime, BTW), then we wouldn't be having this discussion. They called the tune, they don't get to kvetch about having to dance to it.

Posted by: Cybrludite at December 19, 2004 01:01 PM

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