Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Price of War

Taleena over at Sun Comprehending Glass posts about the problem of suicides at the Guantanamo detention faclity. Her take is to compare the suicide rate at Gitmo against the suicide rate at other American prisons and jails. I wonder though, what is the suicide rate in a prision in the Middle East or Persia? Those who read the book or saw the movie Midnight Express back in the late 1970s must suspect that the rate is much higher than anything that exists at Gitmo.

But I think that we should realize that war is never sanitary and nobody fights in a war without violating the norms of civilized conduct.

Wretchard at The Belmont Club writes about the likely possibility that Jordan tortured Ziad Khalaf Raja al-Karbouly to gain information of the whereabouts of the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; and that Jordan passed that information onto Coalition forces who used the fruits of torture to carry out a "targeted assasination" of a opponent. Both actions are roundly condemned by the international community.

It does no good begging the question by saying that Zarqawi should have been taken alive. I do believe that coalition forces would have done so had that been a realistic option. As it happened, the only assets that could get on site quickly enough were "fast movers," and they carried 500-lbs bombs, not tasty cream puffs.

This situation poses a kind of grisly "laboratory case" of ethics:
The interesting thing about the Zarqawi case is that it allows one to examine the effect of necessity over law in an actual case. There's no need for a hypothetical like "what if you could save Europe by targeting Hitler?" or "what if you could save the lives of hundreds of children by torturing a terrorist?" In this case the hypothetical is actual. This has the effect of inverting the roles of the principles on trial. Would it be justified not to resort to unlimited measures in order to hunt down a person responsible for killing thousands of individuals? Can one ever allow a person like Zarqawi to live a single day more knowing that hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocents will die for our scruples? How many lives is a punctilious observance of the Geneva Convention worth? One, one hundred, one thousand, one million? And if a million is the price, what are our principles except for sale. The only question being the price.

Yet, some would say, if the ends justify the means then where do we stop? Historically the Allies did not stint at incinerating Hamburg and Dresden to beat Hitler; to level Hiroshima and Nagasaki to avoid a bloody invasion that may have killed even more Japanese. Nor did they stick at engaging in unlimited submarine warfare or machine-gunning the survivors of sinking Japanese troopships in the Bismarck Strait. We flatteringly call them the Greatest Generation not only because they bore the burden of the fighting but more importantly because they conveniently carried a burden of moral responsibility that we would never care to face. The Greatest Generation committed atrocities to secure victory. Because atrocities they were. Regrettable but past and so we could forget them. And for sixty years their victory kept us from needing to make such choices and we were glad of it. Until we faced our own war.

...I'm not sure if there are any canonical answers to the question of when it is proper to cast away the law. But I think it's important to make the choices clear to the public. It's dishonest to promise to keep them always safe; to ever "connect the dots" yet simultaneously promise never to match savage men for savagery. It would be better to tell the truth: that if in order to maintain our values we must sometimes stop short of harsh methods, we must also risk and spend lives to preserve those ideals. That if we hold them dear enough then a price must be paid for keeping them. In the very same way that US soldiers must daily risk their lives to obey rules of engagement. And a public unwilling to bear that risk should take the moral burden upon itself and change the rules rather than expect men to transgress them in secret for its guilty peace of mind.
Both Democrats and Republicans hark back to the "Good War" that was World War II. But even with all the ambiguities and uncertainties we suffer in the I don't think that we would want to return to the uncomplicated racism of that time.

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