Monday, February 23, 2009

Heroically heroic

Updated Just FYI in case anyone is interested, mentioned here more as a way of taking note than anything else:

There is a Facebook group called "Soldiers are not heroes." It describes itself as a parody of another Facebook group called "Support your soldiers in uniform!!!" (yes, with three exclamation points). It included an excerpt from (with a link to) a post of mine from last June (and re-posted on Veterans' Day) called "Heroics." Specifically, it quoted the last paragraphs:
Soldiers are not heroes. They can be heroes, they can act heroically, they can do heroic things - but the act of putting on a uniform and agreeing to put your conscience in a lockbox for the next so many years does not make your life more important than others, it does not make your opinions and insights more worthy of respect than others, it does not exempt you from moral judgment. It does not make you a hero.

And we should not fall prey to hero-worship.
I got a few hits off it but not being on Facebook I didn't think much more about it. But for who knows what reason, it seems to have sparked some attention of late. I've been getting (for me) a rather large number of hits from there over the past few days. When I went to check, I discovered the group now claims nearly 1900 members and there have been nearly 51,000 wall posts. (Plus, it appears, a petition to get it thrown off Facebook.)

Of course, it wasn't my post that generated all those responses, it was the provocative nature of the group. Still, it did get me a bit of traffic and I even got two lengthy comments on my post from one LCPL (which I assume means Lance Corporal) Donner. I responded to him at equal length. (Yes, "him." I looked at his website so I know.)

I went back and forth several times about putting my reply here as a post. On the one hand, I thought it would be unfair as you likely thus would see the reply before you saw the original comment. On the other, posting a reply to what someone has written elsewhere is hardly uncommon in blogs. On the other other hand, in those cases the reply usually contains enough of the original to follow the argument whereas my reply made only very brief references to the original, just enough to see to what point I was responding.

Okay, so what I've done here is to post my reply but with expanded quotes from the original. If rather than relying on my edited version you want to see LCPL Donner's full comments, they are here (scroll down).


LCPL Donner -

Thank you for the civil response, "unlike a great number of folk who share your views." I do not want to inflict an essay-length response on you, so instead I'm going to try to be briefer by running through some things you said in the order in which you said them. This will still prove to be rather long. To save a little space I've edited the comments I'm responding to; I figure you know what you said.

The popular held notion that "all soldiers are heroes" is, indeed, a dangerous one. It lends itself towards self-righteousness and the justification for acts that would otherwise be deplorable.

Which was exactly the point. The whole focus of the post was on objecting to the left's increasing embrace of the "soldiers are heroes" concept, driven by "hav[ing] absorbed the idea that we have to prove ourselves on 'security' issues by proving that we're 'tough'" and sufficiently pro-military. That of necessity required arguing that soldiers are not heroes, else how could I object to saying they are? But you should realize in case you didn't is that I did not say soldiers, that is, the people in the uniforms, are evil. I said they are not heroes. This is not an either/or.

Any time you have a gathering of humans, you have a gathering of heroes and villains. ... The fact of the matter is, some people just down right suck. How critical should you be of an organization because of the acts of an individual?

That would be valid if we were talking about one individual or isolated acts. But we're talking about institutional values and a large number of events and incidents, not one. Indeed, one of the frequent defenses of acts by individual soldiers is that they were just doing what they'd been trained to do, responding in the way they'd been told they should. To the very extent that's true, the acts of those individuals do reflect on the organization as a whole.

Liberals, too often in my experience, are quick to criticize but not so quick to offer solutions.

This is actually OT; still, I have to be blunt and call bullshit on that one. We are surrounded liberal solutions, we experience and benefit from them every single day. Social support programs, safety (including environmental) standards, public projects, the list is quite long. A lot of them do not go far enough and certainly some of them didn't work out the way it was intended but to say liberals are slow to offer solutions to the problems they cite is just nonsense.

Part of the problem with the military is its overwhelming homogeneity - it is overwhelmingly conservative, and both conservatives and liberals actively work to keep it that way. This is good for no one. ... What the military really needs are some brave liberals who are willing to put up with the military life in order to become high level decision makers that can change things for the better.

I'm not really going to argue this because it's just another version of the "inside-outside" argument, about whether working inside or outside an institution can be more effective in changing it. Both sides of that argument have their merits, both have their advocates. But I do wonder how one rises to be a "high level decision maker" in the military (or, in fact, any other hierarchical organization) without embracing the attitudes and concepts of that organization - and even if you do somehow manage that, how long will you be able to stay in that position?

[O]nly a small percentage of veterans actually use their benefits.... (According to a financial brief I recently received from an expert DoD civilian whose job it is to offer financial advice to service-members, only something like 30% of service-members elect to take advantage of their benefits.)

I can see four possible reasons for that, each contributing to the total, and while this may surprise you, I find three of those reasons regrettable and the fourth admirable. The first reason is that they don't know about them. The second is that they are improperly denied them. The third is that they refuse to accept needed help out of guilt, shame, or misguided pride. The fourth is that they don't need the benefit and say "leave it for others."

To be as clear as I think I can, I have no objection to veterans (including that fourth group) getting and using their benefits. They are there to be used. My objection to veterans' benefits is not that veterans get benefits, it's that they get benefits which others do not and get them as a reward for being veterans, which, again, declares veterans as more worthy than their fellow citizens. They aren't.

Regarding your assertion that American lives are not worth more than Iraqi lives, that is a noble and seemingly omniscient ideal. ... The unfortunate reality of that ideal is that in order for it to work, every single person on the planet has to believe in it. And just because one soldier decides to drop his rifle and declare "your life is equal to mine!" doesn't mean every other soldier is going to follow suit.

The purpose of the post was not to argue for nonviolence or nonviolent national defense and there is a lot of space between them and "American lives are not superior to Iraqi ones," the latter of which certainly would require a foreign policy based more on diplomacy and economics and less on the threat of military force than now but equally certainly would not require any elimination of military defense. (Note the emphasis.)

But to respond more directly (but very briefly), there are only three ways to regard your almost-ubiquitous argument. One is that you are looking to divine intervention, that by some literal miracle everyone thinks the same thing at exactly the same time. The second is that you're not prepared to embrace the idea unless everyone else does it first - put another way, you want everyone else to take the risk that you're not prepared to take, to have the courage you don't. The third, real, way is that it's intended to dismiss the possibility out of hand by laying down impossible conditions and "all or nothing" guidelines.

So let's turn this around. You apparently reject the idea of denying that American lives are worth more than Iraqi lives. Does that work for everyone or are we special? Is it okay for Iraqi insurgents to kill US soldiers, are roadside bombs and IEDs just dandy, because they could say "Iraqi lives are worth more than American lives?" Was 9/11 okay because al-Qaeda could say "your lives are worth less than ours?" Is it fine for the Hutus and Tutsis to continue to kill each other, each saying "we deserve to live, they deserve to die?" Who gets to decide who is more worthy, whose life is more valuable than another's? Or is it just a matter of "might makes right," a concept "civilized" peoples have supposedly long since rejected?

And in your seemingly ideal nation (where everyone believes in nonviolence and there is no military), who is to stop the moral absolutist from coming in and garroting everyone? I'm not bringing this up to defend our current actions, but rather criticize your proposed alternative. An optimal (not perfect, because nothing in reality can ever be perfect) solution lies somewhere in between.

Again, a classic argument, one that falsely equates nonviolence with non-resistance and pacifism with passivity. No one here said anything, not even by implication and more particularly not in this post, about sitting idly by while you and those around you are murdered in your beds by the boogeyman du jour. That's just silly. As silly, in fact, as the associated implication that the only alternative to doing nothing is to kill the "moral absolutist" along with their family, their friends, their friends' families, their co-workers, their co-workers' families, their co-workers friends, their co-workers' friends' families, and laying to waste the towns in which any of them lived. War and suicidal passivity are not the only options. Despite your reference to "somewhere in between," you are arguing that rejection of the former requires embrace of the latter. It does not.

It is always somewhat humorous for me for others to be critical of the rank and file soldier when it is the elected politicians (who are supposed to represent YOU, and are directly accountable to YOU, the average American citizen) who decide when and where we go, and when it is their commanding officers that issue the orders of tactical specificity (up to and including just how many bullets can be fired exactly where and when).

When did anyone say otherwise?

The common response is that by volunteering, we are actively supporting the system and enabling it to continue, but this is a rather weak critique. Do you honestly believe that if people stopped volunteering for service, the military would suddenly go away?

No. What I believe is that having volunteered is not a moral and ethical "Get Out of Jail Free" card. Are you aware that what you've just said amounts to "I was only following orders?"

The problem lies with senior leadership, and therefore that should be the focus of criticism and improvement.

Again, when did anyone say otherwise? But saying they should be the primary concern is not the same as saying they should be the only concern and that those lower down should get a pass.

[W]hile it is popular (and easy) to criticize violence, violence is the reason you're even able to be here today to be critical of anything. If the British had won the Revolutionary War, the American Revolution would have simply been remembered as a terrible treachery and nothing more. If the Civil War had gone another way, there wouldn't even be a United States remotely recognizable as today's nation.

You chose some really bad examples for that argument. At the top, are you seriously suggesting that British subjects are not allowed to criticize anything? What's more, there is a significant body of historical opinion (not the majority, certainly, but too big to be dismissed) that argues that the American Revolution actually set back the cause of independence by alienating colonists who supported independence but not insurrection and undermining the support for "letting the colonies go" that existed in the British parliament, whose members were subjected to "Are you going to support those who are killing our soldiers?" arguments. (Sound familiar?)

And how the outcome of the Civil War either way would have affected my present ability to be critical mystifies me.

As to your assessment that a soldier laying down his arms being the most heroic thing he could do, I disagree whole-heartedly. ... [T]he character and composition of American Armed Forces is currently 100% volunteer, meaning you know what you're getting into when you sign up. ... So people who, in our current military, throw down their arms in the middle of a war zone are cowards and hypocrites - not heroes. They endanger the lives of everyone else in the mission and have committed apostasy of the highest degree - having been made fully aware of their rights and the implications of their decision, they decide they don't want to do it right when everyone else is counting on them. ... These people are selfish and only looking to improve their own station - not carry out the duties they swore that they would.

I don't know how to begin to answer that. How, to quote my earlier comment to which you're referring, laying down your arms "in a war zone surrounded by a population of which a significant portion hates you and regards you as an invader and occupier - not to mention the possibility of being prosecuted by military authorities for anything from refusing orders to desertion -" makes you a coward is beyond me and frankly beyond logic. The fact that the experience of war may change people's beliefs about it is hardly a new or radical notion. It's one of the reasons why there is such a thing as being discharged as a conscientious objector. Then there are those who are not COs in the classic sense but who joined the armed forces with the idea of defending the country or, more generally, "freedom" only to discover from their experiences in Iraq that there they are defending neither. At that point, who is the hypocrite, the one who says "I can't do this" or the one who says "I don't want to cause (or get into) trouble?"

Part of military service is knowing that sometimes, you may have to go into a situation or area that you personally disagree with.

Indeed, that is part of the deal. But "disagree with" and "conscientiously object to" are not the same by orders of magnitude. Thinking something is not a good idea and thinking it is morally wrong are not the same thing. Neither are being a soldier and participating in war crimes, a matter on which I thought we agreed.

If the military were a complete democracy, where every member of the military had the right to open debate and an open vote on every order, it simply wouldn't work efficiently. By signing on the dotted line, each service member is acknowledging that they agree to place faith in the chain of command....

The only way I can understand that argument is as meaning "because we can't vote on everything, we can vote on nothing. And because you didn't vote on what you do, you have no responsibility for what you do." That is logically invalid and incorrect both morally and legally.

I agree that currently, our military is not operating in a constructive and noble way; however, I disagree that this is the fault of the rank and file soldier and instead argue that the blame lies on senior leadership and ultimately the civilian oversight that legally wields ultimate military authority.

I'm sorry, but that is another straw figure. No one of who I'm aware has said or even hinted that the rank and file soldier directs the operations of the military. What I have said is that at least since Nuremberg it has been a legal principle which we as a nation (officially if supposedly) accept that orders do not excuse crimes and that everyone bears some responsibility for what they do. I fully agree with you that responsibility (and therefore guilt) rises the further up the hierarchy you go - but that cannot be taken as meaning that at the bottom the responsibility is zero.

The "these things happen in war" critique is an extremely complicated situation.

Not in the cases I cited, it's not. Some were casual cruelties, some were crimes. None were "complicated" or ambiguous.

Abuses happen all the way up and down the chain of command, but far too often the wrong people get off scott-free and the wrong people are penalized.

I'm glad to be able to end on a note of at least general agreement. As should be abundantly clear by now, I certainly do not object to low-level people being held responsible for their actions - but it is reprehensible when, as is usually the case, they are prosecuted instead of (rather than in addition to) the higher-ups. That "far too often the wrong people get off scott-free" is a truth that you and I can shake hands on.

Footnote: Please excuse that annoying vote thing in the middle of the post. Apparently linking to the comments brought it in and there seems no way to get rid of it without deleting the link.

Updated to note that Lance Corporal Donner and I went another couple of rounds, with a good degree of civility maintained on both sides. (Yeah, I know - sometimes I surprise myself.) The whole exchange is at the link above, along with some comments from others.

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