Friday, November 20, 2015

Human Arithmetic

     Ponder, if you will, the following snippet:

     If lawyers had had to approve our World War II target lists, we couldn’t have won. War is never clean or easy, and the strictures imposed on our military today just protect our enemies. Collateral damage and civilian casualties are part of combat and always will be. The most humane approach is to pile on fast and win decisively — which results in far less suffering than the sort of protracted agony we see in Syria.
     The generals who won World War II would start by leveling Raqqa, the ISIS caliphate’s capital. Civilians would die, but those remaining in Raqqa have embraced ISIS, as Germans did Hitler. The jihadis must be crushed. Start with their “Berlin.”
     Kill ten thousand, save a million.
     Unthinkable? Fine. We lose.

     [ Retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters]

     In essence, this deems the civilians in Raqqa “human shields,” much like those Saddam Hussein hoped would defend him against the assault that ultimately toppled him. The lives of those used thus in Iraq might well have been lost in the invasion that followed. In deciding to strike anyway, President Bush had to accept that possibility. It was one of the things for which he was vilified in the aftermath, even though no “human shield” was killed in the course of the action.

     Colonel Peters has taken a comparable stance, though the numbers are higher. Is the approach he advocates “savage and conscienceless,” or is he merely being “realistic?” Have your reasons ready.


     The problem of the “human shield” and what is licit in dealing with a villain that employs them is one that’s bedeviled philosophers and just-war theorists since humans began to treat with moral questions. No less a giant of moral philosophy than the late Robert Nozick, in his masterwork Anarchy, State, and Utopia, deferred the consideration of “innocent shields” and “innocent threats” to a subsequent discussion that would never arrive.

     Here is essence of the problem, set forth by the late, great Jack Vance, one of the profoundest thinkers ever to write speculative fiction:

     Xanten made an airy gesture. “A.G. Philidor, you oversimplify grievously. Do you consider me obtuse? There are many kinds of history. They interact. You emphasize morality. But the ultimate basis of morality is survival. What promotes survival is good; what induces mortifaction is bad.”
     “Well spoken!” declared Philidor. “But let me propound a parable. May a nation of a million beings destroy a creature who otherwise will infect all with a fatal disease? Yes, you will say. Once more: ten starving beasts hunt you, that they may eat. Will you kill them to save your life? Yes, you will say again, though here you destroy more than you save. Once more: a man inhabits a hut in a lonely valley. A hundred spaceships descend from the sky, and attempt to destroy him. May he destroy these ships in self-defense, even though he is one and they are a hundred thousand? Perhaps you will say yes. What, then, if a whole world, a whole race of beings, pits itself against this single man? May he kill all? What if the attackers are as human as himself? What if he were the creature of the first instance, who otherwise will infect a world with disease? You see, there is no area where a simple touchstone avails. We have searched and found none. Hence, at the risk of sinning against Survival, we—I, at least; I can only speak for myself—have chosen a morality which at least allows me calm. I kill—nothing. I destroy—nothing.”

     [From Vance’s Hugo and Nebula Award winning novella The Last Castle]

     The subject, sometimes called lifeboat ethics, is inherently fascinating. Though it thwarts all attempts to define an absolute, acontextual moral-ethical rule, it might well be the key to the survival of Mankind as our technology of construction and destruction advances.


     Immediately after the terrorist siege on Paris New York City Commissioner of Police William Bratton provided his perspective:

     The city’s top cop called the terrorist attacks in Paris a “game changer” Sunday morning and said the NYPD is training to deal with a similar event.
     “The idea that every one of these people were apparently equipped with a suicide vest reinforces the idea that if they take hostages, you have to go in because they’re going to kill them,” NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said on ABC’s Eyewitness News.

     Bratton surely understands that both hostages and policemen would be numbered among the lives lost by acting immediately. In contrast, the French police hesitated to storm the garrisoned concert hall even as the terrorists were murdering them. By delaying their action, they reaped an outcome that was nearly as bad as if they’d done nothing at all. Why?

     There are several possible explanations. The most cynical of them would be that they regarded the lives of the concert-goers as less important than their own immunity to subsequent condemnation should their attack “go wrong.” Sadly, given our Pollyannaish notions about negotiating with Islamic terrorists and the degenerate state of our conceptions of “justice,” this is more plausible than most of the alternatives.

     Bratton’s predisposition to action is predicated upon an assumption that’s proved accurate in terrorist actions to date: that the terrorists are prepared to die as long as they can take a satisfying number of lives in the process. In such a scenario, the innocents taken as “hostages” aren’t really hostages at all; they’re victims-to-be whose deaths have been deferred in the hope of adding to their number. The only constructive thing you can do when faced with such a situation is charge into it, praying that by doing so you can save some of the endangered innocents.

     The Israelis have acted on that assumption since Entebbe. Three “hostages” died in that raid, but dozens of others were saved. It’s unlikely that any better outcome was possible.


     The arithmetic approach to terrorism and similar phenomena is confounded by a premise that’s built into us at a very deep level:

     How often have you seen a headline like this? — TWO DIE ATTEMPTING RESCUE OF DROWNING CHILD. If a man gets lost in the mountains, hundreds will search and often two or three searchers are killed. But the next time somebody gets lost just as many volunteers turn out.
     Poor arithmetic...but very human. It runs through all our folklore, all human religions, all our literature a racial conviction that when one human needs rescue, others should not count the price.
     Weakness? It might be the unique strength that wins us a Galaxy.

     [Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers]

     No one’s ever said it better than RAH. It’s reinforced by the existence of our all-volunteer military: a force unmatched in potency anywhere, staffed entirely by men and women who know their service could require the sacrifice of their lives. That prospect can hardly be equated to the prospect of post-enlistment college-tuition benefits.

     Chesterton and others have noted that “a rational army would run away.” So also would a rational policeman. Yet we have both before us. So also do we have evil before us: Islamic terrorists willing to kill without limit, and willing to die in the act, if by doing so they can terrorize us into submitting to their madness.

     No arithmetic reckoning can encompass either of those attitudes. No, they’re not unanimous among men. But they’re real and critically important to the human condition in this Year of Our Lord 2015.

     Colonel Peters might not have the right of it in one particular:

     Civilians would die, but those remaining in Raqqa have embraced ISIS, as Germans did Hitler.

     Some of those civilians might be unwillingly bound in place, as were Saddam Hussein’s “guests against their will.” The greater question is whether a lawyerly approach to the campaign against ISIS, and by extension against all Islamic lunacies, would shed even greater amounts of presumptively innocent blood.

     Food for thought.

4 comments:

  1. I started to bristle at RAH (one of my favorite authors since I got my first library card) including "all human religions". However, islam fails that category in two ways: it is not a religion (any more than Heinlein's contemporary L. Ron Hubbard's "Church of Scientology" is a religion), and because by their actions, muslims exclude themselves from "humanity".

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  2. Dear Fran;

    As often happens after I've been drinking, I made the mistake of logging in and reading. Maybe it's just as well this is an old post; nobody will read the comments.

    Speaking of civilian casualties and your human arithmetic:

    There is a post of a guy with glasses on a platform at a college with a Muslim girl griping at him and the Youtube description is, the guy destroys the girl's argument, or some such. But he doesn't really destroy her argument. He just says if she doesn't disavow an aspect or two of the Koran, she's lying.

    The Muslim girl must have sat through his speech and then had the courage to stand up to a microphone and make her point. But I want to make another point that addresses (maybe) this idea of innocent casualties.

    I'm pretty old, and in my time I think I've broken 9 of the 10 commandments. I know I cheated at playing games with my friends, lied about many things, took advantage when I thought I could get away with it. But I'm really a coward and never stood up for what I was doing in an honest argument.

    To me, this is the state of the Muslim religion now. Whatever that girl's hopes and beliefs are about Islam, her co-religionists are using specific quotes to justify lying, cheating, chaos and murder. The only way they argue is to kill. And she won't disavow that.

    And although they might say they're doing it, "for Allah," she can't seem to use her own God-or-Allah given mind to understand the difference between human weakness and fanatic desire for the "best - no matter what the consequence."

    It's gonna sound harsh. But in your arithmetic, there are many who will seem innocent who aren't. I realize that Curtis LeMay may have been a jerk, and innocents died in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There might come a time when someone has to choose between that innocent college Muslim and the kid next door.

    The "last graf?"

    Many innocents are going to die. Choose. Muslims - or Christians, Jews, and Western Civilization.

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  3. My father was a B-17 pilot during WWII (8th AAF), bombing Germany (along with flying three or four humanitarian missions at the very end of the war, after VE Day. He then flew B-52s for SAC (Strategic Air Command, USAF).

    On several occasions, he referred to Curtis LeMay as "Old Iron-Ass". He never clarified if it was because LeMay was stubborn and unmovable once he formed an opinion, or if it was because he could sit in the pilot's seat longer than most without needing to have CPR performed upon his derriere. I know he respected him, though he wasn't always happy with what the general ordered.

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  4. Oops. I may have posted a comment meant to go into a window connected to an entirely different blog. My apologies if I did. Curtis LeMay doesn't fit into this post. Fran, if I did, please go ahead and delete it and this comment as well. Thanks.

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