We Bought Thoreau This Straw Pony for His Birthday

Posted: July 12, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Spencer Ackerman wants you to meet him halfway between his house and the straw man:

Here’s where those who base their opposition to the war its promotion of human suffering have to meet halfway as well. If the U.S. stops prosecuting its end of the war, civilian casualties will not end. What will end is the civilian casualties we directly cause. The Taliban-led coalition will continue its insurgency until victory or negotiation, with all the acceleration of civilian casualties that will entail. …you can’t simply argue that a U.S. withdrawal comes with a pony for every Afghan citizen, since that overlooks the United Nations’ documented increase in the proportion of civilian casualties for which the Taliban are responsible.

Spencer knows damn well that we are not in Afghanistan to reduce civilian casualties there, but rather that reduction of civilian casualties is valuable within the military strategy only insofar as it helps the generals achieve their strategic objectives in pursuit of an asserted national interest. As such, everyone reading this kind of pro-COIN hand-wringing should treat it with the deepest skepticism possible. Ackerman may be deeply concerned about civilian casualties, but if you think the military won’t drop the civilian love the moment it gets between them and a sufficiently attractive objective, you need to go read more or better history. Or, you could just look at the recent agitations by war cheerleaders for relaxed rules for civilian protection in the war zone and General Petraeus’ capitulations to them.

And what, pray tell, would it mean for those who base opposition to the war on its promotion of human suffering to “meet halfway?” Ackerman apparently wants his readers to believe that those of us who oppose the war due to its deliterious effect on civilians actually believe that all civilian casualties will cease if U.S. troops withdraw. Dear Spencer: please cite this assertion made by your debate partners. Otherwise, enough with the straw men. And, if you want to assert that removing the U.S. force from Afghanistan will not lead to a reduction in the total number of civilian casualties, be my guest but show your work.

More broadly, though, I’m perplexed by what I infer as the moral reasoning standing behind Ackerman’s post. He seems to be saying the following: If you’re opposed to the killing of civilians, and you think you can reduce the total number of civilians killed by killing some yourself, you have an obligation to violate your principles and kill civilians. This is real, “destroy the village in order to save it” reasoning, and while I’m not surprised to find the brimstone from America’s most famous counterinsurgency in the mouths of COINdinistas in general, I am always shocked to hear it in the mouth of people with brains and a bare minimum of moral fortitude.

I hope this goes without saying, but if one holds a given policy effect to be profoundly immoral, the only way to maintain any integrity is to say, “First, I will never personally take an action or agitate for a policy that I know will or is likely to cause Profoundly Immoral Side Effect X. Second, I will work to find all possible ways to reduce Profoundly Immoral Side Effect X consistent with my prior statement.”

Essentially, Ackerman seems to be telling us that if we care about civilian lives, we have to be personally willing to kill a few civilians here and there. Suppress those personal scruples for the greater good, son. It’ll all be okay in the end.

Readers may or may not be aware that today is the birthday of Henry David Thoreau. He might have a few things to say about Ackerman’s moral reasoning:

…[Y]ou may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?

I say again:  we all know damn well that our purpose in Afghanistan isn’t to reduce civilian casualties. It doesn’t even rank on the list of the president’s stated goals for the Afghanistan campaign. In fact, in his 35-minute West Point speech announcing the “new” Afghanistan strategy back in December 2009, President Obama didn’t directly address the issue of Afghan civilian casualties at all. We have our own purposes in Afghanistan that have nothing to do with the well-being of Afghans that will continue to take priority unless there’s a sea change in U.S. policy in that country. When you hear this sort of humanitarian hand-wringing from people in the war business or from their allies, beware.

Update: Spencer expressed to me his feeling that the original opening line of the post was an unfair representation of the issue, and I agreed. It’s been updated above.

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Comments
  1. spencerackerman says:

    Jesus Christ, dude, read the whole post in context. I’m not asking anyone to meet me “halfway on killing civilians.” If that’s the way you’re going to misrepresent what I write, I’m not going to want to engage with you in this debate.

    • dcrowe says:

      Hey now, wait a sec. I did read the entire post. Your initial post is a serious misrepresentation of the position of those who oppose the war on grounds that include the civilian casualties issue. You’re asking people to “meet you halfway” from a straw man pole you’re ascribing to them. Do you agree, or not?

      If you feel my opening line is needlessly inflammatory, I’m happy to revisit it and see if I can be more precise and fair. But the rest of the post is fair, as far as I can tell.

  2. […] civilian casualties post, I had planned on all but ignoring his substantive arguments (which are most obviously phony) and instead focused on his ridiculous characterizations of anyone questioning Afghanistan policy […]

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