Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Megan McArdle Tries to Get One Right

Well, at least she's not crazy, right? I know, that's scant praise for The Atlantic's Megan McArdle, but props to her for trying to refute some particularly odiferous bullcrap in italics, below:

Another mistake I think people make when they discuss police brutality, or war crimes, is to attribute them to some characteristic of the population that joins the military or becomes a police officer. One of my commenters says:

I think a lot of folks who join the military (not to mention police officers and prison guards) have authoritarian or sadistic tendencies which in turn increase the probability of war crimes being committed, especially given the stress of being under fire, in a strange land, among hostile locals.
What would you expect from people who sign up for a job where you maim and kill people you don't even know, just because someone else told you to do it?

(sorry if I offend anyone; I know a few of you just signed up for the tuition support or needed the money and got more than you bargained for)

Maybe this is so, but I'm skeptical. I've known a lot of quasi-pacifists with aggressive, domineering personalities and a startling lack of empathy. Give them slightly different political beliefs and an M-16, and I sure wouldn't turn my back on them.

It seems highly probable that there's some selection bias. But a desire to kick some ass is only one reason to become a police officer or a soldier. There's also a desire for justice, an interest in protecting your community, a sense of duty to something larger than yourself, a desire to do something really important with your life, like, say, put it between your beloved home and war's desolation. What do I expect from people like that? Quite a lot, actually.

But as the Milgram experiments show, most people given unlimited power over other human beings tend to abuse that power unless there are adequate institutional safeguards against us. We are natural bullies. And in mobs, we quite often make each other worse. Military culture fights this natural tendency with a pretty rigorous code of conduct--but in the end you've got a bunch of boys out on a corner with big guns. There's only so much that a code of conduct can do.

Those are good points, but they don't go far enough. War crimes don't start at the bottom and work their way up--they start at the top and spread their way down to troops who don't have a clear moral set of standards from which to operate. As in, explaining to the troops that we don't torture, we don't kill civilians, and we won't tolerate anything that violates basic Counterinsurgency Doctrine (COIN) and causes us to lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the people we're trying to help.

So, actually, the reality is this--when the example set by your leaders is to torture people in the name of the United States of America based on some phony-baloney legal justification cooked up by a third-rate team of legal minds, the "war crimes" don't appear as if by magic--they are symptoms of a lack of clear guidance and moral conscience from the people at the top.

We've seen this in the Phillipines at the turn of the century, in Vietnam, and now at Abu Ghraib: when Americans have an ambiguous, morally suspect leadership in a time of war, the men at the bottom of the ladder don't live up to particularly high standards. When they know what their mission really is, they perform exceptionally well and, at least the majority of them, behave admirably.

What's confused here are the trends--no mention is given to the recruiting of felons and no mention is given to the culpability of the civilian leadership to set an example of respecting the rule of law in a time of war. Combining an acceptance of felons in your military with not explaining the basic difference between right and wrong gets you what we have now, which are quite a few instances of "war crimes."

The conclusion though is this--for all of the incidents, we still have a thoroughly professional military where the vast majority of the troops DO NOT engage in war crimes or commit horrible acts of violence against innocent people, and we still have a military that is full of people who would not tolerate that kind of activity. We're slowly losing that, though, and that's what the fight is really about. Saving what's good about our military.

But that was a good try.

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