Quaker Theology #9 -- Fall-Winter 2003
Just War Against Terror Jean Bethke Elshtain. -- 2
It seemed odd to me that Elshtain does not see these clear implications of her thesis, but that is a common neoconservative blind spot. The nub of this US mission is laid out especially in her Chapter 12, "American Power and Responsibility" (161-173), and perhaps the best summary is:
#The principle I call "equal regard" underlies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, just as it lies at the heart of our Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s matchless Gettysburg Address. But equal regard, as the American founders knew, as Lincoln understood, and as we are coming to understand, must sometimes be backed up by coercive force. This is an ideal of international justice whose time has come. Equal regard is a mixture of old norms given new urgency and new possibilities.
#Some will understandably query: If the claim to justice as equal regard applies to all persons without distinction, shouldn’t an international body be its guarantor and enforcer? Perhaps. But in our less-than-ideal world, the one candidate to guarantee this principle is the United States, for two reasons: Equal regard is the foundation of our own polity; and we are the only superpower. (168)
Thus wrapped in the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the mantle of the martyred Lincoln, this notion is supposed to be beyond question by any loyal American. But look closer: enforcing these standards, as interpreted in JWAT, on the international scene is what is now required, and the US is the only one competent, both morally and militarily, to do the enforcing.
This is a very tall order. Reading these sections of JWAT, I kept hearing the echo of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: "For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? . . . Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?" (14:28, 31) Elshtain twice mentions the issue of cost as a "prudential" aspect of just war thinking, but then essentially shrugs it off. (58, 173, 178)
From this base, her treatment of the just war canons, despite a pose of dispassion and independence, has a remarkably similar outcome, namely that of dismantling any potential bar it might raise to US plans for war and military dominance.
Just cause? Under the flag of establishing minimal civic order in the world, it can be whatever the US regime decides it is.
Right authority? As we saw in early 2003 at the United Nations, the US makes its own. And the US rulers, because of our superior "democratic values," have all the legitimacy they need, regardless of what any other state or body might say. Elshtain’s disdain for the UN and other international institutions, a marker of the neocon ethos, is palpable. (127f;162-166)
Last resort? This now means only that non-military options need to be "explored" by the US rulers (61). For how long, one wonders – an hour? Moreover, with our adversaries, she repeats, "there is nothing to negotiate about." (61)
A reasonable chance of success? Even in the case of Afghanistan, the results in mid-2002 when JWAT was written obliged her to admit that "I cannot pronounce with any degree of certainty that this criterion has been met."(62) One doubts she could say much more at the end of 2003. But as she also notes, such judgments are "always tricky"(62), so perhaps she can be forgiven for disregarding them. This is another instance where she seems unable to see beyond the myth of American "superpower" omnipotence. One might wonder how she would rate the success of the ongoing war in Iraq; but as JWAT amounts to an advance justification of whatever happens, the answer is regrettably not much in doubt.
Imminent threat? If a possible threat could someday become imminent, that’s imminent enough. (54;57f;166-173) Or to quote again the chief executive carrying out the policy, "So what difference does it make?"
Discrimination and proportionality? The mangling of the previous criteria are bad enough, but it is on these latter two points that the book’s argument reaches its nadir. Elshtain is fully satisfied that,
#Those of us who have studied this matter in detail, however, know that a basic norm of US military training is the combatant- noncombatant distinction–the principle of discrimination. We know that American soldiers are trained to refuse to obey illegal orders under the code of restraints called the "laws of war," derived in large measure from the historic evolution of the just war tradition and its spin-offs as encoded in international conventions and arrangements.
#US. military training films include generous helpings of ‘what went wrong’ in various operations. ‘Wrong’ refers not only to US. military losses but also to operations that led to the unintentional loss of civilian life. These films ask: How can such losses be prevented in the future in a theater of war?" (21)
She also cites a senior navy officer, asserting to the New York Times that "With precision-guided weapons, you don’t have to use as many bombs to achieve the desired effects, and using fewer weapons reduces the risk of collateral damage."(66-67) "Many agencies and groups, as well as the US military, are continually trying to get an accurate count." (120; emphasis added)
Very nice. Her confidence is touching in its self-assurance. And startling in its blatant naivete.
"In our quest for answers," JWAT has admonished us, "we should not take comfort in banalities and nostrums." (180) Sound advice. But when the book turns from Augustine and medieval popes to the twenty-first century, Elshtain has somehow, despite her detailed study, and the round of academic fora, managed to remain utterly innocent of the thunderous ethical fact that during its last three major wars (Vietnam and the two Gulf conflicts), the US military has refused as a matter of stated policy to make any accounting whatever of civilian casualties in these campaigns. None. Zip.
"‘I don’t believe you have heard me or anyone else in our leadership talk about the presence of 1,000 bodies out there, or in fact how many have been recovered,’ Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the Afghanistan operation, said Monday (March 18, 2002) at Bagram Air Base. ‘You know we don’t do body counts.’" (Epstein)
This see-no-evil, report-no-evil policy is well-attested, and has been repeatedly criticized, to no effect, even by confirmed pro-military specialists. One was the Washington Post’s William Arkin, who wrote this from Afghanistan, where he was with a Human Rights Watch team investigating civilian casualties:
# Throughout the Afghanistan campaign, the Pentagon asserted that the U.S. effort was the least deadly military campaign in history. The Pentagon, however, has no factual basis for which to make such a judgment and it is doing little to study or substantiate its self-congratulatory line. (Arkin, April 2002; emphasis added)
A year later, his judgment was even more blunt:
#Over the past few months, I’ve been struck by how many times senior officers and officials have insisted that the level of civilian deaths in Afghanistan is low. This isn’t a case of military secrecy where they know something we don’t. The Pentagon can’t say low compared to what, how low, nor if the low they describe is good enough. The U.S. military can assert all it wants that it takes "all" measures to minimize civilian harm. But until it is willing to actually study why civilians die in conflict, it is an assertion that has little credibility. (Arkin, February 2003; emphasis added.)
When Helen Thomas, the senior White House correspondent, asked the Pentagon how many Iraqis had been killed in the latest war, she was told, "‘They don’t count. They are not important.’" She later wrote, "Remember the enemy body counts during the Vietnam War? Some of those U.S. tabulations were highly exaggerated in an effort to show gains on the battlefield.
"Well, we don’t do that anymore." (Thomas)
And the Washington Post, in what can be considered a definitive statement on the current Iraq war, reported on April 5, 2003 that the "U.S. Has No Plans to Count Civilian Casualties." Beneath this headline was a remarkably terse statement of military defiance of Congress: "The Pentagon said yesterday that it has no plans to determine how many Iraqi civilians may have been killed or injured or suffered property damage as a result of U.S. military operations in Iraq.
"The statement followed passage Saturday of a congressional measure calling on the Bush administration to identify and provide ‘appropriate assistance’ to Iraqi civilians for war losses." (Graham)
Numerous other corroborative citations could be included, without even a detailed study. We will only note that this stonewalling continued through December of 2003, when it was extended by Occupation authorities to the Iraqi Health Ministry, whose officials were ordered to stop keeping tallies of civilian deaths. (Jackson)
This last points toward another level of disingenuousness in such "careful discrimination" arguments. In the 1991 Iraq war, there were many public utilities destroyed with more or less precise bombing and missile attacks. Their explosions hit few civilians nearby. But then with these utilities destroyed, thousands of civilians, especially the elderly and children, died of disease and lack of basic resources. Any honest moral accounting has to include this predictable "downstream" death toll as part of its calculation of "collateral damage." Yet any such accounting would call the "discrimination" and proportionality" arguments fatally into question. Ignoring them, as the U.S. military had steadfastly done, and is also done in JWAT, is no more than the equivalent of averting one’s eyes from the bodies on the side of the road from Jericho. There is every reason to believe that a similar toll is building in Iraq today. The official response? Suppress the information. The heart cries out: have they no shame?
This policy of total denial raises issues both procedural and substantive for just-war theorists. When the "world’s only superpower" declines even to enter the discussion of whether its real wars live up to its stated ethical standards for warmaking, how is the calculus that can give meaning to just war thought supposed to take place? And more substantively, how can the credibility of these stated standards be maintained in the face of such a policy of refusal?
My conclusion is that they cannot, and on this ground alone the just war calculus fails when applied to the U.S. war machine.
This leaves aside the abundant evidence that the best available estimates of total civilian deaths in two of these three conflicts (Vietnam, Iraq I and II) are in seven figures – evidence which, because it is perforce unofficial, can be and is shrugged off or ignored by those who advocate the new US imperium. (White) It is telling, I think, that when JWAT trumpets the purported extremity of care the US military devotes to avoiding civilian casualties, no specific or primary sources are cited in corroboration; not even the training films are identified.
But even when confronted with this data of defiance, JWAT still has an escape hatch: it has declared these civilian deaths, morally almost weightless, because they are, she has been assured, unintended:
#Every civilian death is a tragedy," the book tells us, "but not every civilian death is a crime. . . . Contrast the gleeful reaction of bin Laden and his cohorts to the collapse of the twin towers with the widely broadcast apologies of America’s top military leaders, including, on occasion, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for errant American bombs, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and for any and all unintended civilian deaths. (4f)
So it appears that superior democratic values means occasionally having to say you’re sorry; at least when large numbers of civilians are killed in view of the media, and otherwise assuring ingenuous academics that you’re doing your best. But not having actually to account for the killing.
Further, this foreign casualty total needs to be augmented, again based on the work at my ground-level position beside a major military base: well over 500,000 US troops who survived these wars were nonetheless made their permanent victims, by Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome, severe PTSD, and other war maladies. (Vlahos, Arison, National Coalition for the Homeless) And while it is still relatively early in the latest Iraq war, the likely crop of its domestic victims shows signs of equally gruesome promise as well. In any honest just war calculus, these US citizen victims deserve to be counted as well, and like the Iraqis they are not here.
For this grim reality is substituted a dependence on the banalities of a few army training films, and the nostrums of unnamed naval officers assuring The New York Times that all is well. Such a record puts the book’s argument for "discrimination and proportionality" almost beyond the need for further examination.
Yet one more point: JWAT insists that in the US military, "No one is encouraged, or even allowed, to call the killing of civilians ‘God’s will’ or, even worse, an act carried out in God’s name."(21)
No doubt she was told so, and found words to this effect in her detailed studies, though again no source is cited. But as her confident words were being written, General William G "Jerry" Boykin, a key figure in the Pentagon’s war, was traveling the country, loudly preaching just such toxic stuff. He was doing so in uniform; but not, one supposes, at the scholarly conference the author frequents. And when he was finally exposed, his superiors snickered and did nothing. (Leiby)
Added up, these failings bring to mind another damning review of the book, at the top of the customer-feedback section of Amazon.com. The heading tells it all: "Embarrassing."
Yet credit where it is due: Elshtain makes some very valid points about how widespread is the teaching of violence and hatred for US values by some Muslim groups, how oppressively most Muslim countries are governed, and how ignorant of Islam and Islamic culture most Americans are–including, she is less clear to say–our policymakers, and how dangerous such ignorance is. When she lays some of this American ignorance to the refusal of many in the academy to take religion seriously, there is likely no little truth in that as well.
These insights do not redeem the book, however, because they weigh just as heavily (I would say more so) against the new US imperial overreach as for it. There is plenty of evidence that the "war on terror" and the new American "burden" is as much a threat to the world’s "minimal civic peace" as its protector. Moreover, despite its preoccupation with Catholic thought and papal teaching, JWAT’s credibility in this regard too is steadily undermined by its blatantly tendentious and unfair treatment of Pope John Paul II – otherwise the hero of every neocon Catholic (and almost-sort-of-quasi-not-quite Catholic like JWAT’s author). (Zoba)
At first blush, her regard for the Pope would seem to be limitless. She decries how the Pope was "ignored in intellectual circles" (73) when he denounced communism in the 1980s. Then early on she demands, "Whose description of September 11 am I going to trust? That of a person who disdains any distinction between combatants and noncombatants . . . or that of John Paul II," who has called these acts an "unspeakable horror." She finds this quite proper papal description so comforting that it is quoted four times (9,12,16,121).
But then JWAT, like other Romish neocon tomes, is only too quick to distrust, and entirely ignore, John Paul’s even more eloquent, and much more often repeated, condemnations of the Iraq war (both of them), as well as the "burden" of US imperialism and pre-emptive warfare that underlie it.
For that matter, in their studied rebukes, the Pope and his close advisers cited just those issues of last resort, imminence, and proportionality that have weighed so heavily here and with other critics of the book. As Catholic writers Mark and Louise Zwick succinctly put it, "John Paul II has sought to distance the Catholic Church from George Bush’s idea of the manifest Christian destiny of the United States"; they also point out that Cardinal Ratzinger, the watchdog of orthodoxy, repeatedly declared that "The concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church." (Zwick)
The bulk of JWAT’s Chapter 8, "The Pulpit Responds to Terror," is devoted to scoffing at the many statements by US religious leaders condemning the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the imperial doctrine they herald. But then she skims completely around the Pope’s many statements making exactly the same point, noting only in passing that the pontiff is a "near-pacifist." (16) One wonders how even a non-world-class scholar could have missed them; the Holy See’s website reserves an entire section for his statements on peace. (Vatican)