Writing an ongoing lecture series while also taking it upon myself to rewrite three movies.
I don’t feel like continuing the How To Fix America thing tonight. Likely, this is because I’ve made the mistake of setting out to go through some of the Steam games that have been collecting dust in my inventory since… whenever Steam came out. Annual Steam Summer Sales are mostly to blame (yeah, starting out this post on consequence and morality by projecting responsibility on Steam).
This week I played two highly celebrated games (warning: the linked wiki pages have spoilers). The first was Spec Ops: The Line, and I also started Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. I never played SO:tL before, and hadn’t played KotOR2:tSL since like, ten years ago. Ordinarily outdated videogame habits would not be worth mentioning, but playing these two games in particular, back to back, yielded a peculiar contrast.
SO:tL is mechanically a fairly linear and repetitive third person military-style shooter game. However, over the course of the story it slowly deteriorates into a maddening descent into hell (the Inferno kind, not the Campbell kind) that deconstructs the entire shooter genre.
KotOR2:tSL is a western-style action role playing game set in the Star Wars universe. With compelling, but frequently buggy, gameplay, it tells a largely disjointed story with a fairly conventional plot, occasionally connected by small moments of deconstruction that critically examine the morality of the Star Wars universe. However, polarized morality usually wins out in the end, ultimately undermining any of the nuanced analysis the game attempts to conduct.
Both of these games are set during a war, and both touch upon consequence, responsibility, and morality. Both also produce weird acronyms accounting for their respective subtitles, so for convenience they will from now on be SOL and KOR2.
The first thing to be said is that, writing, sound,and environment design aside, SOL is a really dull slog to get through. The game is simply not fun to play. The only thing that kept me playing it was the uniquely disturbing atmosphere and engrossing story. So I’ll get to that.
In SOL you are a three-man commando squad investigating Dubai after a killer sandstorm wrecked the city and triggered a civil war.
Just go with it.
What awaits you is a surreal, apocalyptic landscape littered with death and violent neon graffiti, all while a psycho on an omniscient radio system spews taunts and profane, hawkish propaganda. He, and most of the other characters, are complex products of the violence that surrounds them, and with some investigation you can discover that the various “villains'” respective descents into evil follow a sympathetic route.
Eventually you are given choices to make. The biggest one is not actually a choice, as the game does not give you alternatives, but it certainly punishes you for the consequences of your “choice.” What follow then are a series of superficially false choices which are actually true choices, but the implied false choice lampshades actions which, in a “game universe” would be considered acceptable, but in a moral universe would be unconscionable.
An example might help.
At one point in the game you’re dropped in the middle of a refugee camp full of desperate people who hate the US troops occupying the city and take their hatred out upon your squad. They push you and throw rocks, which of course cause minor damage that threatens to kill you/end your game, and you have lethal military hardware in your hands with which to respond. Your squad becomes afraid and yells for you to mow a hole into the crowd as they box you in, cornering you and surrounding you. In most games this sort of desperate scene would permit using that military weaponry on these unarmed or under-equipped civilians. SOL is happy to allow you to do that, and after slaughtering the civilians you can progress to the next area. However, you can also take an alternative that no characters tell you is an option, which is to use less-than-lethal melee moves on civilians to force your way out of the encirclement. In neither case do you really get any sort of in-game “reward” for your choice, you simply continue on. If you do kill them however, the incident is later used against you as evidence of your guilt and complicity in the suffering of the civil war.
SOL is interesting in that it punishes you for doing ruthless and violent things, but generally doesn’t allow minimally merciful choices to result in any heart-warming closure. The world of SOL is a dark shade of moral gray, with the implicit conclusion that the mere act of warmaking, no matter the intentions, results in seemingly necessary acts that any outside observer would deem morally evil.
SOL forces you to become an engine of destruction merely to survive your experience, fighting hordes of soldiers across an unforgiving landscape. As you progress, completing daring feats that would be “heroic” in many other games, your mastery of your environment and weaponry seem merely to be an avenue to becoming that which you hate most. Your squad begins to turn on each other, and on you, as the depravity of the game’s world and the consequences of your actions affects them. The game turns a mirror on everything you do (even literally at one point) and reveals the monster that you “must” become to “win” the game. The way this transformation proceeds results in a depressing but utterly worthwhile experience.
KOR2, by contrast, lives in the Star Wars universe, a universe where there is literally a “Dark Side” that people can “fall” to. Unlike SOL, It’s fun, with compelling (okay, addicting) gameplay, sprinkled throughout with lots of mini games, side quests, and humor. However it makes the mistake of trying to juxtapose the inherently polar morality of its universe with the gray areas of more mundane existence, especially in terms of survival and unintended consequence.
In KOR2 there really are no complicated characters, despite superficial cues to the contrary. Deep down, every character’s agenda is either “good” (selfless, e.g. pacifist Ithorian terraformers trying to reintroduce life to a world blighted by war), “neutral” (survivalist, e.g. victims of war trying to keep their families alive), and “evil” (selfish, e.g. the Sith Lord who basically just wants to turn the galaxy into one big Force Dinner for himself). If a character is trying to redeem themselves they can go from “evil” in the past to “good” in the present, but anyone “evil” in the present is usually a lost cause, or a “good” or “neutral” person deep down that simply needs to be guided back to the light.
The morality of the player character is malleable, but this leads to strange contradictions. Sometimes being sarcastic has no bearing on your moral position (kept track of by a morality bar on your character screen which measures how “Light” or “Dark” you are), but sometimes an offhand, snarky remark gives you “Dark Side Points.” Sometimes companion characters will call you out on your questionable moral decisions and scrutinize them, but outside of a contrived “influence” system, they will remain steadfastly loyal to you anyway.
Occasionally, the game will throw a moral dilemma at you. A character asks (while a cutscene demonstrates their point), if giving refugees five bucks leads to other refugees mugging them and leaving them not only broke, but beaten up, is it worth making the donation?
The game seems to think itself clever for suggesting that seemingly good acts can provoke evil, but falls prey to the sin of many similar games by giving you XP, items, and money for solving problems, and then making ruthless violence a viable or necessary solution to just about every problem in the game. A settlement is under attack by mercenaries? Murder every mercenary, then be called a hero. The territory of an otherwise neutral gang is chafing against those aforementioned refugees? Wipe the entire gang out down to the last man, with no negative consequences, then loot their storeroom for useful stuff.
The game mechanics make the act of mass slaughter empowering and rewarding. So I find that in a weird way, the dull, unrewarding gameplay of SOL better facilitates the overall theme of the game, which is that there is absolutely nothing to gain from progressing via violence, except an eventual conclusion.
Meanwhile, being an RPG, KOR2’s violence rewards you not only with objectives, but with points and equipment that make your character more powerful. As your character becomes more powerful, they become more disposed to asserting their will on the galaxy, whether for “good” or “evil.” The game gets easier while the rewards increase in scale. By now my level 20 Jedi can run around at super speed massacring most enemies without breaking a sweat, after hitting a token dialogue option where they say “you could have surrendered; you made me do this.” Then they use the reward money from the slaughter to buy the freedom of that poor slave who has five lines and ceases to exist after they regain their supposed agency.
Ultimately, I think SOL is simply more ambitious than KOR2, and maybe a bit more savvy. Granted, it’s also a more recent game, but it creates a very consistent and self-validating moral universe which provides some insight to the culture of violent games, and our own world. KOR2, while being much more enjoyable, squanders its moments of thoughtfulness on moral inconsistency and self-defeating design decisions.
However, it bears pointing out that if I hadn’t played SOL first, I likely wouldn’t be thinking so hard about KOR2’s morality and what it fails to achieve. To that effect, SOL’s success as a game has manifested fully.
I haven’t finished playing KOR2 yet, but I suspect that what lies ahead won’t be nearly as fulfilling an experience.
Almost everything that can be said about 9/11 has been said. From the Bush Administration’s politically motivated negligence before the attacks, to the mind-numbing 24/7 news footage of planes flying into buildings (one of my few vivid memories from that time), to the sudden unity of American polarity and then the just as sudden unraveling of that unity and the ensuing overtures to war in the Middle East, it was an overwhelming horror show.
I’ve already addressed how 9/11 was merely component to Al Queda’s plan for the Middle East, and how Osama Bin Laden and pals were not cartoonish villains but strategists with a canny knack for anticipating an enemy’s response and exploiting opportunities for radicalizing allies to join their overall cause.
Just recently, for the first time, I watched an old recording from Berkeley of a discussion between Errol Morris and Robert McNamara. I devoted a good chunk of a previous post to McNamara’s “11 Lessons from Vietnam,” but in Morris’s film, The Fog of War, the filmmaker extrapolated 11 more general lessons. The first one is “empathize with your enemy.”
In the Berkeley discussion, Morris recounts an interview in 2003 with FOX “news” where his interviewer insisted that The Fog of War’s lessons didn’t apply to the War on Terror. Specifically, they insisted that terrorists cannot be empathized with.
Empathy, according to Psychology Today because why not:
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.
It can be unpleasant to place yourself in the shoes of a person who has done horrible things. There seems to be a kind of irrational reluctance, as though without ever admitting it, we at any point are secretly on the precipice of moral conversion and merely tempting that by thinking like an amoral person will put us over the edge. People therefore find the idea repellent, and despite the continued proliferation of Christianity, in this case thoroughly reject the following quote:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
To their minds, this is irreconcilable with the actions of terrorists. I, a non-Christian, disagree. No matter the label, a human being is a human being, and no matter the crimes is entitled to the same rights and justice as anyone else.
However, “empathize with your enemy,” is a rule which has far more in common with the lessons of a figure other than Jesus. That figure is decidedly less of a pacifist. The quote is commonly truncated to:
Know your enemy.
Knowledge of the enemy is a perfect summary of a strategic discrepancy between the United States and our opponents in the Middle East. This brings us back to 9/11.
The 9/11 attacks played upon our weaknesses while capitalizing on the attacker’s strengths. The fact that they constructed a plan, carried it out (imperfectly), and achieved a very specific but immensely significant outcome says a great deal not only about the cunning involved, but the depth of knowledge about America, and what buttons they needed to push in order to get their desired response.
I’m going to attempt to do what many, if not most Americans, were and are reluctant to do. I’m going to analyze the strategy of the 9/11 attacks from the point of view of those who executed it. This is going to be a long and painful exercise. It is my hope that doing so will demonstrate not only the canny abilities of our adversaries, but the profound weaknesses they exploited, weaknesses which I believe continue today and threaten the repeat of 9/11 in new ways.
I am now the planner(s) of the 9/11 attacks. My objective is to provoke the United States into overextending its military assets and entrenching them in an economically crippling guerrilla war in a hostile region. Ostensibly the reasons for this are historical and ideological, but for the purposes of the plan those things don’t matter. With this incredibly ambitious objective in mind, what are the approaches we can take?
At this time we haven’t the international influence necessary to compel the United States to engage the Middle East on this scale. Most regimes in the Middle East which might be willing to attack the United states are hostile to us (like Iraq), and their inability to carry out such attacks despite motivation indicates their insufficiency for this plan. This avenue has limited chances of success.
Most economic assets are in heroin production, which are not sufficient leverage to coerce the United States, its allies, or its potential enemies into committing to such a risky endeavor. Additionally, our dependence on armament and other war implements puts us at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the neighbors we rely upon in terms of materiel leverage. This avenue has limited chances of success.
It does not take great international influence or advanced military hardware to attack a vulnerable target in a devastating way. Additionally, experience in Afghanistan and in previous engagements with the US demonstrates that this is not only possible, but likely to have at least a moderate chance of success of execution versus the costs and risks.
There may be other approaches, but on the ambitious scale of what our strategy hopes to achieve, they are not “global” enough, and thus too inconsequential to meet our goal. A military approach, having the highest likelihood of success, will be selected as the primary avenue of our strategy.
In order to demonstrate the scale of our objective, the attack must be internationally shocking. A partial or complete destruction of the intended target and/or significant loss of life in at least the triple digits, is likely required.
With our primary means chosen, how should a military approach be executed? A target, or targets, must first be chosen. The target must ideally have the greatest possible impact with the minimum possible material and logistic commitment.
An ally of the United States
US Allies in Africa and South America
Both regions see violence every year and are lucky if the United States so much as makes a statement about it. This has a low likelihood of achieving our aims.
US Allies in the Middle East
The easiest plan to act upon.This has the potential advantage of allowing for not only provoking the United States, but of causing direct damage to enemies of opportunity we seek to eventually depose. However, activities in the Middle East are most vulnerable to being preemptively perceived and countered due to existing regional opposition. Also, not even Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and a hostage crisis in Iran have provoked an expensive military response from the United States. Only the Gulf War successfully engaged the United States in an extensive military action, but the United States’ commitment was highly conditional and its military aims were achieved, which is not a pattern we wish to perpetuate. However, given the ease of attacking targets in this area, it remains a remote option.
US Allies in Asia
Only Japan and South Korea offer themselves as strong potential targets, and their constant sensitivity about incursions from China and North Korea respectively make them inopportune and difficult. Rather than presuming an origin in the Middle East, first, distracting assumptions may lead to more regionally local responses. This has a troubled likelihood of achieving our aims.
US Allies in Europe
There are many good targets of opportunity in Europe, where the US has a long history of committing to military action at various scales. Additionally, with Russia’s fall from power, Europe is less vigilant against possible attacks. However, since WWII its commitment has been more conditional to either the UN or NATO, and since also WWII there has so far been no precedent for an attack on one nation provoking retaliatory response against a completely different global region. An attack would need to be large in scale. However, this remains a strong option.
US Allies in North and Central America
The same case for Europe can be made for Canada, and the US’s mixed history with Mexico and Central America means they are unreliable as targets for a provocative attack. Canada remains a strong option.
The US Itself
This is of course a challenge, but it’s not particularly more challenging than Europe or Canada, and debatably less challenging than attacking US allies in Asia. The US is as vulnerable to attack as most of Europe, believing in no viable immediate threats on a national scale. Direct attacks against the United States have the potential to drag it into war (see: Pearl Harbor), but small terror attacks have been considered isolated or insignificant cases. Still, it remains a strong, and possibly the most direct and provocative, option. As with Europe and Canada, the attack would need to be particularly large in scale to evoke a response.
Rather than looking more thoroughly at the pros and cons of every option, we’re going to focus on the best options.
- Easy overland travel through national borders.
- History of violence provoking US intervention
- Strategic targets of high value
- No large-scale unilateral US dedication to involvement since WWII
- Mitigated effect of indirect attack
- Remote distance from United States and Middle East minimizes impact
- Close proximity to United States
- Especially relaxed security environment (no domestic defense enforced for almost two centuries)
- Canadian response likely to summon US response
- No history of committed interventionism
- Distance and ocean make logistical enforcement more difficult
- Lack of coherence with ideological stance against more visible countries like the US or UK
- Direct approach with strongest likelihood of provoking response, assuming adequate scale
- Fairly relaxed security environment (no domestic defense enforced since WWII or threatened since mid-Cold War)
- History of being provoked by domestic attacks
- Robust intelligence network increasing likelihood of interception/prevention
- Same logistical constraints as with Canada
- Highest requirement for energy in generating the greatest possible military effect
All of the pros and cons can be weighted against one another, and the choice ultimately comes down to intuition. There is no doubt, however, that the most daring proposal with the greatest potential for results despite a moderate risk, is attacking the United States, and this is the target we ultimately choose.
Specific Static or Mobile Targets
To enhance the pervasive nature of the attack and the scale upon which it is perceived, it must strike either a crippling or a symbolic blow against the national target. A crippling blow is impossible with the military means we have, due to the decentralized nature of the US military (which we wish to preserve for the sake of engaging the Middle East) and its government (with an extensive chain of command and order of succession).
A symbolic attack will do little real physical damage to the decentralized hierarchy of the United States, but accomplish an effective provocation nonetheless. The greatest symbols of American power are its military, its economy, and its various government icons. An ideal symbol will exhibit a maximum of both vulnerability and symbolic significance.
Hitting a military base would be a powerful symbolic move. However, the inherent defensible nature of such a base makes it less vulnerable than other targets. Looking at the most significant civilian target with military importance, the obvious choice is The Pentagon.
A symbol of economic power was already chosen in 1993. The World Trade center is an architectural and commercial testament to US trading power.
Obvious symbols of government are the White House, and the buildings of the House and Senate.
For ease of coordination, all methods of attack should be as simple as possible while also being similar, if not the same.
Method of Attack
A conventional or dirty bomb of some kind is the only means by which to generate the necessary effect. However, a single attack from a car loaded with bombs was attempted before and largely failed. If the previous attack is to be improved upon, it must be increased in both scale and destructive power.
The diverse security obstacles make a land-born weapon, dirty or otherwise, impractical.
We do not have the capability to launch a successful attack by sea.
Obviously warplanes are not at our disposal. However, a plane hijacking is possible. Smuggling small weapons onto a plane is not difficult, but smuggling bombs likely will be. However, when loaded with fuel, a plane equipped for long flights can effectively turn into a bomb itself, as well as a delivery vehicle for the bomb.
Hijacking a plane and using it as a missile is an efficient way to produce a destructive effect that can be equally applied to all targets of opportunity.
The finer details of the attacks, the training, logistics, and execution are less relevant to our strategic goal.
The attacks on 9/11 took place. However, the planning could not have ended there. We must examine where we succeeded, where we failed, and where luck aided our strategy where it might not have.
- We succeeded in destroying much of the World Trade Center
- We succeeded in striking the Pentagon
- We succeeded in creating an environment of fear and panic in the wake of the attacks
- We succeeded in sowing economic discord and weakness
- We succeeded in provoking the United States into unilateral military commitment to the Middle East
- We underestimated the power of resistance by American Passengers on airline flights
- We failed to exploit the vulnerability of the TSA’s regulations to smuggle weapons aboard which would have minimized the threat of resistance
- We underestimated or failed to anticipate the unifying effect of the 9/11 attacks
- We generated confusion by not immediately taking credit for the attacks in a visible way
- We confused our message and failed to effectively communicate the reason for the attacks
- We failed to cause significant real damage to the Pentagon’s staff due to poor timing
- We failed to hit an executive or legislative government building, or any of its occupants
Successes of luck
- US fighter craft were on routine exercises which minimized their response time
- US intelligence services failed to anticipate our plan despite having acquired evidence for it
- The Bush administration ignored the evidence that intelligence services did collect about the plan
- The TSA’s security measures did not compromise any of the hijackers, despite having the ability to do so
- Potential for the hijackers to be compromised upon entry to the United States or in the course of their activities was not capitalized upon
- The unifying effect of the 9/11 attacks was not constructively used
- The misinformation disseminated about us and the attacks engendered ignorance which helped perpetuate US attitudes
I’ll end this thought exercise there. I, of course, benefit from hindsight and information gleaned from other’s thorough investigations and journalism. However, this is the sort of exercise that a concerned administration then, and today, must undertake when they address any potential threat to the United States. If a member of the FBI or the NSA had written this report before 9/11, and it had been taken seriously by the Bush Administration, 9/11 would not have happened.
Before I end this, look again at the lists of the planners’ successes, failures, and instances of blind luck. Al Queda’s successes are our vulnerabilities. Its failures are our successes and victories. Al Queda’s luck is our weakness and incompetence.
How much safer are our domestic institutions from terrorism?
How much less inclined are we to seize panic and fall to economic discord?
How much less inclined are we to become bogged down in the Middle East?
Are we less vain and prone to reactionary policies?
Are our intelligence services better disposed to ending terror plots?
Are our government officials less beholden to party politics?
Are our airports more secure?
Are we more united as a country?
Do we have a better understanding of the enemies arrayed against us?
Are we more informed about our role in the world and the consequences of our actions?
It’s been fourteen years. Out of the horror and death of 9/11, what have we learned, and what do we have to show for the introspection that event encouraged?
Getting right into it.
America spends proportionally more on healthcare than any other developed country. Bizarrely, the quality of care is also much lower than it is in countries that spend less than we do.
This discrepancy is reportedly a result of “higher health-sector prices.” This shouldn’t be a surprise, since the multifarious insurance companies dominating the US medical market are specifically designed to maximize profit from peoples’ poor/health.
That such a malicious, misanthropic practice is permitted at all is appalling, to me. What happened to the life in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”
On top of this are malpractice and tort “reform.“ Tort “reform“ has “reform“ in big quotes because it is a widely used name which has nothing at all to do with reform, and in fact is pretty thoroughly corrupt. The argument behind tort “reform” comes from the medical establishment, and boils down to this:
So like, you know how sometimes our doctors and surgeons inadvertently cause irreparable damage or death to their patients? And the patients or their families like… wanna sue? Well, if they do sue, and they win… we don’t wanna pay that much. Like one, two hundred thou, tops. Anything more would be, um, like, a total burden or whatever. KTHXBYE
Let’s look at a fairly common case of medical malpractice. Erb’s Palsy. Erb’s Palsy is often a result of nerve damage caused to an infant while they are being delivered. It can result in permanent loss of muscle and motor function in one arm for the rest of that person’s life.
Erb’s Palsy is completely preventable. It is only likely to happen when good medical care is not being provided. In other words, it happens if a doctor fucks up.
How much money is required to treat such an injury with surgeries (sometimes multiple attempts at surgical repair still fail) and rehabilitation? Considering it can cost tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars through any given year, multiplied by the rest of the person’s life, we’re looking at potentially millions of dollars spent on medical costs to repair completely avoidable damage.
In one case, a woman was awarded almost thirteen million dollars by a jury when her baby was incompetently delivered, resulting in Erb’s Palsy. However, thanks to local tort “reform” laws, her payout was capped to four million. From that four million comes the lawyer fees (usually a flat one third of the settlement payed out), so we’re probably looking at closer to three million.
Keep in mind that a few days in the ICU can cost almost five hundred thousand dollars.
If doctors maintain attitudes like this to people in need of medical care, imagine insurance companies, third party middle-men who monetize peoples’ suffering. These practices are practically dystopian.
Instead of looking at Switzerland, let’s look at the UK, now. Specifically, let’s look at the UK’s NHS (National Health Service, not the National Honor Society [which I happened to be a member of back in the day]). Again, according to the data, the UK spends roughly 5% less of its GPD on healthcare, yet in terms of performance, it is on top of the list.
The NHS is essentially a tax-funded, government-run healthcare system provided to everyone in the UK. There are still private practices and small clinics, often also subsidized by the NHS, but predominantly NHS halthcare workers and hospitals work directly for the government.
Let’s wax a little philosophical and address the complaint many Americans have: GET THAT DERN GUVURMENT OUTTA AUR PRIVATE B’NISS. I AIN’T PAYIN’ NO TAXES TA SUM DERN BYURACRACY GONNA MESS EVERTHANG UP LIKE THE GUVURMENT ALWAYS DUHS!
There is absolutely an opportunity for the government to engage in invasive practices and abuse wherever it exists as a literal bureaucracy, managing peoples’ lives, especially their health. Our government engages in these practices. A lot. However, I would contend that as bad as the government is, it at least ostensibly works for the common good, even if politicians are willing to play broadly with the definition of that term.
Corporations, on the other hand, exist for one thing: profit.
We have no problem with government-run firehouses or government-run police. Why is there so much mistrust for government-run healthcare? Imagine if, instead of the percentage of a dollar you pay in taxes to the local firehouse, you paid rates comparable to medical insurance for the right to have immediate fire response teams. Considering how much a fucking ambulance costs, you’re looking at much more than you pay in taxes. Additionally, if you don’t experience a fire, your money went straight into someone’s pocket.
However, when necessary fire response is pulled from a limited pool of tax revenue, it’s much more frugal. The system is clearly more ideal.
Why on earth do we tolerate a system like this for fire response, but not for medical care? Why is it an unnecessary tax burden to pay a small amount towards care that someone, somewhere needs, and that you might one day need, but very few people complain about paying the salaries of local cops?
Granted, those cops might be murdering people in the streets, but while that’s certainly an issue, not many people go so far as to say, “You know what? It’s better to not have any local or federal cops at all.”
Ultimately it comes down to, what is the job of government? Why does government exist, and who for?
I would argue that the government exists to ensure the greatest possible measure of safety and quality of life for the maximum number of citizens who honor its laws. This definition is commensurate with the enlightenment philosophy that spawned the American independence movement and informed its constitution and Bill of Rights. It is a definition that has since been validated by other developed countries with high standards of living, and international organizations like the UN.
In opposition to this, companies exist… to make money. They can absolutely scam the hell out of people in order to do this, and if you think they should, I’m not really sure what to say. Rather than any public good, they idealize profit.
Between these two alternatives, which is best suited to ensuring public safety and health? We give the government the power to run police. We give the government the responsibility of ensuring fire safety. We give the government the responsibility of protecting our borders and our skies, of building our roads and bridges, of maintaining courts of law…
So let’s get back to the practical issue, here. The UK has proved that a government-run healthcare system can cost less while performing better. As for tort reform?
In a government-run system, the government is responsible for malpractice. This completely liberates doctors from their own need for insurance (malpractice insurance). The health system is beholden to taxpayers and legislators who like getting elected, rather than insurance companies or private hospitals who might seek to gouge prices for themselves. And because all healthcare is free, if someone does become a victim of malpractice, they aren’t charged for the consequences, and neither are the doctors responsible.
“But wait,” you might say. “What about Obamacare?”
Obamacare is just as inefficient as the preceding system; it just spreads the inefficiency around more. Let’s say someone qualifies for a government subsidy to pay the rates offered by a health insurance company. What funds the government subsidy? Tax revenue. Who pays for tax revenue? We do.
With every subsidized health plan, we all help pay the insurance rate of a company that is probably offering the lowest possible benefits to qualify, and is not legally obligated to use that subsidy for actual implementation of health services. Now, insurance companies are paid not only by people who could ordinarily afford it, but by the taxes subsidizing people who previously couldn’t.
Guess who helped write Obamacare?
For a moment, stop imaging things as they are, with widespread poverty, people fully employed at half of a living wage, and expensive, poor-quality healthcare.
Imagine a United States where everyone has the means with which to properly live, and where their right to a healthy life is secured, no matter their financial ability.
If that doesn’t do it for you, try thinking about an America, where a demobilized military and de-privatized health service (oh, and an abolished death penalty while we’re at it) happens to have saved the country something in the ballpark of trillions of dollars annually.
What would we do with all that money? I have some ideas.
Here’s the deal. Keeping track of current events is a depressing thing to do. Rarely do things seem to be getting much better, and a realist recognizes that “It’s always darkest before the dawn” is the sort of wishful thinking that invites false hope which invites even more despair once expectations inevitably collapse.
Bearing all of that is made harder when personal issues intervene. I’m only just now recovering from a paralyzing emotional shitstorm that began shortly after my last article. And that’s the most you’ll be hearing about that.
(“You” of course being my vast audience of four or five people.)
I’ve long since lost the motivation to complete my last series, or what was intended to be a series, but fuck it, let’s power through.
Step One: Draw Down (Pt 2)
We’re still talking about reorganizing the US military, but I’m going to go down a little side street to talk about gun control. It’s relevant, trust me.
Deaths from gun crime are a major problem in the U.S. Our gun homicide rate hovers around the company of countries generally described as “developing,” or “third world.” Graphs of the US gun homicide rate compared to other Western countries generally look like… well, like this. Gun ownership rates between the US and other developed countries are pretty similar, if less dramatic.
But hang on a second. Look at these two again, side by side.
The two western countries closest to the US in terms of gun ownership are Finland and Switzerland, yet despite having around 50% of our gun ownership rate, they have less than 20% of our homicide rate. Why do you think that is?
You see, all that gun control stuff I said was just a dirty bait-and-switch! I’m actually all for the Second Amendment. I think the intent behind it when the Bill of Rights was established is as relevant today as it was in 1789. Jefferson probably didn’t say
“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” – Definitely not Thomas Jefferson
However, he most certainly did co-lead a violent resistance movement that used guns to overthrow the enforcement mechanisms of an authoritarian government.
Consider that Americans are being extra-judicially executed by the drones and police which allegedly protect us. Consider that the US government uses torture, pervasive and unqualified spying, and has a history of engaging in other incredibly disturbing practices. We have every reason to be afraid of our government, and every right to defend ourselves from it. Yet, as corporate influence marginalizes the power of popular sovereignty and gun ban laws attempt to rob Americans of the most efficient means of protecting themselves from hostility, there is less and less that the so-called “common” American can do to keep a comfortable buffer between themselves and the possibility of officially-sanctioned abuse.
I’m not arguing that there’s a vast Illuminati–Jewish–Lizard-conspiracy to disarm us so that the New World Order can go into effect. However, if in twenty years US officials are encouraged to persecute pro-eco or anti-corporate activist “terrorists” by monopolistic corporations upon whom they depend financially, and the risk of doing so is completely negated by said activists’ inability to defend themselves physically or monetarily, what exactly is going to deter them from acting on that encouragement?
An armed populace is a pretty good deterrent against those kinds of shenanigans happening willy-nilly.
(Before you call me crazy, keep in mind that in 1995 if you said the US government was going to kill US citizens with hellfire rockets fired by robots while monitoring their communications with a technological capability that puts 1984 to shame, you would have been called crazy, too.)
However, what is definitely crazy is allowing anyone to have a gun with no training or background checks and expecting everything to be hunky-dory. That brings us back to Switzerland and Finland.
I would hypothesize, and would very much like to find a study which disputes or corroborates, that a citizen who is well-trained in the proper use and safety of a firearm is dramatically less likely to abuse that firearm. Overwhelmingly, urban centers are the source of the highest gun crime in the US, where access to guns is easy (due to the high national per capita rate) and exposure to traditional American gun culture (usually recognized more in rural communities) is low. However, we do know suicide with firearms is rising in rural areas now, and decreasing in urban ones. I’ll get back to that later.
Access to guns will never be resolved, especially in the South, which has a notoriously porous border with a country where armed drug gangs have territorial command. We can solve the training problem, though, by mandating compulsory military service for every American citizen (men and women, excepting conscientious objectors and the demonstrably unfit), via the re-institution of local militias, which could be mobilized only by the federal government.
How would we handle that? Well, remember the couple hundred thousand military personnel from my last post forever ago? Think of it now as a 450,000-strong federal militia training corps.
The military would work full time training militias, while also regulating federal standards of fitness, marksmanship, and equipment use and maintenance. Outside of those minimal regulations, militias would regulate themselves according to their financial means and community, strengthening their local identity. This would ensure an impressive statistical level of readiness for national defense, but also an incomparable moral one as well. In the unlikely event that the United States is attacked, the invaders will be facing an army which is not only a huge percentage of the population that has been in reserve for years, but will also be directly defending the territory it has been training in, and likely lived in, for much of its members’ lives. That’s a pretty daunting prospect.
Also, since mandatory military service would funnel most of the population through a process of mental and physical health evaluation, it would provide a broad opportunity for physicians to identify and diagnose key mental health problems that lead to suicide and other kinds of gun death, allowing for early, preventative treatments that might otherwise never be confronted.
Finally, since the federal military would be entirely devoted to training militias, if the government wanted to, say invade Iraq, it would have to conscript the only available forces, which would be the militias. Since militias would be most loyal to their locality, and established and employed at those locations, it’s unlikely they would be very motivated to be uprooted from their lives and deployed elsewhere. Additionally, since only limited numbers would normally be required for deployment, many militias would not be tapped for conscription, putting the government in the unenviable position of deciding which militias to single out. You can imagine the outrage such an incident would cause.
Basically, before the government made any foreign commitments it would have to make a really, really strong case for it, and need to enjoy popular support for a long time.
So in conclusion, re-instituting militias might, as far as I can tell:
- Reduce gun homicides to rates more comparable to other Western countries with similar gun ownership rates and compulsory military service, which would mean a potential reduction of around 80%.
- Increase the readiness of the national defense by about fifty-four times (going by current active and reserve personnel numbers).
- Increase the likelihood of detecting mental and physical health issues among people who might otherwise go undiagnosed
- Increase the potential morale of defense forces via natural, personal investment in their locality
- Decrease the likelihood of costly adventures in foreign countries
There are a couple of issues I can foresee. One is funding. However, if Americans are predominantly allowed to use the firearms many of them already have, and perhaps given incentives to donate or share them with other militia members, we will be looking at significantly low costs. Additionally, existing military equipment, outnumbering a reduced military force, could simply be proportionally redistributed to militias which are trained to use it. Local selection processes could funnel members into required roles.
As for identifying mental health problems, that’s a moot point if there is no effective apparatus for treating those problems. That’s my next topic.
Putting it simply, we need to reduce the size and cost of the military. However, the mere suggestion of a draw-down is almost guaranteed to be balked at in this country. If you remember early last year when SecDef Hagel announced personnel cuts for the Army (keeping in mind that we also have a Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, and Air Force), you may also remember the ensuing outcry. The Army is an interesting target for historical comparisons, because unlike personnel in the Navy and Air Force, the infantryman’s role has remained largely unchanged since WWII. But there’s a quote about the matter that always bothered me. There are a number of reasons why, but the primary one is that it misrepresents, and deliberately, a number of things.
“That would make [the Army] the smallest since just before the U.S. entered World War II. ”
Ok, first of all: before it entered World War II, America had a draft. It was the first and last peacetime draft in American history, and authorized the conscription of any males between 21 and 35, up to just under a million troops. In the preceding decade, the United States was not ignorant to the threat of war rising both from Europe and Japan, and the 400,000 Army personnel authorized between 1939 and 1940 before that draft were a direct response to that threat. Even in the midst of rising conflict until that point, however, the regular Army capped out at around 280,000 troops.
The quote is deceptive for an additional reason. Up to and during WWII, the US Army did not use military contractors.
Contractors generally serve in logistical and auxiliary roles for the military. They do laundry, food production, construction, security, intelligence, and even foreign training. The estimated ratio of deployed personnel to contractors ranges from 10 to 1 to 2 to 1, but the thing to remember is that everything contractors do now was once done by regular military forces.
Those 280,000 Army troops authorized before WWII included not just the roles soldiers perform today, but every element of the logistical chain of the military, including everything that the billion-dollar industry of defense contracting does now. What is characterized as essential forces, in numbers, of the US Army does not include the thousands of contractors in use. Yet, a few hundred thousand soldiers prior to WWII was deemed enough, even including the requirement for such auxiliary services among the standing military.
What this means is that, while Spain was being bombed by the Luftwaffe and Japan was invading Manchuria, and even while Germany was invading and annexing its neighbors, the US Army and its entire chain of logistical and other support networks (which included the Army Air force, as there was no Air Force beforehand) stood at 280,000.
There are a number of factors that mitigate this number. The population of the United States during that period was less than half of what it is now. Technology at the time did not permit for, let alone require, investment in weapons and vehicles that became essential later in the war, nor those that have been developed since (like helicopters). However, technology has allowed for cheaper or even automated solutions to old problems, and the geographic borders of the United States have remained largely the same. 280,000 soldiers, called to action in an emergency, would still have to defend the same surface area today as they would have then.
One of the keys to the viability of that is the proportionality of warfare, specifically in the engagement of defense. In tactical terms, and especially in the matter of intercontinental warfare, it is generally accepted that an attacker must have numerical superiority over defenders of a holding or defensive position, presuming the defenders use the geography or other infrastructure to their advantage. The ideal, however, is 5 attackers to every defender. This means that even with only 280,000 troops, the US Army could have viably opposed an invading force of 1.5 million and had a reasonable chance of holding them off. Even then, the standing army of 280,000 was never intended to be the sole armed force in the event of war, and the Protective Mobilization Plan in effect during that time accounted for the rapid organization of a 2,000,000-man Army if it were necessary. The 10-million-strong army ideal for taking and holding the United States in the event of the Plan being acted upon simply wasn’t available.
It’s ironic that we call our defense budget a “defense” budget when it predominantly employs, trains, and equips soldiers, sailors, and airmen in numbers far above what is actually necessary for a peacetime standing army dedicated to domestic defense. Including the hundreds of thousands of defense contractors that our defense budget employs, total ground forces alone total closer to around 900,000 personnel, or early WWII draft levels.
But let’s examine the 440,000 number from Hagel again. It does not include the over 500,000 members of the reserves and National Guard. However, included in that number is over 60,000 Army personnel stationed abroad, not including those in Afghanistan or Iraq. Even including the personnel still engaged in Desert Storm II, we’re looking at an effective domestic defense force of 380,000. That’s still 100,000 more than what was deemed necessary in the late 30’s during an approaching world war.
Yet, there is no sign of the immediate threat of WWIII breaking out. It is not just out of military dominance that the threat of invasion is tiny, but because our primary military rivals are also simultaneously our close economic allies. It would require a tremendous global political upheaval before Russia or China even contemplated attacking the United states. 280,000, let alone 380,000, is a wartime footing approaching a stance towards national defense in the event of an immediate war, but there is absolutely no serious threat of invasion. If a force this size, plus our thousands of contractors, is not necessary for defense, then what sort of force do we have? Well, obviously it’s an attack force, an imperial force. The United States military resembles an imperial military.
This arrangement is necessary to maintain the US’s global position as top-dog: politically, economically, and of course militarily. Foreign bases operated by volunteer, career military men and women, in addition to prolific use of contractors, or mercenaries, is the bread and butter of an empire. But what has being an empire gained us?
We have cheap access to resources and goods. While these things may seem nice, they are in fact a symptom of the US’s dependence on a consumer economy. A consumer economy is not sustainable over a long-term period, and it’s a primary factor in our present economic situation, but we’ll get to that later.
The bottom line is that what we love about our huge military is also what’s likely to lead to our country’s downfall. Factoring into that the tremendous amount of waste in the defense budget burdened upon our national debt and our still struggling economic climate, we simply can’t afford to maintain the military we have. Given the domestic situation in regards to dwindling rights to privacy and protections from law enforcement, let alone unjust law, and rampant political and economic dysfunction, we have no business spending so much money and manpower on a force that exists largely to project our waning power onto the rest of the world. We need to tighten the belt and get back to basics.
During the 30’s, one of the core concerns of the government was maintaining at least 100,000 Army officers for the purpose of training a raised army in the event of war. 100,000 is two-thirds of the entire invasion force of the Normandy landings on D-Day, and seems more than adequate as an emergency reaction force, but accounting for population growth it would be wiser to double it to 200,000. What I propose is maintaining 200,000 trained personnel for the Army, 200,000 for the Navy and Marines, and 50,000 for the Air Force while leaving the Coast Guard untouched. That would put the entire armed forces under the umbrella of a number currently proposed for the Army alone, and would cut budget costs on personnel by three quarters. Eliminating contractors from the equation and proportionally decreasing spending on component materials and technologies.
And in the event of a war or impending invasion, where immediate national defense is urgent, who would make up the rest of the armed forces? It might be argued that less than half a million troops might be a tempting target to, say, China, with over 2.2 million active duty personnel. The answer, I think, is compulsory military service. With 120,000 million men and women fit for military service, the United States is uniquely poised to defend itself if the citizenry should ever need to take up arms.
But more on that next update.
And Other Uplifting Stories from the 21st Century
Hello, Internet. It’s been a while.
Well, let’s get to it.
So, let’s indulge certain world leaders and acknowledge at face value that there is a literal “war” on “terror.” Terror, of course, being a poetic substitution for “terrorism.”
In 2003 the US government released its “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.” In it is outlined the national strategy for “victory” against terrorism. The primary goal is stated as this:
“to stop terrorist attacks against the United States, its citizens, its interests, and our friends and allies around the world and ultimately, to create an international environment inhospitable to terrorists and all those who support them”
My last post was not only late, but lame. I’ll admit it. Had a bit of a WordPress-deleting-half-my-draft at the last minute fiasco, half-heartedly rewrote what was lost to try to make my personal Friday 11:59PM deadline, etc, etc. So here’s a bonus.
Last week, Ben Affleck went on Bill Maher, ostensibly to promote some kind of new project he’s part of. Maher brought up one of his favorite topics, which is the inferiority of Islam to “liberal”-ness, and Affleck, putting it gently, made a complete fool of himself. His arguments against Maher were emotive bile and, as Sam Harris phrased it, “intellectually ridiculous.”
Over the last few days, however, there’s been a small outpouring of public support for Affleck on the internets, and between Affleck and Maher/Harris I can understand why. Beyond his being a popular celebrity, though Affleck provided no rational arguments to back up his anger, his anger was not at all misplaced. Maher and Harris are bigots.
Their argument is essentially this: “liberal” principles, like tolerance, non-violence, and equality cannot conflate with Islam. They are mutually exclusive, because Islam exclusively promotes only intolerance, violence, and inequality, and even if only (“conservatively,” as Harris puts it) 20% of Muslims are “radical,” ultimately, the inherent anti-liberal-ness of Islam marginalizes the potential for any of the remaining moderates to exercise liberal values.
The reason this is bigoted is because it ascribes a religious identity to social and political forces that have evolved from less-than-religious roots, in order to persecute that religious identity. It also completely ignores the social, political, and religious history of the west. Oh, Christianity is bad, Maher and Haris admit, but liberals won’t talk about how bad Islam is, too. However, Christianity is distinctly Western, and by also conflating Liberalism with Westernism (as Maher does) in opposition to a more commonly Eastern religion in Islam which is portrayed as exclusively anti-liberal, the implication is truly, Christianity is bad, but it’s on the side of the west, the side of Liberalism, so Islam is worse.
If you want to find a religious culture where religious fundamentalism is on the rise, where abuse of women is sanctified, where minorities are persecuted… well if you’ve been checking the links, you know where I’m going with this. Look no further than Cold War America.
It was in 1954 that the words “under god” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, largely by the initiative of the Knights of Columbus (a conservative Catholic national fraternity and lobby) and a Presbyterian minister capitalizing on the president’s recent conversion and baptism. America’s identity became inextricable from a conservative, Christian worldview that presented itself as a necessary deterrent to the “Godless Communism” of the Soviet Union. America even had its own version of an Inquisition.
Bible verses have been quoted to justify just about every kind of hate you can imagine, in varying degrees, in support of conservative, or at least decidedly non-liberal, agendas. Christianity has been a rallying cry against everything from bikinis to free speech, and while those practices have hardly ended by today, they reached a particular fever pitch during this period.
Yet, the next ten years saw the birth of modern liberalism in the Civil Rights movement, spearheaded most famously by an ordained Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. King did not only crusade for social justice, but for peace, opposing both Jim Crow and the Vietnam War. He hardly denied his religious roots, fervently quoting bible passages like “turn the other cheek,” and “those who use the sword will die by it.” King’s message was imbued completely with religious references and imagery, and yet his liberal message did not suffer for it. He managed to take the same book used to justify hate and persecution to weave from it a message of peace, love, and equality.
The Bible has everything from “women are forbidden to speak in church” to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In the Torah, God orders the slaughter of women, children, and animals, and yet also forbids murder. These books are so old, so varied, translated in so many ways, that they can be used to justify pretty much anything. Which passages are chosen to justify social and political goals says everything about the person who chooses them, moreso than the religion they ascribe to.
So, now we get back to Maher and Harris. Two educated guys who proclaim to raise the banner of liberalism and casually judge others’ ignorance, have not taken the time to consider that their liberalisms, rooted in Judeo-Christian western history, could possibly have any parallel in the Islamic faiths, which are nothing but violent and intolerant.
“Clear proofs have indeed come to you from your Lord: so whoever sees, it is for his own good; and whoever is blind, it is to his own harm“
The bigotry here comes from not only maintaining deliberate ignorance against a peoples’ beliefs, but then using that ignorance as a springboard for their own declaration of moral superiority.
Sure, the Quran says some frightening things. But so does the Bible. It also says some nice, friendly things… like the Bible does. But acting like these religious forces exist in a political and social vacuum where they dictate only one inescapable, dogmatic interpretation is simply facile. There have been liberal movements in the Islamic world, similarly spearheaded by religious figures citing inspiration from Islam, bolstered by a synchronicity of changing social and political events. These events are not mere background color to some unyielding pattern of religious zealotry, but demand vast swaths of the tapestry of history.
In their arrogant mode of secularism, atheists like Maher embrace liberalism while willfully ignoring its roots in religion. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Martin Luther, adherents have brought about liberal reforms via their personal interpretation of religious beliefs, and it is in the ensuing dialog over religious values that liberal ideas have taken hold. The very idea that there is an objective ideal of morality comes from religion, and for atheists to decry and judge others on any moral platform, especially by equating religiousness with immorality, is hypocritical and, yes, bigoted.
But whatever. They’re just exercising their free speech, which is their right. And really I’m just aiming at the easiest targets, because people like Maher are merely symptomatic of a larger problem, which is the idea that morality must be enforced by a global power, namely, America.
During the Cold War, was there a giant superpower of a country breathing down America’s back, landing missiles in its cities, inserting commando teams or outright invading it in order to end the zealous rise of religious fundamentalism?
(The USSR certainly tried to stick its fingers in US affairs, but the give and take on that issue was pretty evenly-matched, and very much a matter of literal survival. So, provided you don’t believe in conspiracy theories, no, no one tried doing that.)
Let’s imagine someone had. Let’s say, locked in this struggle with a rival nation, some other, larger, more powerful nation existed and simultaneously tried to exert its moral authority on the United States through social, political, economic, and military pressure. Do you think there’d be some resentment? Maybe a little animosity? Do you think maybe those conservative, fundamental forces might gain even more support against the threat of submission to foreign ideals, while they’re already gaining popular support under threat from their rivals? That it might completely negate or reverse the sort of liberal forces that managed to rise during the 60’s?
The more the allegedly “liberal” antagonize those who do not ascribe to those beliefs, the more they harden the hearts of their opposition with their declarations of moral superiority. If they truly wished to spread liberalism across the world, it would be by demonstrating it through their deeds, not parading it like a crown. The best lead by example, not merely by asserting their authority as “teachers.”
Matthew 23 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
23 Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:
2 The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. 3 So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.
4 They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. 5 Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels[a] for everyone to see. 6 They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the meeting places. 7 And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers.
8 But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters. 9 Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven. 10 None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader. 11 Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. 12 If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.
Ok, maybe a bit of a stretch. Couldn’t help myself.
I was going to write a post which would serve little but to belabor many of the same points I’ve already made, but structured in the manner of a frustrated cry of futility at the hubris of moving against ISIS.
Someone beat me to it. Days ago.
Seriously, read this. It’s everything I could have said and more, but better than I could have said it.
So now what? Well, I’m gonna wax a little philosophical.
Lately on this issue, there’s a lot of talk about moral imperative. ISIS is “evil” so it has to be stopped. And yeah, they’re bad dudes. They do outrageous and horrible things to innocent people. And even assuming they were not one of many violent radical groups who use beheading, torture, and rape as methods of population control, why shouldn’t it be a moral imperative to act against them?
There’s that famous quote. You know it. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.“
If we don’t act, doesn’t that mean evil triumphs?
There’s a fundamental assumption here, and it begs a serious question: How do we know that we’re good (wo)men?
In America, it seems to have become a presumption that goodness and action are inextricably intertwined. Or put alternatively, that doing something is always better than doing nothing. That quote might have something to do with it. But we often do not distinguish between “good” action and “rash” action.
“Good” is not a word that should be associated so quickly with any national agenda. Politics and morality don’t often mix, and when they do, it’s been pretty contentious. We need to stop identifying America, and ourselves, as “good” in every foreign policy decision we make. If we’re honest, we’ll realize our actions are at best benevolently self-serving. Why is it that ISIS and Bin Laden and Hussein have been fair game but Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey have been allowed to operate with near-impunity? Is there a scale of morality, a numbered list from “most” to “least” bad, and Al Queda is at the top, and ISIS is two names down? What about Hezbollah? North Korea? Where do they rank on the scale? China? Shouldn’t they be somewhere on the list since the Tienanmen Square Massacre and with all the other questionable stuff they do?
There is no rhyme or reason to who is defined as “evil” and who is not; at least, there isn’t in a true moral sense. There is merely an illusion of moral superiority produced where political opportunity and arrogance combine. America does not truly champion causes of good. It champions causes of economic, social, and political expedience. In other words, America does not always act because it should, but often does because it can.
Assuming that the Bush Administration truly believed in its own moral imperative, one cannot deny that its decision to invade Iraq was based significantly on the determination that an invasion was feasible. America has not, and probably will not, invade Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses, but Iraq was a prime target. American leaders believed that an invasion would be quick, painless, and result in a net gain for the US and the region (again, benefit of the doubt). Upon embarking on its great crusade, America claimed responsibility for its consequences, as they were the basis for its justification for invading in the first place.
Over a decade later, what have the real consequences been? Iraqi infrastructure has been crippled, millions have been displaced, and thousands have been killed or seriously wounded. AQI and ISIS have spawned and gained prominent footholds, feeding into violent civil unrest unlikely ever to end. If the United States had not invaded Iraq, conditions for many might have been bad, but they certainly would not have been worse than they are now.
Armed with this knowledge, can we say the invasion of Iraq was moral? Probably not.
Would restraint have yielded a more positive outcome for more Iraqis and Americans alike? Probably so. “Doing nothing” against an “evil” dictator in Iraq would have resulted in a more positive outcome than acting against him.
“Restraint,” that is, “doing nothing,” is not a popular word among presidents mobilizing for war. While it provides an opportunity for a reasonable exploration of potential consequences and a rational, national debate, it is not well-suited to the polarizing jingoism involved where a battle line has been drawn against something so extreme as “evil.”
The question is not whether ISIS are bad guys. Surely, they are; they might even be “evil.” But the United States, the same entity that has assumed the authority to define evil, has essentially created them. They are a consequence of a rash decision, to invade Iraq and arm Syrian rebels. But if the United States, in acting against evil, only sows more evil, what does that make us?
A good nation, a moral nation, would not act rashly, where rash action would result in more evil. A good nation would show restraint.
For all the talk of good and evil, of destroying terrorists and ending, in even more hyperbolic language, “terror,” there should be no illusions that the United States fights for the side of “good.” How do we even define what is “good” in a world where deposing dictators leads to more terrorism?
So in my last post, I began with an extended quotation from Osama Bin Laden, and then neglected to point out why I had chosen to do so, on the 13th anniversary of 9/11. I’m going to address that, first.
That quote was taken from a transcript of a speech given to Al Jazeera in 2004. I would hazard to guess that many have already forgotten this, but there was a time when Osama Bin Laden was considered Pure Evil. Pure Evil to the extent where unironically fantasizing about his death on the presumption of inherent justice was pretty much a means of acceptable, national, self-gratification.
The man Bin Laden reveales himself to be in the statement was far more complex than a Saturday morning cartoon villain. He is cunning, even prescient, and though the strategy of his statement was certainly self-serving, there were also hard, essential truths to be found in his words. But America was not shown that man. We were not encouraged to understand who he was, or how he was made, or why he fought. We were simply told that Osama Bin Laden is evil, so he must be killed.
Aspersion of that caliber ideally necessitates a presentation of compelling proof. The 9/11 attacks were horrific, but even Bin Laden admits that they were. However, Bin Laden portrays the attacks as retaliatory for oppression perpetrated by the United States in the Middle East. Specifically, he accuses the United States of aiding Israel in the 1982 Lebanon war, in which 5,000-8,000 civilian non-Jews were killed both by Israeli forces, and the ensuing unrest unleashed by Israeli intervention.
This of course is at best a misunderstanding of the situation, and at worst a deliberate lie, as the U.S.’s role in the Lebanese war was relatively minor. However, its financial and military assistance to Israel is, of course, well-known. If the implication is that US support for Israel engenders the latter’s bold and reckless behavior in the Middle East, which has unarguably caused the death and displacement of many non-Israeli civilians, that implication is more or less correct.
In other words, Bin Laden’s argument is essentially this: Allied lives are threatened by a foreign power, and in retaliation, we will attack at the source of the nation that threatens us. There will be unavoidable civilian deaths and that is regrettable, but necessary, in order to hasten the results we desire, and when the adversary refuses to commit to any sort of military integrity.
It is also the same argument that underpins the bombings of Germany (300,000-600,000 civilians killed) and Japan (330,000-500,000 civilians killed), as well as much of Vietnam (50,000-180,000 civilians killed), Cambodia, and Laos, not to mention Iraq (100,000 plus civilian deaths, though not all from bombing). There is a fundamental hypocrisy at play here, where provoking attrition warfare against the United States is “evil,” but engaging in a war of attrition in the Middle East and elsewhere can be “noble” and “necessary.”
Of course, Bin Laden himself benefited from the sort of US military aid that Israel has enjoyed for decades, so he is, himself, also a hypocrite. Yet even the narrative of Bin Laden alongside the Mujahideen fighting Soviets in Afghanistan, supported enthusiastically by the Carter and Reagan administrations, is absent from the national narrative on the factors leading to 9/11.
To many now, that lazy explanation of the 9/11 attacks as a mere “act of evil” is as good as historical accuracy. Thirteen years after 9/11, America does not understand who the enemy behind 9/11 was.
Between the government and most media outlets, there has been little to no effort to faithfully characterize and analyze America’s enemies and why they fight. Undoubtedly there is more to their motivations than “being evil,” and to reduce any organization to those two words is a disservice not only to the people being mobilized to fight, but to the victims created by the engines of war once they are running at full steam. “Fundamentalist” and “extremist” are not sober rallying cries for war. Sure, extremism embodies zealousness to the point of what most would call “evil,” yet zealousness itself is not an engine upon which any serious threat can move when modern militaries scour space with satellites while straddling the globe… right?
Looking upon the build up (again) to what increasingly looks like Desert Storm III, I have a hard time dredging up the energy to feel as incensed and angry as seems appropriate. The painful lesson of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” is still stained into the national fabric of America, and the degree to which the road to war against ISIS parallels that of previous historical blunders is positively stupefying. How can the entire country not recoil from this immediately? Haven’t we been through this before? Doesn’t anyone remember how we got here? How can so many people accept such insanity with straight faces?
ISIS, like Bin Laden and Al Queda, is not well understood, and certainly no effort has been made to comprehensively explain the group, its roots, or its motivations to the American people.
Let’s take a look at ISIS, again. The strategy of letting ISIS burn itself out and bolstering Iran in order to combat it have been echoed by others since my first post on the matter, but it’s clear the Obama administration has other, more traditional designs. The sorts of designs that have been tried before, with no evidence of success.
I originally intended to describe ISIS’s origins as a rebellion against the oppressive regime in Syria, grown out of Al Queda in Syria like an unwanted, mutant limb and armed by the United States against what was perceived as a common enemy in Bashar al-Assad. Oh yeah, remember Assad? The evil dictator alleged to use chemical weapons on his own people, the one Obama (surprisingly) asked permission from congress to attack last year?
I don’t know what the point is in even bothering to wrap my head around this anymore. It’s so ridiculous I almost don’t want to make sense of it all, at the risk of becoming crazy through the attempt alone.
Yet, I must. I’m going to try to get this straight.
The United States intervenes in the Middle East, arming militants against a rival regime in Afghanistan. Those militants go on to radicalize as they fragment into an extremist group that would later be known as Al Queda. Al Queda begins trying to attack the US and its allies in retaliation for US intervention in the Middle East. The US eventually responds by intervening in the Middle East, while it simultaneously arms militants fighting a rival regime who would later exploit the conditions of US intervention whilst radicalizing into an extremist group that would later be known as ISIS. ISIS begins trying to attack the US and its allies. And now, the president of the United States is proposing to re-intervene while arming more “friendly” militants in the hopes that this will be the act of intervention that somehow reverses everything that came before it.
Nope. Still seems as insane as before. The only appropriate question that remains in light of the inanity on display is, “Wut?”