Saturday, October 20, 2007

It's a Catch-22

Staying humane vs. staying alive.

I'm a couple of days late to this, but Matt Yglesias makes an obvious but crucial point regarding the futility of our adventure in Iraq:

The crux of the matter is that soldiers in ambiguous situations
understandably tend to err on the side of their own personal safety and that of
their fellow soldiers. Likewise, officers faced with ambiguous situations tend
to err on the side of giving the soldiers under their command the benefit of the
doubt. And courts-martial, likewise, err on the side of taking a favorable view
of American soldiers.

All of which is fine. Unless you happen to be an Iraqi. Which is
precisely why people tend not to enjoy being under foreign military

The reality of the matter is that to succeed, our troops would need to
behave the way police officers do. But they're not cops, they're soldiers. And
there's a good reason that soldiers act the way soldiers do. There's no way that
it would be politically feasible -- or even appropriate -- for the US military
to start treating Iraqi lives as more important than American lives. But that
would be the only way to actually pull off what they've been asked to pull off.
It's an impossible situation, and not one we should be putting people in.

The impossible situation isn't just limited to Iraq, however. This is a question I have wrestled with for a long time: can this war actually be conducted while maintaining the ideals of freedom and human rights that Americans and the West hold dear? I wanted to believe it was possible, but I don't really see it. It is always easy to talk about preserving the rights of those you fight against, but it's much more difficult to tell soldiers whose friends are dying before their eyes to respect the human rights of the people doing the shooting. (I can attest to this from personal experience: the only time I have actually wished someone dead was when he was shooting at me.)

The problem only gets worse when you start talking about assymmetrical warfare in which the enemy doesn't just look like a regular citizen, he is a regular citizen (or at least a subset of the regular citizenry that is indistinguishable from the rest of them). Given the choice between self-protection and large geopolitical goals (not that I'm convinced we have any), the Iraqis are going to lose every time.

So what do we do about this? We can't legitimately tell our brave sons and daughters and their families to go out there and take one for the team, but the more vigorously they protect themselves, the more innocent Iraqis die, and the further from our goal of establishing a peaceful rule-of-law democracy we get.

The result has been a mishmash of lofty rhetoric at the strategic level ("we do not torture") and hard-as-nails pragmatism at the tactical level (we torture). Soldiers are told that their safety is priority number one, then sent out into the battlespace with rules of engagement that ensure the enemy will get off a few shots before our guys have time to react. To say that this situation is untenable is to understate the case by quite a bit: it's a situation in which the soldiers are scarcely able to act without either breaking the rules or putting themselves at extra risk.

This is why being the "shining city on the hill" pretty much precludes preemptive war, leaping into battle without a coherent strategy and/or ill-defined objectives, overthrowing dictators who pose no threat to our nation's security, and occupation of foreign lands: everything we do in the interest of these things is either done counter to our values as a nation or at an especially great risk to our soldiers. Essentially we're telling our soldiers that they must find a balance between dying with honor or living with ignominy. That they tend to find ways to muddle through this with their consciences intact is a testament to their resilience, but they should have never been put in that position in the first place.

Yet another reason why "supporting the troops" doesn't mean supporting the way the President uses them, it means opposing the Presidents who would capriciously send them into needless, poorly planned and unwinnable wars.