I encountered a discussion recently that lead me to think about the recent topicality of the War in Iraq and the ‘War on Terror’ in a different light. It was actually a discussion that occurred a while ago between two people that both I admire and get infuriated by in equal measure. Sam Harris and Glen Greenwold.
For those of you that might not know who they are, Sam Harris is a eminent lecturer and philosopher that has found some difficulty of late discussing his theories. This is mainly down to taking a controversial position on Islam and what he sees as it being the most dangerous religion. While often easy to criticise, his views on the subject are more nuanced than he is frequently given credit for and I would recommend reading his views directly from his website rather than articles written by other authors.
Glen Greenwald is the journalist that is primarily known for breaking the Edward Snowdon story. His most prolific writing can be read on the website The Intercept and he is very broadly a liberal commentator that is critical of many of the decisions that our governments have taken, especially in regards to the War on Terror.
Through reading their rather heated debate I encountered a sort of tangent that discussed torture. There are two liberal schools of thought on the topic of torture. That it is a violation of fundamental human rights, a breach of numerous Charters, Conventions etc and that it is wrong no matter what. The opposing view while not advocating it makes the point that in extreme circumstances torture should be applied when a ‘greater good’ opportunity arrises. If you can stop the murder of 100,000 people why should the life of 1 take priority?
Sam Harris takes this argument a step further. He argues that during war we are morally outraged far less by collateral damage than by torture. “Most people tacitly accept the practices of modern warfare while considering it taboo to even speak about torture”.
Essentially he argues, like it or not warfare will result in innocent casualties, which boils down to precisely the argument that critics of torture use when defending their position. i.e. – its inhumane. He goes on to clarify that a lot of bombs are dropped with the explicit knowledge that innocents will be hurt and that morally this collateral damage is no different to torture.
So you have to take one of two views – either all conflict is inherently wrong, and that we must take a pacifist line, even in the case of opposing someone like Hitler. Or that given we accept collateral damage as a fact of war, we must also accept that incases of national emergency torture is sometimes necessary.
I don’t subscribe to either view. A pacifist line, given the example of World War 2, its not difficult to argue that turning a blind eye is sometimes the immoral choice. As horrific as war can turn out to be sometimes you are forced in to making such a choice because the alternative is worse.
I do not condone all collateral damage. Instances like Dresden for example are the sort of military tactics that although may have had some strategic merit (even if that strategy is a sort of shock and awe mentality) go beyond what is reasonable. The deliberate targeting of civilians defended as collateral damage is a slippery slope, for which I am glad we as a nation has gone as far to apologise for. But what of the collateral damage that is harder to avoid. The innocent bystanders that are shot in cross fire, or even the children caught in the bombing the street next to the anti aircraft position?
In the case of two nations at war these are accepted losses by their own admission in to the conflict. When two nations go to war, it is on the learned understanding that innocents will get killed. Both on your side and the enemies side. This is easy to understand in the case of World War 2. We had a choice to declare war, we could have stayed out. The country understood that our declaration of war put the public in harms way (likewise The Third Reich and the German population presumably).
Torture on the other hand remains illegal even in times of war. When declaring war, it is not on the understanding that losses through ‘enhanced interrogation’ are acceptable. Western forces have long dismantled their chemical and biological weapon programs to minimise innocent casualties. This was on an international understanding that weapons such as these are improper for armed conflict. What would the world say if we had kept a few lying around and used them in the case of a national emergency? Unfortunately you can’t dismantle the means to torture.
So what does this mean today? I suppose it got me thinking about the Chilcot Enquiry, and in the wider context, the wests mandate to use their military. If above we have decided that collateral damage is acceptable when two nations mutually agree go to war what does this mean when war is imposed on a nation? and how much does a nation have to provoke intervention before it becomes automatically implicit? Do we count suicide bombings as collateral damage we have agreed to in our War on Terror?