Sunday, November 20, 2005

Do I contradict myself? Very well....

In my post on torture the other day, I noted:

I think that for some people in what one might call the anti-anti-torture faction, this is a moral issue rather than a pragmatic one. They're offended by what a few of Stephen Green's commenters call "moral preening" on the part of those denouncing torture. They think the absolutist opposition to torture comes from weaklings who don't have the fortitude to do what needs to be done, and who would rather allow a lot of innocents to die than dirty their hands (not literally, but by having nasty things done in their name).

I strongly disagree with that position, of course. As I say in my post, I think that we must take a firm stand against torture in the same of our self-respect.

And yet ... and yet.

There are times when I wonder if our insistence on keeping our hands clean, and on a high degree of openness about what our military is doing in our name, may seriously hamper our ability to win wars that are essential to our national security.

It is often said that we were able to win World War II and the Cold War without resorting to torture. True enough. But in both instances, we did things that, by purely moral standards, shock the conscience. Even leaving aside Hiroshima, there was the bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands of civilians, including children, died. And there was our alliance with Stalin, a dictator as murderous as Hitler, into whose bloody hands we ceded Eastern Europe after the war. During the Cold War, we allied ourselves with some very brutal right-wing dictatorships and supported some resistance movements that, to put it mildly, did not fight by gentlemen's rules (Jonas Savimbi in Angola and the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, to name two).

In both of these conflicts with the twin evil empires of the 20th Century, could we have prevailed if we had not made all these rather serious moral compromises? I'm not sure. Jean-Fran├žois Revel, the French political theorist, used to argue in the days of the Cold War that Western democracies had grown too self-critical and squeamish to survive the historic confrontation with communism. That time, we won, mainly because communism crumbled from the inside. Now, we're facing an enemy that is less powerful, to be sure, but in some ways more dangerous because more amorphous and more flexible. Are we going to have to face, at some point, a choice between either fighting dirty, or accepting either defeat or mind-boggling civilian casualties on our side?

Just asking.


Anonymous said...

I've seen this argument before - let me offer a few items in rebuttal -

1) The Strategic Bombing Survey after WWII shows pretty clearly that carpet-bombing of German cities did little to shorten the war. Strategic bombing wasn't terribly effective in either lowering German civilian morale (if anything, it hardened resistance) or in reducing German productivity until oil plants and railways were given priority in mid- to late 1944. Fire-bombing Japanese cities was much more effective in lowering production, but by that time US submarines were already strangling Japan by sinking its merchant fleet. Joe Stalin was our ally because Hitler attacked him, then declared war against us - there wasn't a lot of choice in the matter.

2) There's a lot of evidence to indicate that US support of reactionary regimes during the 1950's and 60's was extremely counter-productive, as it led to sharp increases in anti-American and pro-Communist sentiment in much of Africa and South America. The Sandinistas might have worn out their welcome in Nicaragua much faster if the US hadn't sponsored a poorly-organized and -run guerilla war against them, and we're still paying the diplomatic price in South America for subverting Allende. Our support for Savimbi was a flat failure, and our indiscriminate arming of factions in the Horn of Africa is a big factor in the current chaos there.

We gave up mass bombing of civilian targets after WWII because we recognized that the strategic results weren't worth the horrific human cost, and we put curbs on the CIA and NSA after the full extent of their subversive activities became known in the 1970's for the same reasons. It's fatally easy to fall into the old argument of "the ends justify the means," only to find that neither ends nor means are very justifiable.

thecobrasnose said...

The problem with mark b.'s rebuttal is that there's no way of rerunning history to see how a different strategy would have worked. As it is, total war a la WWII ended in victory, half hearted efforts in Viet Nam and Somalia in defeat. I'm not a torture advocate, but worry less about it than a failure to contain the contemporary terrorist movement.

Peter Hoh said...

Well, the Soviets didn't leave Afghanistan because they had moral qualms about the use of brutal force.

As to our conflict with the Soviets, we did some dirty fighting, but most of that was covert. Mutually Assured Destruction kept the lid on the Cold War. I'm glad that we never had to test Revel's thesis.

Perhaps part of the reason that communism crumbled from within was because its leaders had few moral qualms and did not respect human rights and the rule of law. Was it a flawed system to begin with? That's a different argument, but I suspect a case could be made that communism couldn't work while respecting human rights and the rule of law.

I worry about the consequences of expediency. Looking back on history, we can see many examples of quick, self-serving fixes that have hurt us in the long run.

Many of the world's hotspots are countries that were created for the convenience of colonial powers. Colonization often lumped together groups that had been separate -- or had at least found some way to live proximately.

While colonial rulers supressed old ethnic/tribal conflicts between groups, they also exploited these differences. Expedient? Yes. And as long as the colonial power exerted its authority, it didn't much matter where they drew the boundaries. But when they left, they left a mess.

What we're facing now seems quite different than the major conflicts of the 20th century -- and may be different than anything that's ever gone before. The asymetrical nature of the conflict has parallels in the past, but (as best I can see) these were cases of resistance to occupation.

Of course, one side in this current conflict wants to frame it as resistance to occupation, but I don't think it can be reduced to that.

I'm not well-versed in political/historical theory to know where to look for a past conflict that was anything like the one we're engaged in now. Any ideas?

Revenant said...

Joe Stalin was our ally because Hitler attacked him, then declared war against us - there wasn't a lot of choice in the matter.

That's not really true.

Germany declared war on the United States out of the mistaken belief that doing do would prompt Japan to declare war on the USSR. It soon became apparent that that wasn't going to work (and indeed the two basically remained at peace until August of 1945, when the Soviets finally declared war in order to provide a pretense for a quick land grab).

We probably could have neogotiated an end to the war (between the USA and Germany, that is) in 1943 if we'd wanted to. Especially since Germany probably would have beaten the USSR if we hadn't been keeping them suppled with equipment and (especially) food.

Revenant said...

Aiding the Soviet Union, Germany's chief adversary, and the one that decisively put Germany on the defensive at Stalingrad and in the tank battles that followed, seems like a no-brainer. Where was the immorality in supporting the armies that defeated Hitler's?

Well, a good case can be made that the USSR was, morally, much worse than Nazi Germany. It had, as of 1942, committed greater acts of genocide than any the Nazis would ever accomplish, and it treated his citizens and conquered subjects worse. Furthermore, it harbored similar imperialistic ambitions to those of Nazi Germany, and was a former ally of Nazi Germany's.

However, we didn't have a reason for going to war with the USSR in 1942. We did have a reason for going to war with Germany. We had a choice between defeating the lesser evil and doing nothing; defeating the greater evil came later.

Cathy Young said...

Re the immorality of the alliance with Stalin:

(1) As a result of this alliance, the U.S. and England effectively ended up effectively condoning Soviet war crimes against the occupied population in Germany (specifically, mass rape; either Churchill or Truman tried to personally raise the issue with Stalin, only to be told that Russian soldiers are only human and need to have a little fun).

(2) Also as a result of this alliance, Soviet POWs in Germany were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union, despite highly credible (and, as it turned out, entirely justified) concerns that once "home," they would be shipped off to the Gulag. (Stalin believed that for a soldier to let himself be taken alive was tantamount to treason.)

(3) Finally, of course, there was the Yalta accord which resulted in the handover of Eastern Europe to "Uncle Joe."

Cathy Young said...

Oh, and mark b.: Interesting point about U.S. support for morally shady anti-Communist orces in the Third World being counterproductive. This is definitely something I'd like to know more about.

Anonymous said...

If there was evidence that torture actually gained us any useful information, then I would listen to arguments that we might need to do it sometimes in order to get by in the real world. But the truth is, torture is nearly always useless.

For example, we now know that some of the "facts" about Saddam's WMD programs which we presented to the UN prior to the war were false, having been confessed by an Iraqi prisoner under torture. This is how it goes with torture: people being tortured will say ANYTHING to make the torture stop. They will say whatever the torturer wants to hear.

So it's true that you get more information when you torture people, but it's also true that you get more *reliable* information when you don't.

Good old-fashioned bribery is far more effective and, if I may say, far less sinful.

Revenant said...

It seems unlikely that supporting anticommunist but morally suspect regimes was counterproductive.

Look at the world today and ask yourself: which parts would have been better off if we'd stood back and let the Communists take over antidemocratic nations unopposed?

It seems pretty clear that Taiwan would be part of Communist China and North Korea's totalitarian state would extend over the South as well. The takeovers of Cuba, Vietnam, China, and Nicaragua would have happened earlier than they did. Other Central American nations would almost certainly have become communist as well. That's all in the "bad" column.

What's in the "good" column (aside from "we keep our hands clean")? I can't think of anything. It has been suggested that Nicargua would have become democractic and noncommunist sooner; left unexplained is how exactly that would have happened, given that the regime controlled the media and education system and would have had unopposed control of the country. Most of the third-world nations that were Communist at the end of the Cold War still are; the success stories are the ones where we supported anticommunist rebels.

Cathy Young said...

Well, that's exactly the conundrum, revenant -- I think there's fairly solid evidence that in the past, "getting our hands dirty" has paid off.

Dean said...

(1) As a result of this alliance, the U.S. and England effectively ended up effectively condoning Soviet war crimes against the occupied population in Germany (specifically, mass rape; either Churchill or Truman tried to personally raise the issue with Stalin, only to be told that Russian soldiers are only human and need to have a little fun).

At that point, there was nothing that anybody could do about it. It is questionable whether or not Russian commanders could have stopped it. The war on the Eastern Front was incredibly bitter and bloody, and the Russians had suffered staggering losses. The average soldier was out for revenge.

(3) Finally, of course, there was the Yalta accord which resulted in the handover of Eastern Europe to "Uncle Joe."

George Bush referred to Yalta as a dishonorable agreement in a speech some time ago. He was wrong. To say that Yalta resulted in a 'handover' is a bit of misnomer: it was a handover at the point of gun. As above, there was nothing anybody could do about it, and in light of the fact that there was a really big Russian army partway into Western Europe, Churchill and Roosevelt did well to hold Stalin to the line that they did.

Anonymous said...

Let me clarify: getting our hands dirty in terms of forming alliances with brutal tyrants or fanatical kooks has indeed paid off. In WWII, in Korea, in Afghanistan, and so on.

But getting our hands dirty in terms of torturing people has not paid off. The intel that is gained that way is not reliable.

Cathy Young said...


So is the case against torture primarily pragmatic, not moral?

Revenant said...

The intel that is gained [from torture] is not reliable.

It is if you have some way of validating the intel. As simple example: torturing someone into revealing their ATM card's PIN number.

The cliche that a victim of torture will say whatever the torturer wants to hear is entirely true. But that means that if what the torturer wants to hear is the *truth*, and the victim knows the torturer can and will check the information he's given, then the victim will, if he knows it, tell the truth.

The informational value of torture has a bad rep because the modern regimes that made wide use of torture didn't care if the data was bad. If a captured Soviet dissident named a hundred names under torture, the torturers didn't actually care how many of the hundred were real dissidents. The important thing was maintaining the fear, among the populace, of being tortured or disappeared.

The case against torture is moral, not pragmatic -- or rather, inasmuch as there is a pragmatic argument against torture, it isn't that it doesn't work, but rather that it has undesirable fallout.

Peter Hoh said...

Revenant, how effective is torture when the guy being tortured was just a random guy picked up in a street sweep near an IED blast? He keeps saying that he doesn't know anything. Ah, that's the same answer that a terrorist would use. Okay, bring on the torture and let's really find out.

Perhaps torture was used only when there was compelling evidence that the detainee was someone who knew stuff, but my guess is that at some point, it was used indiscriminately.

Revenant said...

Revenant, how effective is torture when the guy being tortured was just a random guy picked up in a street sweep near an IED blast?

That would depend on what you ask him, I imagine. But gathering up "random people" is a useless information-gathering technique under any circumstances, whether you torture them or just ask them polite questions.

Peter Hoh said...

Revanent, Are you willing to bet $20 that we never tortured folks who were just rounded up? I'll bet we did.

Maybe our top interrogation teams never did, but once torture was being practiced in some situations, it started to trickle down. If you've got men who were randomly rounded up imprisoned with men who were more selectively picked up, the line between the two groups is going to get lost in a hurry.

Revenant said...

Revanent, Are you willing to bet $20 that we never tortured folks who were just rounded up? I'll bet we did.

I'd bet $20 that it isn't our policy to do so.

Your argument seems to boil down to "if the people doing the detaining and interrogation are incompetent or lack oversight, the results will be poor". I entirely agree.

Alec Rawls said...

Brain-scanning lie-detection (soon to be completely accurate) changes the debate profoundly. If a detainee is caught lying, he goes on the waterboard. An irresistable one-two punch, yet innocents and the compliant would remain completely unscathed. If they are telling the truth, we know it. No reason to coerce. My post here.

We don't have to fight dirty. The technology exists to get maximum results while maintaining Marquis of Queensbury.

Cathy Young said...

And we have, of course, full assurances that this brain-scanning technology will be 100% accurate.

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