I seem to be in a state of dispute with a couple of my most loyal readers – or, at least, a couple of my most loyal readers who post comments – on matters of foreign policy. Therefore, I would like to take the opportunity to refine my position.
So, let’s start at the heart of the issue. Sheldon asked:
At what point are they justified to pick and choose? I would think that as soon as they could discern the unjustness of the order.
My quick answer is:
At the point at which they are justified in declaring that the Constitution is null and void, and the military no longer has a duty to answer to its civilian commanders.
Because that is what we are talking about. The decision that the military can act independent of its instructions from the government is a decision that the Constitution is no longer in effect.
We might well come to a point in which this is the case. But let’s not pretend that this is an easy decision to make, or a decision without consequences.
The first charge that I think will be leveled against me in saying this is that I am exaggerating – that the type of issue under consideration is not as serious as I am making it out to be. In fact, in every conflict, you will find countless instances in which people disobey bad orders and do so without challenging the legitimacy of the Constitution.
I am assuming that we are not talking about the type of every-day moral concerns that are a part of life even for those of us not in the military. I am talking about the refusal to follow orders – in effect, acts of mutiny. At that level of transgression, we are talking about cases in which a soldier has determined that he is not answerable to a superior officer – and ultimately not answerable to the Commander in Chief of the military.
Sheldon provides a couple of examples.
Would we tolerate the destruction of a crime ridden area of a U.S. city, like we tolerated the destruction of Fallujah? Would we tolerate no-knock mid-night raids on families' homes based on faulty intelligence? (Not to mention lack of search warrants).
My answer here is that we should not have tolerated these actions in Iraq. Or, more precisely, we should not have tolerated our government giving these types of orders to soldiers in Iraq. As soldiers, they must give up a certain amount of moral autonomy (since this is required of an effective military). In exchange, we have an added obligation to make sure that they only receive good orders.
They have done their job.
We have, so far, utterly failed to do ours.
I have written a number of posts, much like the questions that Sheldon asked above, concerning the moral quality of the orders that have been sent to soldiers in Iraq by our government. These include:
As I see it, the fact that soldiers in Iraq are getting these types of orders is our moral responsibility. We are not soldiers. We have not given up our moral autonomy. In fact, quite the opposite – we have taken the moral responsibility of making sure that those who have given up moral autonomy are not used by others for personal or political gain, but instead relied upon when the principles and values they are worthy of being defended are at risk.
On this point, I want to add the fact that soldiers do not give up their right to be citizens. They are citizens who have a special knowledge relevant to the moral quality of the actions they have been receiving. Thus, they have a special obligation to inform the rest of us when the military is being abused for personal and political gain. The soldier who protests immoral orders is in the same position as the citizen who protests.
At what point are soldiers justified in picking and choosing?
Whatever point that is, before we get to that point, we reach a point where those of us who have not given up moral autonomy have an obligation to act. If the members of the military are getting morally outrageous orders, then we should be protesting on their behalf, because we have in fact broken our contract with the soldiers.
But this reflexive admiration of war heroes is a short-cut around the critical examination of what soldiers are ordered to do in a broader context. It is an intentional propagandizing distraction, to "Support the Troops" on their mission, and to just "trust the institutions".
I agree that the command to “support the troops” is often abused. Political leaders use this as a red herring – as if, somehow, refusing to support the leader of the troops is the same as refusing to support the troops.
I have argued against this line of reasoning as well. Imagine that you have a company of soldiers. How do you “support the troops”?
Well, one of the requirements for supporting the troops is to make sure that they have high-quality leaders who will not expend their lives needlessly. I can imagine the leader of a company who is incompetent complaining that anybody who objects to the quality of his leadership is insulting the soldiers under his command. In the name of respecting and honoring the troops, we are told not to question the competence of their leader.
Yet, these two acts are qualitatively different. To support the troops, you replace incompetent leaders who are not willing or able to secure the best advantage for his troops, and replace that leader with somebody competent to do the job. President Bush is an incompetent and immoral leader. We owe it to the troops to replace him with somebody who is competent and moral – somebody who will not order the troops to do anything that an honorable person would not do.
However, recognizing this distraction (and condemning it) still does not threaten the assumption that the soldiers themselves are to be respected. In fact, my argument for condemning this distraction is still grounded on the assumption that soldiers are to be respected – and the type of respect that they are due is inconsistent to allowing this type of abusive propaganda. Indeed, the respect that they are due is consistent with condemning this type of propaganda that people use to exploit the soldier for personal or political gain.
Actually, I do not think that I find myself in disagreement with Sheldon. The points that he has brought up are valid and important. I simply happen to think that there is a way of answering them that is consistent with the policy of respect for the troops. Indeed, there are ways of answering those objections that are built on the very assumption of respect for the troops.
We have failed the soldiers. We have allowed the development of a set of institutions whereby soldiers can be used to launch wars of aggression for the political and financial gain of the Executive Branch of government and their friends. We need to correct these institutions. We should not be asking or expecting soldiers to take a course of action that is illegal and unconstitutional until we have first pursued the option of removing the offending parties from public office in ways that are fully constitutional.
Quite by coincidence, there was a news story today that will give us the opportunity to improve our institution with an eye to helping to ensure that the military gets quality orders. A bipartisan panel has released a report suggesting changes in the War Powers Act. I am not writing here to endorse its findings, but rathter to susggest that it is an important starting point for reform to eliminate the problems we have seen through the last seven years. See Los Angeles Times, New Law Is Urged on War Powers