Monday, October 17, 2005

Military vs Civilian Choices

Typically, I wake up in the morning, select a topic, and write my first draft on the bus as I go to work. I research the topic some more during the day, and edit the piece on the ride home.

When I woke up this morning, I read a report that the Army had killed 70 insurgents, and I began a posting about some of the issues that I had with the war. I started by writing some of the moral questions that the news report had put into my head.

The Morning Report

Is this good or bad? Is killing 80 people better than killing 70? Or would it have been better to have killed 60 instead?

What is an insurgent? How does one identify a particular body as belonging to an insurgent, as opposed to a civilian casualty? Is there room for something in between? Do we have to view everybody as either “for us” or “against us”? Can’t there be some who have not made up their mind yet?

Body Counts

I have a problem with judging a war by body counts. Doing so tends to put a higher value on stacking up a larger number of bodies. We saw this in Vietnam where a focus on body counts caused soldiers to report casualties that did not exist, and to kill a few more people than necessary to drive up the count of bodies that did exist. Neither of which are admirable traits.

Now, I am not talking about a person who thinks, “I need to add a few more bodies to the pile” and kills people at random. I am talking about the effect that these institutions have at the margins, where an individual has to make a judgment call. It creates an atmosphere where an act that would have fallen on the “let live” side of the fence ends up falling on the “kill” side – because the fence itself has been moved a little to put a larger percentage of options on the “kill” side.

In a military action, there is no trial to determine if those who were attacked are guilty or innocent. There is no opportunity to hear from the accused, to determine if what the accuser thinks he sees is accurate or has an innocent interpretation. A military operation is like a trial, where the accused is not allowed to speak or call witnesses, and where a conviction targets not only the accused, but whomever is within the blast radius of the accused.

When guilt is assigned in this way, mistakes are inevitable, and far more common than they would be in a court of law. That is why we have courts of law. This is why we invented trial by jury, to eliminate the high risk that those who would otherwise inflict harm on somebody too easily agree that the individual deserves the harm that he is being made to suffer.

Victory is not best measured by killing as many people as possible. Nor is it best measured by killing as few as possible. It is best measured by teaching a moral lesson that says that those who endanger innocent lives will be subject to severe sanction, and those who defend the institutions that aim to protect innocent lives will be seen as heroes. Victory is measured by the degree to which the survivors better recognize the value of the rule of law.

The Afternoon Report

As the day wore on, the news carried additional information about the attacks. There were stories of civilians being killed in the attacks – over 25 civilians including 18 children, according to the Washington Post.

I do not know if there were civilian casualties. Does the military?

I do not want this to be taken as an anti-military rant about a group of hotheads that are out killing people indiscriminately. I have no doubt that the military takes pains to ensure that they attack valid military targets. Yet, every order to fire is a judgment call, and every order to fire is made with the possibility of error.

This is the major difference between a civil society and a society governed by war. Most of the provisions of a civil society are created specifically for the purpose of making sure that the power of the state is used only against those who are guilty, and to protect the innocent.

Why are the accused presumed innocent until proven guilty? Because innocent people should be free to live their short lives on this planet as well as they can – so long as they do not harm others – and it is a great tragedy when that innocent life is ruined by a wrongful conviction.

Why do government authorities need an indictment from a Grand Jury to hold somebody for more than a short amount of time? It is because we do not want innocent people to be constantly harassed by a government. Before the government can interfere so violently in a person’s life, they must prove to a Grand Jury that they actually have a case. If not, then the private citizen is left alone.

Why does the Constitution require that agents must obtain a warrant before they can search somebody’s place? Why does it state that the warrant must list precisely what is to be searched and what the agents are looking for? Again, because the burden of proof is on those who want to forcefully interfere with somebody’s life. They have to show that they have enough evidence to identify what the accused is involved in and what evidence one expects to find.

None of these protections are available when the military strikes. An intelligence report comes in, a decision is made, and a bomb gets dropped. Usually, it is dropped on a crowd of people. Even if some of them are “guilty” in the eyes of the military, there is a good chance that the bomb will harm others who are not guilty.

If the police move in on a group of people, they can separate the guilty from the innocent, move the guilty off to jail, and free the innocent. A bomb dropped on a crowd makes no distinctions.

A bomb acts on the same philosophy that the Catholic forces used when the captured Beziers, a city populated by both ‘heretics’ and Catholics. Unable to tell one from the other, and fearing that many ‘heretics’ were lying, the victorious commanders gave the order, “Kill them all. Let God sort them out.”

The Problem

Here is the problem that distinguishes between the military and the civil way of dealing with criminals. The military formula puts more emphasis on God or the fates sorting guilty from innocent. The civil formula puts the burden on civil authorities – judges, juries, and grand juries.

Civil institutions – at least just and moral civil institutions – show their moral quality by showing their concern for making sure that the person struck by the violent force of the state’s resources actually are a threat to others, and not merely standing within the blast radius of those who have been called ‘guilty’ in a one-sided trial.

Of course, this greater concern not to harm the innocent comes with risks. Those who would harm innocent people are able to more easily escape those who are hindered by the rules that aim to protect the innocent.

Yet, what is the difference between the “them” and “us”? Clearly, the only difference that is worth fighting and dying for, is that “us” have a greater concern with protecting innocent life. It has to be that “us” are interested in using human institutions to sort the guilty from the innocent, and leaving less to the fates.

Here, then, is the gamble. If “us” show a greater interest in making sure that we do not harm innocent people, and a greater willingness to use civil institutions to sort the innocent from the guilty, this might – just might – convince the people that they are better off supporting these principles and institutions than those that are less concerned with innocent lives.

Perhaps, just perhaps, people in society can ask themselves, “With whom will I be better off? With those who have rules of evidence, warrants, grand juries, presumed innocence until proven guilty, trials, and rules against cruel and unusual punishment to protect the innocent from the violent instruments of the state, or those who think that these tools just get in the way?”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

From the fourth paragraph of the WaPo article:

"At Ramadi hospital, distraught and grieving families fought over body parts severed by the airstrikes, staking rival claims to what they believed to be pieces of their loved ones."

Ahh, freedom is on the march.