‘Moral consistency’ can’t sustain war


In an article that teaches much about the constraints education imposes upon thought so as to bring it into sufficient conformity with the commands of the powerful (“The fog of war in law,” Oct. 25), Arkadi Gerney demonstrates the rather perverse limits within which the ostensibly skeptical and concerned are to allow themselves to operate should they want to participate in the esteemed “debate” about our choice to condemn what knowledgeable observers suggest could be upwards of several million Afghans to death.

Thus, while Gerney counsels us to utilize “some measure of moral consistency” as we “go forward making policy that leads to death in criminal law” and war alike, he reassures us that despite the fact that “[e]very day now we are killing people in Afghanistan” he “basically support[s] our actions.” Sadly, since his view of the “killing” we are now doing everyday properly confines itself to the relative marginalia (such as our smart bombs “go[ing] astray”) that military and intellectual planners would have us focus upon, he fails to reckon with the more harrowing implications his would-be “principled” stance might otherwise likely hold for pledging allegiance to our cruel and illegal terrorist war. (“Terrorist,” of course, only if we adopt the State Department’s common definition; “illegal” if we deem the U.N. Charter to have any normative force.)

If, as Gerney suggests, however, that “[c]ontext matters,” perhaps he too would concur that deliberately intensifying humanitarian catastrophe to the point of terminal cataclysm for who knows how many people bespeaks a crime far more serious than any deriving from the inevitable “mistakes” made in the course of “search[ing] for the ideal ratio” of smart bomb target precision. As the president of Oxfam America noted nearly three weeks ago, “We just don’t know how many people may die if the bombing is not suspended and the aid effort assured.” “[I]f nothing changes,” he continued, “we fear there will be huge loss of life and unspeakable suffering this winter.” Further readily available Oxfam statements fill out this bit of context even more forebodingly, as they specify that the “huge loss” would likely include some 400,000 Afghans already suffering from acute food shortages as well as a half-million others who will likely be cut off by snow as of mid-November. Though the “exact scale of deaths that would result is difficult to predict,” it is clear that “millions will face avoidable hunger and suffering,” with the operative word, of course, being avoidable.

Needless to say, such nuisances of context may still be unlikely to quell the “basic support” the highly educated are expected to extend to our leaders in their war on the civilian population of Afghanistan, as they are sure qizzically to protest that the drought and famine had long previously been threatening millions of Afghans prior to our noble advent. Even putting aside additional comment that might be made on other relevant aspects of context (for example, the devastating consequences of purposely razing an already war-ravaged country’s “dual use” infrastructure), by way of more narrow response we might revitalize Gerney’s own framework and observe that “the fog of war in law” should hardly obscure that “culpability” need not necessarily be taken as exclusively synonymous with outright intention.

Though embarrassingly obvious (if at the same time irresponsibly generous in its view of our leaders’ motives), that such a formulation can unfortunately go unseen by those striving for what passes for skepticism should give us ample reason to pause. During the momentary silence, rather than simply meditating upon our “responsibilities” as future members of the ruling elite, we might instead reflect upon the distance over which our culpability extends (whether deriving from intention, recklessness, depraved indifference or whatever else), and whether it might not also reach our own selves. In so doing, we might even reflect upon whether as decent human beings rather than “future policy makers of America” we are required not only to think with moral consistency, but also to act with it as well — which in this case might require us uncondtionally to object and seek to terminate the egregious crimes being done in our name in Afghanistan rather than continuing in our “basic support” of them.

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