Military Humanism


Compassionate Killing

Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.

- Bertrand Russell

by Kevin Kelley

Can war be fought for humanitarian reasons?

Somalia 1992              Haiti 1994                Bosnia 1996             Kosovo 1999

The "humanitarian" military campaign has become a distinctive feature of US foreign policy in recent years.  But is it really humanitarian?  Not at all, writes Noam Chomsky in his new book, The New Military Humanism (Common Courage Press).  Indeed, the scholar-activist finds scant evidence in human history of wars fought out of a sense of compassion.  "The category of genuine humanitarian intervention might turn out to be literally null, if investigation is unencumbered by intentional ignorance," Chomsky writes.  That assessment is in keeping with his suggestion elsewhere in the book that the term "moral state" is oxymoronic.

The United States, with its long record of aggression, epitomises the hypocrisy of nations that have instigated wars under altruistic pretexts, he argues, noting that the recent instances of "humanitarian war" in East Africa, the Caribbean, and the Balkans are of a type with decidedly nonhumanitarian US interventions in Southeast Asia and Central America.  And in Kosovo, several factors, none of them humanitarian, motivated a military campaign that had the very effect - mass expulsion of Kosovar Albanians - that it was supposed to prevent, Chomsky says.  He cites the recurrent need to stimulate military spending, "the basis for US preeminence in computers," as one major motive for the war.

In placing Kosovo on a continuum that includes El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Vietnam, Chomsky rejects what he terms "the doctrine of 'change of course.'"  In all essential respects, the United States' global behaviour is the same in the post-Soviet era as during the Cold War, he contends.  US interest in defending its unjust share of wealth has not changed, so why should we assume its modus operandi is now somehow nobler?  The only difference in today's one-superpower world is that the United States has many more opportunities for low-risk intervention.

Every instance of American military intervention since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been utterly self-interested, in Chomsky's view.  Thus, the 1992 Marine landing in Somalia, allegedly to rescue thousands from starvation, was actually an elaborate effort to showcase US military capabilities.  Operation Restore Hope may also have taken as many Somali lives (between 7,000 and 10,000, the CIA estimated) as it saved (10,000 to 25,000, according to the US Refugee Policy Group).

The 1994 occupation of Haiti did restore the elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Chomsky acknowledges, but only after Washington had facilitated his overthrow by "a murderous military regime."  What's more, the United States forced Aristide to accept "an extremely harsh version" of its Third World economic regimen as the price for his return to power.

Charles Krauthammer, writing in The National Interest (Fall 1999), argues that the Somalia and Haiti interventions, as well as the 1996 US-led occupation of Bosnia, were "quintessentially humanitarian endeavours in which an American national interest is hard to find."  But Krauthammer is no fan of humanitarian wars, calling them "fool's errands."  Somalia has returned to chaos; Haiti is once again in the grip of a "violent, unstable, squalid dictatorship"; precariously partitioned Bosnia looks more and more like a quagmire; and Kosovo presents a similar prospect of "endless occupation of a murderous neighbourhood" of the most marginal strategic importance to the United States.

The problem, says Krauthammer, is that humanitarian war is fought in accordance with an "iron law" that is also its "central contradiction."  A war can be waged for purposes other than pure national self-interest only "with sustained political support at home," he reasons.  But the American public will remain supportive only "if the war is bloodless."  By definition, wars cannot be bloodless, he says.  As soon as US soldiers start dying, political support for humanitarian interventions will be quickly withdrawn, as happened in Somalia.  Even a mounting non-American death toll eventually will make this type of war impossible to prosecute, Krauthammer says.  That's what threatened to happen as US bombs killed more and more Serbian and Kosovar civilians.

And, he adds, the need to prevent casualties - especially American casualties - requires that humanitarian war be fought with potentially calamitous means, such as high-altitude bombing.  The ensuing "collateral damage" contradicts the very concept of humanitarian war.  "Humanitarian warfare has no future," he writes.  "It is an idea whose time has come, and gone."

Chomsky, on the other hand, thinks humanitarian intervention may become more frequent in a unipolar world with no effective check on US military power.  International law will matter not at all, Chomsky predicts, pointing to Washington's cavalier dismissal of World Court opinions and the United Nations Charter.  "Defiance of international law and solemn obligations has become entirely open, even widely lauded in the West," he writes.  Rampant lawlessness on the part of the world's leading nuclear power is perversely depicted, Chomsky adds, as a "'new internationalism' that heralds a wonderful new age, unique in human history."

Source: © Lens Publishing Company Incorporated 1995 - 1999 (a service of Utne Reader) Developed by Big Mind Media

Here is a list of the countries that America has been at war with - and bombed - since the second world war:

bulletChina (1945-46, 1950-53)
bulletKorea (1950-53)
bulletGuatemala (1954, 1967-69)
bulletIndonesia (1958)
bulletCuba (1959-60)
bulletthe Belgian Congo (1964)
bulletPeru (1965)
bulletLaos (1964-73)
bulletVietnam (1961-73)
bulletCambodia (1969-70)
bulletGrenada (1983)
bulletLibya (1986)
bulletEl Salvador (1980s)
bulletNicaragua (1980s)
bulletPanama (1989)
bulletIraq (1991-2003)
bulletBosnia (1995)
bulletSudan (1998)
bulletYugoslavia (1999)

And now

bulletAfghanistan (2001-02)(?)
bulletIraq (again) (2003-?)

Source: The Guardian 23 October 2001; Centre for Research on Globalisation © Arundhati Roy, Guardian Newspapers Limited; for fair use only.

Making Artificial Distinctions

by Alan Bock

War Is Politics

[There is] an utterly artificial distinction between military and political objectives [in war] that makes no sense – and makes developing, defining and understanding objectives triply difficult.  A distinction [exists] between political and military objectives and decisions that has little warrant in reality.

Clausewitz Insights

It was Karl von Clausewitz, the Prussian theorist of war in the 19th century, who explained the matter best, declaring that war is politics carried out by other means.  (He didn't necessarily endorse the obverse, that politics is war carried out by other means, though he left the possibility dangling for those who cared to entertain it.)

What this meant in practice, and still means, is that beyond the strictly tactical – there's a guy with a machine gun on the next hill and we need to take him out – it makes little or no sense to proclaim a strict delineation between military and political objectives.  Whether widely recognised or not, every war, every conflict, has political objectives.  It can be challenging to sort out the various, sometimes conflicting objectives pursued by various players in large complex organizations – not to mention the often-secret agendas some of those with influence invariably pursue.  But conflict – at least conflict pursued at the level of nation-states – always has both military and political objectives.

The Vietnam Forgetting

American conservatives who supported the Vietnam War, or at least those objectives they wished it would pursue, tended to lose sight of this fact at the time.  Responding to Lyndon Johnson's micro-management of the war – which at times was genuinely egregious and often foolish – they urged that the military be unleashed.  If only the military professionals were allowed to do their job without meddling by politicians, they fondly believed, victory in Vietnam would have been forthcoming in months if not in weeks.

There is just enough truth in some of this to keep the idea of a clear-line distinction alive.  From what I can tell from reading and talking to veterans, the US military, despite numerous problems, was the superior military force in Vietnam.  Numerous successful tactical operations were carried out and examples of individual courage, ingenuity and fierceness in battle abound.

Beyond the tactical, however, it makes little sense to speak of victory or defeat in Vietnam or anywhere without a context of political objectives.  It might not be fashionable to speak openly about political objectives.  The most fascinating characteristic of the current American empire is that its keepers constantly deny that it is an empire at all.  One of the ways they keep the illusion alive is to avoid talking about political objectives.

Why Fight without Political Objectives?

[In] a piece on  by Anne Applebaum, a keen observer based in London, [it was] noted that a former UN diplomat told her the experience in Bosnia and Kosovo should suggest to Western leaders the dictum: "Politics first," meaning that "outsiders intruding on the affairs of another country ought first to sort out what political goals they want to achieve and only make use of force as a supplement to political dialogue."

President Bush has been notably reticent in this respect.  If he has political goals beyond "rooting out evil"  and letting states who harbour terrorists know they're either with us or against us, he has not been eager to share them with the American people.  Most people, who have little desire to wrestle with complex actions and consequences, have not complained.  It seems enough to be assured that things are being blown up and the president remains confident...  In some ways this reluctance to spell out political goals can be used for political advantage.  When goals and objectives are fuzzy, almost any incident can be spun to show we are succeeding, and although the fight isn't over yet, we are on the road to victory.

The Pentagon's budget is 23 times as large as the combined spending of the seven countries traditionally identified as state sponsors or terrorism – Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria.  To achieve a tactical military victory when the odds are so skewed is not overly impressive – and might be downright underwhelming to some ambitious terrorist planning an attack even now.

A war without clear objectives and enemies might not be all that effective at wiping out or even reducing terrorism (and over the long haul might even lead to increased terrorism).  But it might just be perfect at enhancing the role of the state in American life and of the president in American politics.  If that is the real goal of conflicts, the Bushies might just be doing the clever thing by keeping the objectives so lofty and fuzzy as to be indefinable.

Source: 3 January 3 2002

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