Every author has an article or a story languishing somewhere in his computer that has not been accepted anywhere for publication. One of the great advantages of having your own blog is that you can always make sure that such neglected masterpieces find some audience, even if not in a major print publication. So, I am hereby using my blogger’s privilege to publish an article that I shopped around a number of periodicals last year but couldn’t find a taker. The article is a review essay of two books published in recent years that I believe are very good and important works, but haven’t gotten the critical attention they deserve. Both books—John Tirman’s Deaths of Others and Joy Gordon’s Invisible War—in different ways deal with issues of morality in foreign policy and politics of longstanding interest to me.
It has long struck me that heads of state—presidents, prime ministers, emperors, dictators—often show few qualms about causing the deaths of large numbers of innocent people in the pursuit of presumptive national interests, even when those interests in no plausible way involve direct threats to national security. Ordinary citizens, too, tend to be highly tolerant, if not supportive, of the mayhem their leaders inflict in their name. I see the problem as related to the “banality of evil” described by Hannah Arendt in her account of Adolphe Eichman on trial in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity. Lacking all the information available today, Arendt was apparently wrong in some of her judgments, but I still find very compelling her observation that evil in certain circumstances can be a very routine, ordinary thing, committed (or tolerated) by ordinary people who are not obviously moral monsters.
Nazism of course is the ultimate extreme case, truly sui generis, of evil committed in the name of the state; it brooks no comparisons. Still, I think the routinization of evil in the name of the state is a real phenomenon. It behooves us, the citizens of the most powerful state in the history of the world, to recognize it.
Warning: this review essay isn’t a quick read—it’s about as long as a typical New Yorker article. But I think it’s a lot more important than the typical New Yorker article. (No false modesty here.) Give it a read, and let me know what you think.
JUSTICE OR DENIAL? AMERICANS’ RESPONSIBILITY FOR OTHER PEOPLE’S DEATHS
John Tirman, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars. Oxford University Press, 2011
Joy Gordon, Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions. Yale University Press, 2010
It was very possibly the worst public gaffe ever by a leading American diplomat. Asked on a 1996 news program about reports that a half million Iraqi children had died as a result of U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iraq, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeline Albright replied that that the American policy was, indeed, “…a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.” Albright herself paid no price for her faux pas: the following year, she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State. At her confirmation hearing, she pledged to maintain a tough sanctions regime against Iraq (a pledge she kept). Her “price is worth it” assessment didn’t come up in the questioning.
Years later, Albright took it back. She hadn’t meant it, she said: her remark had been “hasty, clumsy and wrong.” With more presence of mind, she would have thought to blame Saddam Hussein for the waves of excess mortality that engulfed Iraq in the 1990s, mostly affecting children under 5, mostly resulting from an explosion in waterborne diseases aggravated by poor nutrition and inadequate health care. “Had Saddam spent Iraq’s money on humanitarian goods, his people’s suffering would have been far less. Instead, he squandered the country’s assets rebuilding weapons factories and constructing lavish palaces for himself, his family and his cronies.” This, indeed, had been the U.S. government line: the malnutrition and disease that plagued the Iraqi people was Saddam Hussein’s fault.
Except that it wasn’t. Saddam Hussein, monster though he certainly was, was not mainly responsible for the burgeoning death rates afflicting his people in the 1990s. It was American officials, assisted by their British allies, who were the main culprits. In a meticulously researched and carefully balanced book, Joy Gordon, a philosopher specializing in the ethics of foreign policy, has demonstrated that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died because Iraq was not permitted to import articles it needed to reconstitute essential systems destroyed or degraded during the first Gulf War of 1991. Hospitals, power plants, dams, water purification facilities and agricultural and transportation infrastructure had been obliterated and needed to be re-built and re-equipped. But the United States and Britain consistently used their veto power on the UN bodies administering the sanctions to bar the needed imports. Saddam couldn’t “spend Iraq’s money on humanitarian goods” because we wouldn’t let him.
The stated rationale for restricting Iraqi imports was the possibility that items purportedly serving humanitarian needs could serve a “dual use,” that they could also enable Iraqi to rebuild its industry and thus its war-making capabilities. The ascription of dual use potential to individual items often challenged credulity. At different times, the United States and/or Britain blocked the purchase of salt on grounds that it could be used for salinization of leather, which contributed to Iraqi industry; of chicken eggs and yogurt manufacturing equipment because they could be used to grow viruses for biological weapons; and of laundry detergent containing bleach, because the chlorine could conceivably be extracted for use in chemical weapons. The import of antibiotics and child vaccines met similar objections. In 2000, the United States and Britain both found various grounds for denying a Syrian request to mill flour for Iraq, which was growing wheat but lacked the means to process it.
America’s Twenty Years War in Iraq, as John Tirman calls it, began more or less conventionally, as the United States, with the sanction of a UN-based international coalition, used force successfully to reverse Saddam Hussein’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait. But U.S. military objectives clearly extended beyond undoing Saddam’s aggression. An intensive bombing campaign devastated Iraqi infrastructure; critical elements of economic and life support systems were damaged or destroyed. An apparent objective was to ensure that even after the war, the Iraqi regime would be prostrate in its dependence on Western aid for rebuilding.
Economic sanctions, implemented before the war to put pressure on the regime, continued afterward. Ostensibly to compel Saddam’s compliance with disarmament directives, the sanctions were really aimed at removing Saddam from power. But the immediate victims were the Iraqi people. Already by 1992, American medical researchers were reporting a three-fold increase in child mortality rates in Iraq attributable to the combined effect of the war and the ongoing sanctions. The war against the Iraqi regime had entered a new phase; it was now an Invisible War, in Joy Gordon’s apt characterization. By the time the sanctions ended in 2003, they had taken the lives of a half million or more Iraqis, most of them children under five.
The Iraq sanctions exemplify Americans’ capacity for indifference to the deaths of other peoples caused by their own country’s actions. Tirman, who heads MIT’s Center for International Studies, provides a deep historical perspective on this phenomenon. Reaching back to the first wars against native Americans to the American subjugation of the Philippines in the early 20th Century, and spanning World War II and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Tirman compiles estimated deaths of others at the hands of Americans. He poses two questions. First, how did Americans–both leaders and general public–view the large-scale, systematic violence against non-combatants that was a feature of American behavior in all these conflicts? This is an empirical question, and the answer is straightforward: Americans have historically shown little concern for the lives of “enemy” civilians. The second question is more difficult: how do we explain this indifference?
Tirman’s book would be important even if he didn’t bother to ask the second question. He shows that over the course of our history American warriors have repeatedly slaughtered large numbers of non-combatants with few if any compunctions. They have almost invariably enjoyed the effective support–at worst, indifference, at best enthusiasm–of the folks back home.
The first victims were native Americans, an estimated 150 to 500 thousand of whom met violent deaths at the hands of the westwardly expanding Euro-Americans. (Millions more died of diseases carried by the immigrants from the old world.) Filipinos resisting the American “liberation” of their islands after the Spanish American War got similar treatment. Once again, violent deaths numbered in the hundreds of thousands, with hundreds of thousands more dead of war-induced starvation and disease. Tirman quotes a contemporary Philadelphia journalist who approvingly described the “relentless” American assault on Filipino society: “Our men…have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners, and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, lads of ten and up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino, as such, was little better than a dog.” The commander of a 1906 massacre of 1,000 men, women and children shot at close range by American troops received a congratulatory telegram from President Theodore Roosevelt: the Americans, TR gushed, had “upheld the honor of the American flag.” Small numbers of Americans–among them, Mark Twain–expressed outrage at their country’s behavior, but their dissent had no traction. The war was popular.
During World War II the United States and Britain employed strategic bombing to degrade the morale and war-fighting capacity of our German and Japanese enemies is well-known. Over 300,000 German civilians and a roughly equal number of Japanese were killed directly; many thousands more Japanese perished as a result of the lingering effects of nuclear radiation. Again, there were relatively isolated protests by clergy and other principled objectors to the mayhem directed at the citizenry of already defeated foes, but in general, the American public was strongly, indeed enthusiastically, supportive.
The quasi-existential nature of the struggle against Nazism–and, by extension, against the Nazis’ Japanese allies–surely helps explain Americans’ willingness to massively slaughter non-combatants, but there is no way to argue similar mitigating circumstances for the American campaign in Korea. Early in that conflict, U.S.military leaders embraced the goal of burning five major North Korean cities to the ground: the psychological impact of bringing the war to the people, one military document asserted, would destroy morale and the will to resist. Later, hydroelectric dams that produced electricity mainly for civilian use were bombed, flooding 75% of the land used for food production in North Korea; the aim, in the words of one Air Force report, was to cause “starvation and slow death.” Altogether, the death toll of the Korean War may have passed 3 million, with nearly three quarters of the fatalities civilians; many if not most of these were the of deliberate targets of American firepower. At times, American military and civilian policymakers debated the wisdom of massive attacks on civilian life, concerned about alienating allies and international public opinion, or provoking Chinese and Soviet escalations of the war. But there is no evidence that American strategy was ever significantly inhibited by moral qualms. Even the possible use of nuclear weapons, seriously considered by both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, was rejected on pragmatic rather than moral grounds.
Then there was Vietnam. America’s enemy in South Vietnam consisted not only of North Vietnamese regular troops (which became numerous only in the later stages of the war) but of guerilla fighters and the peasant society in which the guerillas found support and sustenance. In such a war, Tirman notes, “distinguishing between combatants and civilians was a frustrating and thankless task.” In truth, the American military often didn’t try too hard to distinguish. A hallmark of the war was the massive use of firepower against populated areas of actual or perceived guerilla strength, resulting in the destruction of large swaths of Iraqi rural society and the generation of millions of refugees. Tirman makes no attempt to quantify the non-combatant death toll exacted by American firepower, but there can be little doubt that it accounted for a very large part of the many hundreds of thousands of civilian fatalities in Vietnam, not to mention probably hundreds of thousands more in Cambodia following the U.S. intervention in that country beginning in 1969.
Unlike the Korean conflict, America’s war in Vietnam eventually elicited widespread protest at home; anti-war sentiment effectively forced a U.S. president from office. But Tirman cites survey and other evidence to demonstrate convincingly that, apart from an activist minority, public opposition to the war was motivated not by moral revulsion at the suffering and death inflicted on the Vietnamese, but by strictly pragmatic considerations: over time, and especially after the 1968 Tet offensive, Americans increasingly concluded that the war had been a costly mistake. Tirman might have added that there is no evidence in the abundant available accounts of Vietnam policy making that the decision makers in Washington ever entertained the thought that what they were doing to the Vietnamese people might be morally problematic.
Tirman offers three explanations for Americans’ willingness to countenance large-scale homicide in the name of their country: The first, recalling America’s frontier legacy, is specific to American history and culture. The second–racism–is not specific to the United States but has a uniquely American history. The third–Just World Theory–proffers a general theory of human personality and perception.
The America-specific explanation invokes the myth of the frontier. Tirman draws on the work of cultural historian Richard Slotkin, who theorizes that Americans saw “…the conquest of the wilderness and the subjugation or displacement of the Native Americans…[as] the means to our achievement of a national identity, a democratic polity, an ever-expanding economy, and a phenomenally dynamic and ‘progressive‘ civilization.” The conquest of the frontier through a series of wars instilled in the American psyche the conviction that violence could be regenerative; national purpose, realized through war against savages. Future wars, then, could be perceived through the epistemic prism of the frontier experience: for a world power, the frontier was now the world, and America’s enemies, savages for whom few tears need be shed.
Most of the large-scale victims of American violence have been non-white, making it that much easier for Americans to see them as “others,” as fundamentally different and therefore less deserving of our empathy. Racism also works nicely with the frontier conquest mentality, supporting the imagery of savages to be vanquished.
For the third, most general, explanation of indifference to the deaths and suffering of others, Tirman cites the work of social psychologist Melvin Lerner and others who hold that people want to believe in a “just world,” a world that “…is orderly, [in which] actions are consequential and knowable, and [where] things happen for a reason.” Atrocities committed against innocent victims fly in the face of the assumption of a just world, so people utilize a variety of denial or avoidance mechanisms to distance themselves from such unpleasantness. One of those mechanisms is blaming the victims for their misfortune–an especially handy device if the perpetrators of the misfortune are Americans engaged in a presumptively righteous cause.
Of Tirman’s three explanations for indifference to the sufferings of others, the one that is most obviously, inarguably valid is racism. America’s long history of white supremacy has to be central to any understanding of American behavior in a world of mostly non-white peoples. Writing in 1987, historian Michael Hunt identified belief in a racial hierarchy of peoples as a core idea underlying U.S. foreign policy ideology well into the second half of the twentieth century.
The frontier idea is more problematic. Frontier mythology surely persists on some level in the interstices of many American psyches, but as an explanation of ongoing behavior, it has to wear a bit thin with the passage of time. It’s something of a leap to go from Richard Slotkin’s imaginative demonstration of enduring images in American popular culture to an explanation for the decisions of a Henry Kissinger or a Madeleine Albright; or for the relatively tolerant reaction of American public opinion to American troops’ massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese old men, women, and children in My Lai.
Just World Theory, on the other hand, is well-grounded in social science research. Lab experiments over the past forty-odd years have repeatedly demonstrated that people will sooner blame victims for their misfortunes than accept the possibility that misfortune was the result of injustice. But perceptions of justice or injustice in the international arena involve variables that cannot easily be tested in a laboratory setting. Tirman surprisingly misses an obvious lacuna in his adaptation of Just World Theory: it doesn’t tell us why some victims of injustice in faraway lands garner our sympathy while others do not. Thus, Americans are fairly easily moved and even outraged at the plight of victims of their country’s enemies: Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against his own people, for example, were a selling point for both Bush administrations in building popular support for military action against the Iraqi dictator. Americans have been similarly appalled at the crimes of other obvious despots, like Idi Amin, Mohamar Qaddafi, and Bashar Al Assad. Americans seek and find reasons for evasion and denial mainly when it is the United States and its allies who are the perpetrators of atrocities.
The missing ingredient in Tirman’s adaptation of Just World Theory is nationalism. Americans, like other peoples (but more than most other peoples), are nationalistic: they want to believe and do believe that their country is a force for good in the world, and they generally assume that America’s enemies are up to no good. One could even argue that you don’t need Just World Theory to account for what is basically a simple denial mechanism. People’s tendency to deny or pretend away unpleasant realities is a well-known, widely observed fact of human nature. Americans basically don’t want to believe that their country could be responsible for terrible acts. The assurances of their leaders, the remoteness of places like Vietnam and Iraq and the strangeness of their peoples, the inherent difficulty of really understanding what’s going on in those places–all these factors enable people to indulge their inclination to avoid confronting the dark undersides of American behavior abroad. The assumption of a just world strengthens that inclination. Most Americans are aware of their country’s leading, if not hegemonic role in the world. A just world is one in which those who hold predominant power will exercise it justly. Belief in a just world thus represents belief in a world shaped fairly and justly by American power.
So, a combination of racism, nationalism, Just World Theory and commonplace denial seems to explain how ordinary Americans can view benignly atrocities committed by their leaders. Does it also explain the behavior of leaders? Just World Theory was developed largely as an explanation of the perceptions and attitudes of the passive observers of the misfortunes of others. It seems less suited to explaining the behavior of the actual perpetrators of misfortune. This is, in fact, a surprising shortcoming in Tirman’s book: he makes clear that he is interested in documenting and explaining the attitudes of both leaders and the general public, but he doesn’t acknowledge that fundamentally different kinds of explanations might be necessary: it is one thing to approve a decision by others to bomb people in a faraway country; it’s another to actually give the orders to drop the bombs. How do we explain the behavior of our generals in Korea and Vietnam, or of the Kissingers, Albrights and others whose policies have caused the deaths of large numbers of innocent people?
To some extent, the same factors influencing the attitudes of the broad public also influence their leaders. It is impossible to dismiss racism as a factor in the relatively low valuation our leaders have assigned (implicitly, of course) to the lives of others. Prejudice need not be conscious; people tend to empathize more with other people who are like themselves, and for Americans, as for other peoples, an important determinant of likeness is skin color.
Policymakers are also not immune to nationalism, which for Americans often expresses itself in the conviction that their country–”the indispensable nation,” in Albright’s formulation– has a unique responsibility for the pursuit of a stable and just world. That conviction helps lend an idealized, Americanized gloss to the ages-old notion of raison d’etat. Richard Nixon was harshly criticized for his claim that if the President does it, it’s legal; much more widely accepted is the idea that if it is done in the national interest, it’s OK (if not necessarily legal).
High-level decisionmakers are also prone to denial. The story has been told of administration dove George Ball suggesting to Lyndon Johnson in 1965 that the communists could win a free election if it were held in South Vietnam. Speaking to his assembled advisers, Johnson responded, “I don’t believe that. Does anyone believe that?” Apparently no one chose to challenge the President’s disbelief. To challenge it would have undermined a basic rationale for the American intervention in Vietnam.
Was Madeleine Albright similarly in denial when she professed disbelief that her policies had killed large numbers of innocent people? Joy Gordon shows how the structure of foreign policy decision making disperses responsibility and thus facilitates denial. On the first page of her preface, she notes that the devastation inflicted on Iraq was done “not out of hatred but out of indifference.” She describes a “diffuse and abstract” policy machinery in which decision making and the information sources on which decisions were based were scattered in multiple bureaucracies: “How do we attribute responsibility, given that decisions were made collectively, or politically, or bureaucratically? How do we approach the question of the U.S. intent in regard to a policy that was formulated by a complex arrangement of technicians, politicians, and diplomats?” To put the question differently, how does a monstrous policy emerge from decision making structures composed of people who presumably are not monsters?
This is not a new question. Writing during the Vietnam War, the former under secretary of the Air Force Townsend Hoopes asked, “Why did so many intelligent, experienced and humane men in government fail to grasp the immorality of our intervention in Vietnam…?” His answer, essentially, was that America’s Cold War obsession with anti-communism had come to impede rational calculation as well as moral judgment. A broader answer to much the same question was given around the same time by two young foreign policy analysts, Anthony Lake and Roger Morris, who had recently resigned in protest from the government. Lake and Morris described an ideology of foreign policy that excluded any moral consideration of the costs of war in a “dehumanized pattern of decisionmaking” that celebrated toughness. There was no place for talk of morality: “Reasonable, decent men ….simply cannot imply that the other fellow, who supports a ‘tougher’ policy, is a heartless murderer. Subordinates do not wish to tell superiors that they will be acting immorally if they choose the ‘tougher’ option….To talk of suffering is to lose ‘effectiveness,’ almost to lose one’s grip.”
It is reasonable to suppose that much the same ethos of toughness, of cultivated indifference to moral issues, was at work in American policy on Iraqi sanctions. No segment of the U.S. policy making machinery was entrusted with the task of assessing the effect of the sanctions on the Iraqi people. U.S. Iraq policy in the 1990s was focused on removing Saddam Hussein from power. The sanctions were a means to that end. The hope was that the hardships imposed by the sanctions would eventually lead Iraqis–presumably through a coup–to replace their leader. The collateral damage wrought by the sanctions–the cost in human life–was simply not a focus of U.S. policy. Presumably, there was never an explicit decision, anywhere in the American policy making machinery, to kill as many Iraqis as necessary to bring Saddam down. But there may as well have been, because that in effect was American policy. The United States government was willing to expunge countless Iraqi lives in the effort to remove Saddam Hussein–literally countless, because no one in the government was counting. The “diffuse and abstract” policy making machinery that Gordon describes wasn’t designed to be that way, but neither was it accidental: it reflected a set of priorities in which moral concerns were absent.
So, the dispersion of information and responsibility in the fog of bureaucracy helps explain how the United States could so massively slaughter innocent Iraqis. But by the end of her book Gordon seems loath to consider this a mitigating factor in her moral assessment of American policy. In her concluding chapter, she reflects unhappily that the sanctions regime doesn’t easily fit most definitions of war crimes; the fact that it does not tells us more about the limitations of international law than it does about the culpability of those responsible:
It is profoundly troubling that planning and deliberation and awareness of the obvious are not sufficient [to constitute criminality]; there must be the explicit desire to destroy. But it is almost always the case that this will be concealed or denied in part because the intent of government officials will be so fundamentally shaped by a hunger to believe oneself to be good.
Madeleine Albright, then, should not be let off the hook–and neither, for that matter, should her boss, Bill Clinton. By 1996 the deadly toll the sanctions were taking was evident to anyone not willfully blind to that reality. Practically from the very start of the sanctions regime, a steady stream of reports by UN agencies and other observers abundantly documented its impact on the Iraqi people. This information was either ignored or actively disparaged by U.S. officials, who insistently clung to the fiction of Saddam Hussein’s culpability. If the real story didn’t reach Albright, it was because her underlings knew that she wouldn’t want to hear it. (In much the same way, President Johnson’s advisers knew that he wouldn’t want to hear about popular support for the South Vietnamese communists; an unpleasant reality that they, themselves, probably preferred not to contemplate.) But her “price is worth it” remark does suggest that she had at least a dim awareness of the impact of U.S. policy; if she didn’t have more than that, she certainly had the means to learn more. (Better late than never.) If she didn’t it was because she chose not to. So, yes, she may have been in denial, but denial is just another word for willful ignorance. Willful ignorance of the consequences of one’s own actions is not quite the same as deliberate agency, but it is far from innocence.
It is troubling to our sense of national innocence for Americans to accept that our country has repeatedly inflicted terrible, large-scale suffering and death on innocent people without credible justification. It challenges credulity that our leaders–many of them products of elite, liberal arts universities, as well as of a democratic political culture that exalts human rights–could have been perpetrators of atrocities. It is troubling, too, to consider that our citizens have repeatedly lent at least passive approval to such actions. But awareness is a prerequisite for prevention. Those of us who want American foreign policy to reflect the high ideals always proclaimed by our leaders need first of all to recognize that much too often it has fallen far short.