I have been pondering some things for many years now, and I suppose some of the recent threads on whether the altruistic use of violence is possible got me pondering some more. I don’t know where else to share these thoughts, so I will share them here:
America is somewhat obsessed with the idea that soldiers are “heroes.” I appreciate this. I do know people who have been physically assaulted by people who held an ideological opposition to the war effort, and the experience of contemporary soldiers has been, on the whole, far better than past generations. However, in the rush to avoid and ameliorate the errors of the Vietnam generation I believe we have created some unintended consequences.
Somewhere in the 90’s the idea emerged that military power could be applied altruistically. I believe this started with the Gulf War, which was as close to a “perfect” war as could be had: It was short, decisive, and the results were utterly lopsided in our favor. It was fought in defense of a people who had been invaded, which was palatable to the public and easily defensible. The Gulf War was also the start of the military’s fixation with precision weapons as a tool of public relations. This was also the decade in which many leaders on both sides of the aisle started to buy into the idea of altruistic military intervention. This philosophy came to a head in Kosovo, where the military put a great deal of effort into appeasing its critics by demonstrating the virtues of our precision “smart” weapons.
The problem is that in the process, we kind of boxed ourselves into the corner. The government’s argument was that war was precise, clinical, and error-free. So when things did, inevitably, go wrong (such as blowing up the Chinese embassy) it was deeply problematic. How can someone claim to have experienced an accident when they have put so much effort into demonstrating that accidents were impossible? By attempting to justify our war effort and appease our critics we created a set of unrealistic expectations.
These expectations came to a head in the modern GWOT (or whatever euphemism the current administration is using). Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein were / are indisputably evil, and so the good-vs-evil narrative was easy to perpetuate. The problem with being the “good guy,” however, is that it does not account for what happens when things go wrong (for example, invading a country under false pretenses).
If you take a look at the history of war, our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan reflect some incredibly common events. Every war sees civilian casualties, deserters, defectors, and criminality. Incidents like Bowe Berghdal and Robert Bales are tragic and terrible, yet examples of this sort of behavior can be found in every war. Journalists who embed themselves on the battlefield get killed… because it’s a battlefield, duh. Civilians get killed in every war, however unintentionally or indirectly.
But all of this is problematic for us because we claim to be altruistic and heroic. I submit, for the group’s consideration, that the leadership asks the modern soldier to exercise entirely contradictory traits. We are expected to be patient, compassionate and discriminatory, and yet we are also expected to be highly aggressive and exercise brutal violence. You expect us to kill the enemy and save him at the same time. We are expected to invade and dominate people while simultaneously treating them with tolerance and kindness. The only conclusion I can come to is that the Army expects us to be some kind of paladin or warrior monk who is both lethal and selfless at the same time. I’m not sure this combination of character traits exists in any human being. (And to be fair, we seem to be asking the same thing of our police officers… A person cannot be an aggressor while simultaneously being polite about it.) And all of this doesn’t even touch on the fundamental fact that the missions we are tasked with, such as reforming Afghan society from the floor up, are frankly impossible under any conditions.
So when I look at someone like Robert Bales, a part of me wants to ask: “You asked us to do the impossible, so what did you expect?”
Perhaps if we put less emphasis on our ostensibly altruistic motives and put less effort into the “hero” narrative, we wouldn’t be subjecting ourselves to these distorted expectations. I think it might be easier for us to get the job done, we’d appear less hypocritical, and it would be easier to accept and explain when things go wrong.
So next time a President makes the case for war, here’s what I want him to say: “We are about to go to war. A lot of people are going to get killed… and a lot of them aren’t going to deserve it. And a lot of things are going to go wrong. We can’t make everyone happy, because that’s not the point. We’re here to destroy these people, not help them.”
I think part of our problem is that people aren’t willing to acknowledge what war really is and what it is about. I think that if our leaders were more honest with us, up front, about what is going to happen, then we would be in a better position to make an informed decision about whether this is really what we want to do. The answer might be, “Yes,” in that we acknowledge these problems and still think the end result of the war is worth the costs. But in our most recent wars I don’t think anyone clearly understood what those costs were, and without that knowledge they could not make an informed decision.
And I think that our “hero” narrative needs some serious revision, if only because setting up unrealistic expectations may be doing more harm than good.