Monday, February 07, 2005

The Mattis Matter

Although it may be yesterday's news as a result of the frenetically paced consumption of current events that transpires in the blogosphere, I wanted to take a closer look at the comments made by Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis and the firestorm they set off. For clarity's sake, this is the offending statement:

"Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight. . . . It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right upfront with you, I like brawling," he said at the forum in San Diego.

"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil," he added. "You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. [emphasis added]"
My first reaction was disappointment, if not outrage, at the tone and tenor of Mattis's seemingly callous disregard for human life. It's "fun to shoot some people"? Really? What made it particularly disturbing is that it came from such a high ranking officer. But then (you kind of knew there was a "but" coming), I decided to take a step back from the situation and try to avoid a knee-jerk reaction. Apply some nuance to a terribly complex situation.

Before I proceed, I want to state upfront that nothing I am saying is meant to excuse Mattis. Even if there are factors that should be viewed in conjunction with the statement that mitigate the moral underpinnings of the philosophy that gave birth to those words, it showed terrible judgment on Mattis's part - and a less than ideal outlook in terms of his profession. That these comments will impair our mission is unfortunately the case. With that caveat in place, let's look at some of the issues in play.

First of all we must, as a society, acknowledge what war really is, and just what it is that we ask of our warriors. In its simplest form, war is about killing the enemy (the more the better), and so we ask our warriors to reprogram their moral code to the extent that killing becomes acceptable - not in all settings, but in a highly ritualized and structured format (hence the emphasis on discipline and order). Here is the
Armchair Generalist's take (the newest member of the Liberals Against Terrorism team):

...which is why there is such a culture of training, indoctrination, and a certain attitude to create professionals that - when ordered and when appropriate - will be able to go in and accomplish the mission. That mission may or may not involve killing combatants and accidently (one hopes) killing noncombatants. We need well-trained professionals that can ensure the job gets done, and that when they go into a hostile area, they can put the smack-down on those opposing them. And when they do step out of line (as in the controversial issue of the Marine shooting an unarmed, wounded Iraqi insurgent), consider where they are and that they just want to get back here alive.
But this moral boundary is not easily traversed no matter what amount of conditioning or preparation (just ask Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment). And there is no perfect way to insure that our soldiers chart a flawless course in the murky realm that exists beyond the clear moral imperative of "Thou shalt not kill." In the crossing, much of what we non-combatants might view as repugnant takes on a different hue. In many ways, this is a necessary evil since there is no way to insure a seamless transition. Better that our soldiers should take pride in their job than they should be wracked by guilt and self-doubt when the situation calls for decisive action. Although Mattis's remarks go past pride and into a certain unsavory relish, that moral ambiguity is one of the casualties of war - and it is inextricably linked. The Liberal Marine offers the following perspective:

You see, the general's remarks aren't that surprising for those of us who have served in the Corps. The disturbing truth is that there are many in the FMF (Fleet Marine Force) that share the general's sentiments. But, that is the case in any military organization (especially in any elite military organization, i.e., the French Foreign Legion, Navy SEALS, British SAS, etc.). There will always be members of those organizations that have either a death-wish, a blood-lust or both (definitely watch out for the latter personality!). See that's the deep dark secret of these elite, highly-sharpened military organizations; there is an underlying (and pervasive) culture of death just below the surface that sometimes violently gushes upwards, like a geyser, for all to see and gasp in horror. Lt. Gen. Mattis's remarks, although callous, insensitive and jarring (especially to those who haven't been in the organization), actually aren't too far from the truth in terms of the consensus of more than a significant number within the organization (hence the lack of any serious punishment doled out by the Corps).
We as a society, and humanity in general, also share Mattis's views to some extent. Our collective dirty little secret. I remember as a young student being shocked to learn that non-combatant citizens used to attend Civil War battles with picnic baskets, decked out in their Sunday finery. But there I was, fascinated in my own right with that bloodiest of our martial history's chapters. Furthermore, as a young child I was eager to play games of war with toy soldiers and weapons, and I was certainly not alone in this. Like it or not, there is a flip side to the hard wired morality that instructs humans not to kill - a duality that might make us uncomfortable to acknowledge. From time immemorial humanity has been drawn to war with a zeal that surpasses mere curiosity. In the modern setting, picnic baskets have been replaced with remote controls and plasma screens. War is good for the ratings of the major networks. Psychologists noted a certain malaise after Gulf War I that was attributed to the absence of the war and its 24 hour coverage. On some level, shooting people is "fun" for us all. Nevertheless, we can and should acknowledge this predilection and seek to divert these urges into more acceptable formats such as sport and game.

For our warriors, the practical blurring of clearly delineated moral imperatives is one of the root causes of
atrocities and war crimes. There is a reason these twin scourges are present in any and all armed conflicts throughout the course of human history. Some official policies may encourage atrocities such as free-fire zones in Vietnam, and to a lesser degree the legal confusion stemming from torture apologias issued from above and lax oversight at Abu Ghraib. And certain contexts such as counter-insurgencies and guerilla war might be conducive to a higher number of incidents because the civilian is harder to distinguish from the combatant, but atrocities in general should not be viewed as unique to a particular campaign. They are part and parcel to war in all of its manifestations.

War is about our soldiers sacrificing for their country, and part of that sacrifice can involve their psychological health - or at least the socially accepted views on morality. There are entire floors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center dedicated to the treatment of soldiers who have severe psychiatric illnesses resulting from their combat experience. And those are just the most extreme examples, and the ones detected by the system.

That's what war is. In reality, war is not a video game, or a spectator sport, it is about death, blood, gore, violence, loss of humanity, pain, suffering, crimes against nature, sexual violence, and so much more. War is My Lai, it is the Tiger Force, Andersonville, Abu Ghraib, Auschwitz, Dresden, an interminable list. War is itchy trigger fingers dealing with prone insurgents in Mosques, it is about precautionary killings when vehicles fail to stop at check points, it is about invasive searches that insult and degrade the inhabitants. America should take a good look because these are the forces we unleash when we decide to use this tool. Some wars are necessary, but using war as a last resort is not hollow rhetoric or the carping of career pacifists. Again, the Armchair Generalist:

Military force is one of the four shaping factors of national security (others being diplomacy, intelligence, and economics). You can use it or not use it, but don't abuse it or misunderstand what our business is. The military business is to engage the enemy with lethal force in pursuit of national objectives, and business today is very very good.
And this is not to say that there aren't also examples of extreme bravery, heroism, and selflessness, because there are, including Jason Dunham's tale. By and large our soldiers are able to handle the stresses of combat in an exemplary fashion, and the battlefield is also the locus of the most extreme form of heroic exploits. For every story of overreaction, there are others of remarkable restraint and prudence in the face of provocation. But generally speaking, war is a blunt instrument that is not suited for certain purposes. There is a reason that winning over the hearts and minds of an occupied people is problematic with so many military personnel around.

Which brings me back to Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis. The damage done, and the blame to be attributed, lies more in the realm of "hearts and minds" than in the ultimate attitudes he betrayed in his moment of forthrightness. Like the more incendiary references to "crusades" and Allah as an "idol" by General Boykin, Mattis's statement will probably not be well received in Afghanistan and the broader Muslim world. The Liberal Marine:

What is really disturbing is how the lieutenant general's comments join a litany of other poorly parsed comments by senior U.S. military officials that are undermining our attempts at "winning the hearts and minds" (to use Vietnam-era parlance) of our adversaries. We are repeatedly stumbling and bumbling, stepping on our rhetorical cranks (so to speak), and then (with stunning naivete) wondering why the Muslim world is so enraged with us.
This is essentially the same stance I took in relation to two incidents stemming from the siege of Fallujah: the shooting of the apparently unarmed insurgent in the Mosque, and the killing of families fleeing Fallujah which I discussed at length here. I did not seek to demonize the soldiers involved, but to be cognizant of the stresses inherent in the performance of their tasks and the psychological state of war, while at the same time recognizing how those incidents undermine our overall mission. The same benefit of the doubt is due Mattis. Generals should not say that killing is fun, especially in a public forum. Ideally our soldiers should have a view that killing is never fun, but will not hesitate to do it should they be asked, and hopefully will not suffer psychological trauma beyond what can be dealt with through treatment as a result. But there is the reality that for many of our troops, crossing the threshold of the prohibition on killing might result in, or even necessitate, the adoption of an attitude toward killing that others not so indoctrinated cannot understand. Mattis's placing of his foot in his mouth was particularly egregious because of the apparent connection he drew to the cultural identity of the adversary. Is killing fun because they were Muslims, or is it only Taliban? Either way, not a particularly diplomatic message.

This is how I ended that post, and it seems at least as relevant today. Quoting a 2000 article in Foreign Affairs:

The president must remember that the military is a special instrument. It is lethal, and it is meant to be. It is not a civilian police force. It is not a political referee. And it is most certainly not designed to build a civilian society. Military force is best used to support clear political goals, whether limited, such as expelling Saddam from Kuwait, or comprehensive, such as demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan and Germany during World War II. It is one thing to have a limited political goal and to fight decisively for it; it is quite another to apply military force incrementally, hoping to find a political solution somewhere along the way.
The author was Condoleeza Rice. Let's hope she remembers those words in her new found role as Secretary of State. Don't blame Mattis, blame war.

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