Sovereign Innocence

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18 Responses

  1. You bring up a lot of important and interesting points. Here are a few randomish observations:

    1. Rule “by the people” is to a large degree a useful fiction. As your post points out, we elect people to represent us, but it is those who are elected who perform the actions. The machinery of government is so vast that it is impossible for even the best informed among us to know what exactly is going on, let alone influence the outcome.

    2. When our elected officials conduct policies that are morally abhorrent, we have a responsibility to do everything on our (legal) power to put a stop to it: write letters, protest, vote ’em out. I have hardly ever acted this obligation, but I think we all have that obligation.

    3. I would challenge some distinctions that your post (and, indeed, all of us) makes at some time or other. Your post sensibly asks at what point civilians become responsible, and how responsible are they. I would also ask at one point a combatant, say, an enlisted soldier, is, in some cases, also “innocent.” True, they chose to join the army, and they are (presumably) armed and trained in basic self-defense in a way that the average civilian (presumably) is not. But the “innocent civilians” trope obfuscates the tragedy of the soldier, who, while not a “civilian,” is a human with his or her own hopes and fears. Maybe this obfuscation is necessary, and even “good,” but it militates against blurring the lines of who is innocent.Report

    • Kyle in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

      Eek. I just checked my e-mail and saw this post was up so sorry for not responding/commenting earlier.

      1.) I would agree with this, though I think the interesting implication here is that in a liberal democracy, sovereignty itself is supremely nebulous.

      2.) This makes a lot of sense but is still silent on what one ought to do w/r/t other people’s elected officials. Though given the international effects of US policy, perhaps it stands to reason that there should be greater inclusion of foreign voices in our elections. I don’t know – I go back and forth on that one.

      3.) I think this is an interesting point on how we view and don’t view people.Report

  2. The whole time I read this I kept thinking of the Curtis LeMay quote from WWII, “There are no civillians in Japan.”Report

  3. tom van dyke says:

    Little Eichmanns, Kyle?

    Ward Churchill had a point, or at least a topic that deserves deep discussion. Wrong time, wrong context, and definitely the wrong man, however.

    I happen to agree there’s a “butterfly effect” in politics and human [inter]action. On the other hand, we reject “collective guilt” and wise men note that even if there is a Butterfly Effect, we will drive ourselves bonkers taking the guilt for all the world’s ills upon each of our shoulders.

    Come to think of it, that’s why so many would-be messiahs are so crabby all the time. And why Oskar Schindler’s lament at the end of the movie is so poignant.Report

    • Kyle in reply to tom van dyke says:

      It seems to me that in rejecting collective guilt (for the most part), we’ve similarly rejected any semblance of responsibility which seems to be the flip side of the same unhealthy coin.Report

      • tom van dyke in reply to Kyle says:

        Not disagreeing, Kyle. As an individual, how do you feel about “collective guilt?”Report

        • Kyle in reply to tom van dyke says:

          ehh…I think this may be a comparatively small difference but I’m leaning towards being skeptical of the purpose or appropriateness of collective guilt.

          However, I’m more supportive of the idea that as a constituent member of “the sovereign,” I have a responsibility for the actions of my government good and bad. So when we do something awesome, “yay – go America.” Though, when we do something not awesome, I should be more willing to make atonement for it or less shocked and amazed that someone might have a legitimate bone to pick with “Americans,” of which I am one.

          The difference as I see it is collective guilt is the more limited feeling. At the same time, when I view things in terms of responsibility. I might still justify doing them – saving American lives might involve collateral damage in a foreign country – but I recognize the consequences of that action are ones I prefer to the consequences of inaction. As opposed to the implication in collective guilt that the offending actions were unjustifiable.

          Does that make sense?Report

  4. Creon Critic says:

    Dag Hammarskjöld said, “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” I’d say the same applies to the laws of war. The noncombatant/combatant divide represents an attempt to shield us from even more brutality and even more horrors. Imagining readily transferrable culpability, government to populace, draws us into the territory of collective punishment, unlimited vengeance and retribution.

    As Pierre Corneille observes above, how much responsibility can we attribute to the individual citizen in a nation of 300 million? Any nation contains multitudes. Elections are a blunt instrument, especially in first-past-the-post representative democracies (as people who complain of republocrats readily attest). It isn’t like the protections afforded by laws governing wartime conduct insulate populations entirely from the consequences of elected leaders’ actions. Travel restrictions, trade restrictions, rationing, or boycotts of goods and institutions can all make a given group of civilians aware of the consequences of war or international public opinion.

    Finally, representatives aren’t ciphers for the citizenry. They’re charged with using their own judgment; even if the voters want certain boundaries crossed, representatives ought to know better – particularly because the legislators and executive officeholders have better information, expert advice, and expertise of their own. Soldiers face the task of obeying lawful orders; elected officials have even more latitude, but they too face boundaries in determining what impulses of the populace deserve pursuing. I’d say, the buck stops there.Report

    • Kyle in reply to Creon Critic says:

      Eh…the noncombatant/combatant divide is a modern creation that fits well within the Anglo-American-European conception of human rights and international law but – IMHO – hasn’t lasted long enough nor is it widespread enough to become a permanent fixture in the future of mankind’s tensions and troubles. Moreover, there hasn’t been a single major conflict between two countries where such a divide has really been a feature in tactical considerations (the downside of nation-states).

      In fact, I would argue the whole edifice presented is artificial. We already have collective punishment. War/wrongful death reparations come from national budgets, not the pockets of those directly responsible. Collective punishment and retribution are core considerations in global asymmetrical warfare.

      My concern – obvious it may be – is not in finding some way of apportioning blame or culpability to citizens so much as the very real life effects of a polity that assumes power means never facing responsibility.

      In any case, I really want to agree with your formulation that the buck stops with our representatives and in the context of foreign wars, I think makes a lot of sense. Then I look at something like the Drug War which is senseless and harmful domestically and downright devastating to Latin America. The drug war continues unrelentingly precisely because anything other than being a drug war hardliner is politically untenable for most politicians. I think that means we need more leadership but in the meantime suggests that public opinion and pressure circumscribes the latitude legislators have, the same latitude we point to to justify their responsibility for America’s actions.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kyle says:

        The noncombatant / combatant distinction arose within the ghazi wars of Islamic evangelization. Wars are as different as the cultures that fight them: looting, destruction, the treatment of captives, each culture has its own de-normative constructs which form the ethical constructs of military policy and tactics.

        How do you turn someone from a civilian into a soldier? You take everything away from him, you cut off his hair, you put him in a uniform, you deprive him of sleep, you harass him for the slightest infraction from military discipline. Then, as he learns to take orders, you give it all back to him, one little piece at a time. I’ve had it done to me and I did it as a military advisor.

        Emerging from basic training and AIT, I returned to my town for a few days before being shipped out. The oddest sensations came over me: I felt a sterile contempt for the guys who had been my friends. Their perfectly ordinary college existence looked like a slothful, slacker lifestyle. They got up late. They didn’t tend to their appearance. Their rooms were a mess. Dishes were left in the sink. In my hubris, I felt I was superior to them: I’d survived this process and they hadn’t.

        It was madness, of course. Millions of men have endured this transformation over time. I had gained nothing: I’d been reduced to a terrified, sleep deprived maniac, now perfectly capable (I thought) of shouldering a weapon and firing a round on command into someone else. Oh wasn’t I just something! The US Army found uses for me and my skill with languages. One of them was to apply what I had learned to the hapless civilians of other countries, turning them into soldiers, unlearning all the kindly, normative aspects of civilian life and replacing them with other, more useful virtues. We would go out beyond the wire with an objective and some of us were carried back in.

        But those objectives were not our objectives. There was no hermetically-sealed boundary between what we did and who we really were, except the inculcation of military discipline. We were the Agents of Policy, not the weighers of good, the arbiters of ethical consequence: that was above our pay grade. We were in the liberation business at the time, though the whole thing would come to nothing and they are still digging out the ordnance we dropped. The evil we did, and it was evil, was viewed as a necessary evil. Evil prospers while the good do nothing, we told ourselves.

        In reality, Evil prospers, not because the good do nothing, but because the good are so easily coopted, not merely bullied into accepting the evil of war but volunteering to participate in it, considering the enemy’s evil an Eviler Evil. For this participation, they are rewarded with Medals and the Praise and Thanks of the Nation. Then, having served their country, they are left to sort out the things they have done, on their own. That puerile contempt for the civilian is transmogrified into regret, often attenuated with drugs and drink, as happened to me.

        You ask if we are all implicated. We are, at least the Agents of Policy are. We who have been transformed cannot adequately convey that transformation or its consequences to those who have not been through it, or emerged from it, attempting to re-enter the world. That’s what we called it: “Back to the World.” Insofar as the rest of you accept the premise that some shall fight and others will direct them, you are all implicated in accepting the objectives we were given, as we accepted our agent roles in executing them. We did these things wearing the same flag which flies in front of your elementary school, your post office, the one over every US embassy. There was never a hermetic seal which insulated us from our consciences and there is none for you who read this, either.Report

  5. tom van dyke says:

    The civilian/soldier distinction goes back at least to the age of Constantine, before Islam was a twinkle in the Prophet’s daddy’s eye, Mr. Blaise. Just for the record. Again.Report

  6. Jaybird says:

    In the earliest days of the Iraq War Part II, I remember reading about the “prison for toddlers”. Remember that? A children’s prison and there was some discussion of what must a society be like to *ALLOW* something as heinous as children’s prisons.

    This, of course, led to a discussion of collective guilt… I was instead reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s _Gulag Archipelago_. Over and over again, he refers to his fellow Russians as “rabbits”. Over and over.

    This seems more on the mark when it comes to citizens/civilians than their guilt.

    To what extent does this term also apply to us?Report