Monday, October 19, 2009

Fighting Over There So We Don't Have To Fight Over Here

Are Civilian Lives More Valuable Than Military Lives?

Since 9/11 I've advocated giving al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan both barrels. Little doubt remains that our Iraq adventure was, to put it delicately, counterproductive. But in Afghanistan, the cause was just and the goals were clear and rational. However, I'm starting to wonder whether an argument that's long percolated in the back of my mind against the Iraq war might cut against the Afghan war as well. (The argument might very well be hogwash, but I present it here for your consideration.)

The Bush administration and its cheerleaders were fond of saying that we had to fight "them" "over there" (i.e. in Iraq) so that we didn't have to fight them over here. This struck me as a terrible argument for some fairly obvious and widely-understood reasons--first, if "they" were supposed to be al Qaeda, then "they" weren't actually
in Iraq (not at least until after we invaded). Second, you don't get to pull an innocent third party (in this case the Iraqi people) into a war just because you'd rather not fight it on your own soil. Nothing new there. (Although we did get rid of Saddam, and that should not be underestimated as a benefit. We did somehow manage to replace him with something not obviously better--which a priori I would have thought impossible.)

But I've also thought rather a lot about the following point:
9/11 aside, we've long been pretty damn safe in fortress America. Attacking us here--in a major way at least--is hard. It was largely our own complacency that allowed the 9/11 plot to succeed. (Or, we should say, partially succeed, because we (in some sense of 'we') thwarted a large percentage of it when the passengers of flight 93 won their partial victory against their hijackers.) Now, were we to take the analogy seriously, we'd note that, even if you've got a mighty fortress, sometimes it's in your interest to sally forth and meet your enemy on the field of battle. However, when you've got approximately the most badass fortress of all time, and your enemy is puny and backward, let me suggest that you really ought to think twice about leaving your fortress to go fight said enemy on exactly his terms. It simply isn't obvious to me--even ignoring all the other very fine reasons not to have invaded Iraq--that some guy ought to have to ride through the streets of Falluja in an unarmored Humvee in order to marginally decrease the probability that I will be attacked here safe in the Shenandoah Valley. In order to (allegedly) make fortress America just a teensy bit safer, we send our troops into the very belly of the beast, to a place where planting IEDs is a piece of cake, and avoiding them is virtually impossible--to the only place where our enemies have something like an advantage. I'm not against sending in the troops in cases in which it makes sense; I'm just not sure that this one makes sense.

I mean, suppose there's a monster in the mountains. It's really, really hard for him to get into our valley, and if he does, even if everything goes perfectly for him, he cannot even dream of harming or killing more than a tiny fraction of our people. The valley just isn't an easy place for him to attack. But in the mountains, in his domain, he's a real demon. Now, are we sure we want to send out a hunting party to hit him exactly where he's strongest? I mean, if that's the smart thing to do, then fine. But is it? Heck, I'd even be willing to sign up if the strategy were sound. But I'd want to know what the problem is with just, um, staying out of the mountains and letting him come to us, where we have innumerable advantages. Let him be the one to fight on unfamiliar ground and unfavorable conditions.

Two points:

A. I'm wondering if people somehow think that military lives are less valuable than civilian lives. That would explain why they're willing to send soldiers out to fight on the enemy's home turf, where he is strongest, instead of making him come to us, where we are. I reject this view entirely, of course. I don't see any significant way in which military deaths are less tragic than civilian deaths.

B. I wonder whether--if an argument like the above is correct at all--it might not be applicable to Afghanistan now. I wonder whether we've reached a point of diminishing returns there, whether it might be better at this point to just pack our boys up and bring them back home safe, and let them take their (excellent) chances here with the rest of us. If al Qaeda masses in bombable units again in the future, then we'll bomb them. But for now, maybe it'd be better to let them try to come and get us if they think they can.

And last of all a final question about Iraq: do even the Bush dead-enders think that there's any appreciable chance of al Qaeda having killed 4,300, injured 30,000 others and wiped out two trillion dollars of American assets if we
hadn't gone into Iraq? Even if they'd pulled off another 9/11 they couldn't get those numbers. They in essence scored a super-9/11 because the Bush/Cheney administration sent our troops over there. And this is not even to mention Iraqi casualties. (Of course we did kill a lot of al Qaeda operatives, though it's not clear how many we created. To determine whether this argument is sound we'd have to know how all those numbers shake out.)

So the point is really just something like: it may be time to bring 'em all home, even if that does make us marginally less safe. It's not clear to me that, in a case like this, they ought to have to be lots less safe so that the rest of us can be more safe. We're already pretty darned safe, and in a case like this, it's not clear that what we collectively stand to gain outweighs what our troops stand to lose.

(I'm fairly sure there's some kind of error in there, but I don't know what it is.)


Blogger matthew christman said...

Even if we decide that troops lives are more 'expendable' than civilian lives (because they've made the informed decision to risk their lives for their country, etc.), that still wouldn't justify keeping thousands of troops in Afghanistan. The 9/11 attacks were mostly planned in Hamburg, Germany, and entirely executed in the United States. Even if Al Queda sets up a waterslide in Wazirstan, it only imperils the United States if our domestic security fails to stop terrorists (who could plan their attacks anywhere in the world) from entering this country.

10:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Winston, a few comments:

Putting the question in Utilitarian fashion you do seems wrong headed here. Of course, the lives of military personnel are not less valuable than those of the civilian population, but choosing a course of action that will result in foreseeable higher military deaths does not depend upon this to be the right one. After all, the original justification for the war was backward-looking, not a matter of reducing our future risk but bringing to justice those who committed the first attack. Also, there appears to be a clear difference between the death of someone in battle who voluntarily undertook the duty and a random person in an office building: The latter justly expects expects a degree of protection by the state, which makes just use of the efforts of the former.

Perhaps an example: Say the local mafia has promised to kill the local greengrocer to teach the neighborhood some kind of lesson about late protection payments. We, the authorities, know that the mob has an incentive to kill this one person, but that once the point is made the rest of the city merchant will take the point, lose a few bucks, and the violence will be over. If we send the cops around the the hideout however, there is bound to be a huge shootout and several cops are likely to be killed. From the standpoint of public safety, shouldn't we just let the greengrocer take his chances? Or are police lives less valuable than others?

This is not to answer the question of whether the current war in Afghanistan is the best way for the government to fulfill its duty here, but the actuarial method is not the way to do it.

11:35 PM  
Blogger Myca said...

I think that the argument is not that military lives are worth less, but that it is more reasonable to risk the lives of people who have accepted that risk and are being compensated for it.

Now, the numbers and exact percentages have a lot to do with the moral calculus here ... is a 99% chance of killing 20 military personnel in order to save the life of 1 citizen acceptable? How about a 50% chance of killing 5 military personnel to save 3 citizens?

All that aside, though, I do think that there's a difference between someone who's volunteered for risk and someone who has that risk thrust upon them.


1:56 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I think focusing on military personnel and their expendability isn't necessarily the right way to proceed. I think it's fairly obvious that they are in no way more expendable than civilians, and any argumentation that would crop up around such a claim is probably tangential to the main question (being whether or not we ought to leave the protection of a stronghold to tackle an enemy elsewhere without said protection), at best.

To continue the demon analogy; one sends troops to slay the demon so that the demon will cease to be a threat. Most people aren't happy to allow for sworn enemies to continue living and plotting against them, even if the chances of success are minimal. The risk of permitting an enemy to grow and develop without our intervention is hard to calculate, and such a mystery is probably not worth taking as a risk.

But, as you said, we could still strike at them when the opportunity arises. It seems to me that you are correct. Keeping troops in Afghanistan seems way less productive than bringing those troops home in favor of more precise, individual strikes with little risk to us. I can only assume, however, that we are ignorant of some good reason to have boots on the ground, since we aren't exactly military experts or insiders.

11:55 AM  

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