The Corner

Shortcuts, Cont’d

From a reader:

Jonah –

You wrote:

“Some argue that waterboarding a surely evil and guilty man in order to get vital information must never happen, but bombing civilian centers is ‘just something that happens in war.’ To me this is problematic. I don’t have any great answers here. But it’s very hard for me to understand why one shortcut to victory is never, ever, acceptable while the other is a regrettable cost of war.”

Aren’t you eliding a crucial point here? Surely the fundamental question in any discussion of ethics — and I’m very much including the ethics of warfare here — is the question of intent. When a civilian center is bombed by American forces (i.e., the “good guys”), we can accept the horror of that fact so long as everyone agrees that it happened accidentally. If there’s a real reason to believe that a civilian center has been bombed purposefully, though, then there’s almost always hell to pay, as there should be. Blame is cast, investigative commissions are formed, commanders are fired, soldiers are court-martialled — all to assuage, at least partially, the outrage felt on behalf of the citizens in whose name innocents were intentionally killed. The shoulder-shrugging”war is hell” excuse only applies when such an event occurs peripherally — not when it occurs as part of the mission. When that happens, we usually refer to it as an atrocity.

But torture is never accidental; it is intentional, 100 percent of the time it happens.

Hope you’ll consider taking this up in another post.

Hmmm. I dunno. I mean, yeah, intentionality matters in all questions of ethics but I’m not sure the reader’s email presents much of a game changer. First, the context of the bombing of civilian centers in WWII was Dresden, which was intentional. Whether it was necessary or not is a serious debate, but I am personally at a loss to understand why the shortcut of firebombing Dresden was less outrageous than waterboarding some SS offficer would be. Likewise, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki involved the deliberate killing of civilians. It was deemed necessary, and in my mind justifiable, to avoid (i.e. shortcut) the deaths of American and Allied soldiers via a conventional invasion.

In the modern context, we do not target civilians and should not (or at least, thank God, we haven’t found it necessary in a long time). But we know in some circumstances that civilians will be killed. This is particularly true when dealing with barbarians like al-Qaeda and the Taliban who deliberately shield their fighters behind civilian innocents, taking advantage of the West’s greater respect for innocent life.

Here’s a hypothetical: If Osama bin Laden is in an apartment building filled with innocents and there is no way to get in without tipping him off and/or losing hundreds of U.S. soldiers, would we bomb the building? I’m not sure, but let’s say yes we would. If we could avoid all that by waterboarding KSM who could give us the location of a secret tunnel to his location or the specific apartment we could smart bomb, thus avoiding killing civilians, would it be justified to waterboard him? Lots of folks say no, it wouldn’t be justified. My point isn’t necessarily that I disagree. It’s that I want to know why they’re so sure they’re right. I’m open to persuasion, in other words. But I want to hear the argument. I would like to know why one shortcut is acceptable and the other isn’t, given that in the waterboarding scenario many innocents are spared death and anguish and in the bombing scenario they are not.

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