Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Morality and War

This afternoon I was listening to "Philosophy Talk" on KALW radio, and I heard a man ask, speaking of the war in Syria, "Is it more immoral to kill 1,500 people by gassing them with nerve gas than it is to kill them by mowing them down with machine guns?"  I didn't hear an answer in the time before I had to go do something else.

This evening I was reading this week's Economist, and the Lexington columnist was discussing the current flap in the Pentagon over whether drone pilots, and other "cyberwarriors," who never actually get shot at, should receive medals for valor.

The combination of the two leads me to answer Philosophy Talk's question - yes, I believe it is more immoral to kill someone with nerve gas than with bullets; and I believe that really good drone pilots should be recognized for their contribution but a medal for valor isn't the right award.  To explain why I feel this way, I want to do a quick review of the history of warfare.  I don't write much about this subject, but I've actually read quite a bit about it over the years; the human race being what it is, you really can't study history without studying war.  I've studied European warfare, so that's what I'll use to explain my point, which is that nerve gas is immoral because it can be used from farther away, and there is no way to fight back against it.  If a man is mowing you down with a machine gun, he has to be within machine gun range, and you can at least try to shoot back at him, if you have a gun.

It's fairly accurate to say that until roughly the 14th century, when Joe wanted to kill Ed, he had to get very close to him, and fight him hand to hand; and he had a measurable chance of losing the fight, and his life.  The invention of the bow made it possible for Joe to kill Ed from rather farther away; so did the sling.  But the bow and the sling are specialist tools; not everyone can just pick them up and kill someone.  They require training; they require a lot of practice.  It takes less practice to use a club, a spear, or a sword.  The Welsh bowmen who defeated the French army at Agincourt were masters of their trade, and they trained from childhood.

In the 14th century, European traders began reaching the Far East, and among other things they brought back gunpowder.  Gunpowder rendered the fortified castle obsolete; artillery could throw rocks through the castle walls.  Individual soldiers still fought hand-to-hand.  It took another couple of centuries to develop individual weapons like muskets and pistols, which could reliably shoot lead balls without blowing the shooter's hand off; and they fired one ball and then had to be reloaded, a task which took an expert almost a minute.  Still, by the 17th century, armies still fought hand-to-hand, but they did so after shooting several volleys of bullets at each other, from a working range of maybe 50-100 yards.

In the early 19th century, someone put two inventions together and produced a major step forward (if you call it that) in the ability to kill people from a distance:  the mass-produced gun with a rifled barrel.  Mass produced meant there were now a lot of guns relatively cheaply available; the rifled barrel meant the range was more like 300 yards.  Part of the carnage in the American Civil War was due to the fact that the tacticians on both sides were placing the ranks maybe 100 yards apart, and the troops were firing rifles at each other which were accurate up to 3 times that. 

In the Civil War, of course, hand-to-hand combat was still very common.  But the next century and a half developed weapons with greater and greater ranges - artillery pieces which could fire for miles; airplanes dropping bombs from above; short range and eventually intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The objective is to kill as many of the enemy as possible, without exposing your own warriors to their weapons.  And the more long-distance methods were developed, the less hand-to-hand combat was needed.  Poison gases were used on World War I battlefields, to such universal horror that nations produced an international agreement not to use that again, although as always, not everyone obeyed the agreement.  If you look at the war in Syria (yes, I mean you, Mr. Assad), you'll see that the government forces attempt to use the longest range killing machines they can.

With remotely controlled drones, the 21st century has produced a weapon with which a soldier can kill people on another continent, at no risk to his own life.  I've thought for some time that this is making war much too easy for the attacker.  War should be hard.   If Joe wants to kill Ed, he should risk his own life to do so.  Otherwise he shouldn't be doing that at all.  If you conclude from this that I think remote-controlled drones are immoral on a level with poison gas, you're right.  I do think that.   We have found that by spending huge amounts of money on these drones, we can kill people in Afghanistan, get in the car, and drive home to have dinner with the family.  The arrogance of remote-controlled drone attacks is appalling.  I can't even imagine what this is doing to the drone pilots.  We should be giving them their own personal psychiatrists, not medals for valor. 

And we shouldn't be conducting war like this at all.  For that matter, why are we still shooting at Afghan tribesmen with remote-controlled drones?   We are the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and we're using our riches to kill people who live in mud huts with no electricity, at no risk to ourselves.  Consider that image, if you can stand to.  And yet we have the gall to complain about Basher Assad's poison gases.


  1. Exactly. This is why nukes evoke a special horror.

  2. Well, it's good to see you standing up on your hind legs and barking again, hedera. There's nothing more inspiring, to me, than seeing an intelligent woman arguing a point with passion and eloquence.

    I would tend to agree with you in spirit, but have a few caveats to add.

    First, killing people, by any means, is a degrading act. The Bible argues against all killing, on principle. Once you've begun doing it, you're forever soiled and implicated in a kind of evil. There is righteous killing, and killing for survival, but killing other human beings is never an ethically pure act. It just isn't.

    But technology has brought us far beyond the simple relationship between individual combatants. A drone strike may seem an obscene process, but 9/11 was obscene. There is always "collateral" damage. People complain that we're killing "innocent civilians" when we conduct a "surgical" drone strike. But all of those in the Twin Towers were innocent civilians, too. Were the suicide pilots sent by Al Quaeda more "moral" than the men who run the drones from Virginia? Is self-sacrifice somehow more ethical than "safe" aggression?

    Nothing was ever more "indiscriminate" than Hiroshima, but tell that to the thousands of widows of the American soldiers who died at Okinawa. The atom bomb probably "saved" over a million lives in Japan. Is this a "defense" of modern war technology? Obviously not.

    Would any of us choose to live in a time when battles were fought with swords? How would you feel if the local chieftain summoned your husband to fight the "hoards" of Southern California in a turf war over water rights?

    For about 45 years, the world lived under a kind of stalemate, referred to, during the Cold War, as mutually assured destruction. That detente saved us from catastrophe.

    Today, war seems less a threat, in the long run, to me, than overpopulation, and the irresponsible over over-exploitation of resource that is killing the planet. That will end up "killing" many more people than we could have done with bombs or poisons or gas.

    Drones are obscene, but what is the alternative? Sending in thousands of troops to scour the countryside and engage guerrilla fighters in a barren outback? Is is more "moral" to send young men and women to die in remote, worthless landscapes?

    The contestants in World War I ended up shoving hundreds of thousands of young men "over the top" to be mowed down with machine gun fire. By the end, the ground of contention was several hundred yards of burnt, cratered wasteland littered with spent materiel and blown-apart body parts. This was literally what these men were "fighting over."

    The drone strikes are a metaphor for our jack-off tech culture in which people "play" war-games as a mischievous pastime. Welcome to the future.