Methuselah's Daughter

Musings of an immortal being

Thursday, March 27

What constitutes mercy? Under what circumstances does mercy become an ill-afforded luxury? Is there intrinsic value in sacrificing soldiers in order to retain a moral imperative? Does that value persist if exercising mercy may prolong the combat and prevent an immediate peaceable solution, post conflict? These two posts on Weekend Pundit and The Truth Laid Bear have turned my thoughts to this topic.

One of the overarching concerns of the Coalition has been to minimize civilian casualties as well as to avoid wholesale slaughter of Iraqi troops. The feeling is that most of the rank and file of the armed forces would just as soon go home as die fighting a futile war to preserve the reign of the tyrant Saddam. On the surface this seems a reasonable expectation, but as has been clearly demonstrated, the situation in Iraq is far more complex: it defies simple pronouncements and therefore confounds simple solutions. Offering troops the opportunity to surrender in a situation where the Coalition cannot guarantee they can be prevented from rejoining the battle, willingly or otherwise, renders the practice virtually meaningless and ultimately foolhardy. The desire to show mercy in these cases is counter to the objective of de-mobilizing the regular Iraqi Army.

Despite the above, mercy is ultimately the best weapon the west can wield against the reactionaries, both religious and socialist. The cost is high in the short term, both in blood and treasure and there will be absolutely no short-term reward. That bears repeating: There will be NO short-term reward. Those whose cultures are too diseased to see anything other than weakness in the willingness to forgo killing, just this one time, will exploit acts of mercy. A policy of mercy requires an acceptance of the vulnerability it imposes and an understanding that the ultimate reward will not be realized in days, or weeks, or months, but likely in decades.

Mercy does not require prostration to those who would abuse it. The hand that firmly clutches the sword can deliver mercy, often times far more effectively than the hand that refuses to wield one. Mercy is possessed of more meaning when it comes from a position of strength and determination and it is most effective when it constitutes a central pillar of a policy of reconstruction and reconciliation. Mercy can be given with the full intent to severely punish those who abuse it, but one must be willing to accept the cost, and must be willing to follow through with consequences.

An interesting (and admittedly not perfect) parallel to this can be found in the history of crime and punishment in the United States during the third quarter of the twentieth century. Increasingly the experts in criminal behavior were putting forth he idea that there were underlying causes that went beyond simplistic explanations that some people were simply “bad seed”. Doctors became involved in attempts to truly rehabilitate those involved in a life of crime. Attempts were made to determine root causes, tie anti-social behavior to childhood traumas, find ways to allow the alienated to express the rage the experts were certain lay at the core of their misbehavior. Adjunct to this there were moves to loosen the penal system, to allow experts to pronounce on the worthiness of the rehabilitated. In short, there was an attempt to make a systematic application of mercy in an attempt to turn the tide against the undercurrents of criminal behavior.

The attempts to make mercy a more central part of the criminal justice system are generally considered to have been a failure. Central to this assessment is the idea that mercy had transformed the penal system in to a revolving door through which offenders were cycled through the system and released in to society when “experts” decided they were ready. Ten years in prison no longer meant ten years in prison. Mercy had been expanded to a point where it ceased to have any true meaning. It is almost tragic that the experience was perceived as such a failure by the public because those who attempted it had the right idea, but lacked the science to back them up. Today the west understands far more about the biochemistry of mental illness, but routinely locks up the mentally ill in holding pens where the emphasis is solely on punishment and lip service (if any) is paid to the idea of rehabilitation, but that is a topic for another day.

The lesson is that mercy was applied without a firm understanding of how it should work and with a popular perception that there was no great consequence to abusing the mercy one was shown. The result was a failure that the United States struggles with to this very day.

Military strength can crush armies. Economic prosperity can entice. But only mercy can begin to cure the disease of fundamentalist reactionary resentment. The reactionaries will not respect mercy shown by those whom they perceive to be weak- hence 300,000 soldiers march on Baghdad. The west has the strength to crush them. The west must also have the strength to offer the firm hand of mercy; the kind of mercy that is a second chance, not a third or a fourth or a fifth. Mercy that offers not blind forgiveness, but the chance for redemption. THAT is the great task of western society.

Monday, March 24

Steven Den Beste recently suggested guidelines for reacting to news reports on the war:

For any of the following reports, allow at least six hours before you even begin to take them seriously:

Any report of a Scud
The first three reports of mass casualties by anyone

For these, wait 12 hours:

Any report of an attack against a city outside of Iraq
Any report of use of chemical weapons
The first two reports of mass surrenders
The first two reports of use by the US of "wizard weapons"

For these, wait 24 hours if not even more:

Any report that a "name" in Iraq has been killed, captured or has defected
Any claim by the government of Iraq which looks good for them or bad for us
Any report of atrocities
Any report of Iraqi "scorched earth" destruction, especially oil well fires
Any report of mass Iraqi civilian casualties

For all of these, the proper response is to go take a nap. I know it's tough, but that's the best thing you can do.

My own feeling is that one should wait far longer; however, I am enough of a realist to recognize that this is nigh impossible for most people. With that in mind I have kept my opinions largely to myself over the past few days. Now enough time has passed to take a more detached and reasoned view of the opening phase.

I am surprised by the progress made by Coalition forces. While I have very little in the way of martial history in my past I must imagine that those in charge of executing this war are satisfied with how matters are unfolding, particularly in view of the lack of a realistic northern front. War is never an exercise in “going through the motions”, despite the opinions of a few that this fight should be over in a few days. It has always been understood that resistance by the Iraqis would stiffen as forces approached Baghdad. From the reports over the weekend this is indeed the case. Nonetheless, the outcome of the war is not in doubt in any way.

To be very blunt: I expected things to be worse.

One of the problems facing the public as the war progresses in its normal, untidy way, is that they are forced to view that progress through the lenses of media structures ill-suited to the art of dispassionate analysis. The assorted news organs are placed in a rather distressing position: they have a competitive need to be the first to break any unfolding stories, they do not have anything even remotely resembling a reliable source of information even in the form of their own “embedded” reporters, they are unable to reliably project in to the future, and as a result they are not able to seamlessly integrate their reporting in to the overall political spin desired by the editorial decision makers.

The above is NOT an indictment of the press, rather recognition of objective facts. Every news organization is guided by some overarching political agenda. This is the unavoidable result of the fact that these organizations are run by human beings. In some cases the guidance is less stringent, in others it is far more egregious, but it is all real and it often drives the news organizations to make leaps of illogic that can boggle the mind of a truly objective observer. News reports have been exhibiting classic examples of bipolar disorder as they move from upbeat to downbeat and back again with every new piece of information that scrolls across their screens. Sunday night, the gloom was palpable on American news broadcasts, a complete turnabout from the previous days, yet the only objective change had been the broadcast of the news that Coalition soldiers had been captured and that the Iraqis had apparently executed some while exploiting others on television. This is absurd on its face, but given the nature of the news cycle in modern societies it is entirely predictable. Modern news reporting has no reliable intrinsic mechanism for dealing with long term, real-time crisis situations.

At the risk of sounding callous, it is important to put the notion of prisoners in to perspective. There is simply no way to wage war without Coalition soldiers falling prisoner to Iraq. Their plight is unfortunate in that they are now in the hands of people with a proven record of inhuman brutality, but the only remedy to their plight is to continue with the careful, methodical execution of the war and press onward to complete victory. Anything short of that puts them, and for that matter everyone in the western world in very grave danger.

In the meantime, my suggestion would be to seek to adjust any opinions regarding the war on the basis of three or four days’ events, rather than hourly news reports.

Friday, March 21

In the end, I suspect the truly definitive question regarding the War on Iraq will revolve around the Turkish invasion and the US response to it. I have sent out questions to several trusted correspondents and bloggers requesting input. Nonetheless, my feeling is that this will define the ultimate outcome of the current hostilities. Will the United States of America and her Allies prevent the wholesale slaughter of the Iraqi Kurds at the hands of the Turks? I suspect that in the end, they will. But this is by no means assured.

UPDATE: a slight miswording, there- substituting permit for prevent. Terribly sorry about that. As to the question of the Turks, it still remains to be seen if they are intent on a large scale deployment in to northern Iraq. I was somewhat surprised to see indications that they might be doing just that, particularly in the face of fairly stark warnings from the US and her allies. As in all such times, the details remain unclear. I am not seeing any unified analysis of this development, but as of this writing (7:25AM MST) the Turks are denying that they have entered Iraq. I cannot begin to stress strongly enough that it is crucial that Turkey be kept in check as thier relationship with the Kurds is so historically bad. Crowds may cheer coalition forces in Baghdad, but the news will be filled with pictures of Kurdish bodies if things spin out of control in the nort, and the political cost will be immense.

Tuesday, March 18

I remember the drums. Sometimes they were actual percussion instruments, beating out a rhythmic call to arms. Others were more metaphorical, shouted out from criers, or pulpits, or newspapers, but always- drums. War is an entirely human enterprise and it serves a valuable function in a purely Darwinian sense: both individually and in summation it weeds out the weak, the defective, and the misled. It serves to move vast sums of materiel and wealth across large distances. It mixes the gene pool in a very brutal and straightforward manner.

War brings vast misery and suffering in its wake, particularly when waged by those whose ambitions are grand and personal and vainglorious. War brings peace, prosperity and security in its wake when waged by those whose purpose is clear, communal and preservative. No war, not one that has ever been launched by any nation or any group in all the history of mankind was entirely of one type or another. Not all the Germans in 1939 were Nazis. Not all the Colonial Militia of the late eighteenth century were liberty-loving Patriots. Kahn, Cromwell, Alexander, Suleiman, Mao, Roosevelt, Caesar… In the end it was the aftermath of their actions that led to history’s just conclusion regarding the worth or lack thereof of the characters and actors involved.

Still, there are precedents. There are trends. When Freedom calls her sons to war she has to answer to a people whose very political existence is steeped in the ideals of personal responsibility and Freedom as a birthright. It is hard for many to understand- they have not lived the centuries in between and are caught in the mortal trap of their own contemporary viewpoints. This is not the fault of the living; rather it is the way of natural order. Let history alone be the constraint from the past, and leave the modern at the mercy of its own choices. So it is simple to dismiss the modern Free World as self-absorbed, self-indulgent, isolated and indifferent. It is an easy judgment made by those who purport to gaze down from higher ground upon masses they despise for the very power they wield in a Freedom loving Republic.

The Free World now embarks on a mission that will last a decade, or decades, and require battles fought not only on the fields of martial contest but also upon the merciless gridirons of philosophy: a war of Ideas, and Ideals. The tools of this war are more than physical weapons, they are the razor-sharp cry of the tortured oppressed, those who some feel have not the will or capacity to love Freedom, to embrace Her, to make Her the heart and soul of new, Free, modern nations. But Freedom knows these peoples. Freedom has not turned her back, nor deafened her ears, nor cast her eyes aside. Freedom abides.

Freedom calls her sons to war and will allow history to be the final judge.

Friday, March 14

The rolling and tumbling tore me from frigid oblivion and I gagged as seawater sprayed from my throat, burning in my sinuses. Again the waves tossed me against hard sand and this time my hands dug in, holding me against the backwash as water retreated from the beach. Sick, trembling I pulled myself up the beach, my hands still bound with slimy, rotting leather cords. Each pull of my arms drew me a bit further up out of the water, up in to the warm sun, until I reached dry sand and collapsed in to a shaking heap.

My mind tried to focus, unable to hold on to reality, fading in and out until the warmth of the sun began to seep inward, loosening the grip of the deep cold. With focus came the recognition of ravenous hunger, thirst so intense my throat cracked with every breath. I tried to pull myself up only to fall again- my feet were both missing from above my ankles. Dimly I recalled Gott’s cruel strength as he bound my feet, pulling the cords tighter and tighter until I shrieked from the pain…

They had tied a sack of heavy stones to my feet, those people… they had been pleased to have a young healthy female, but when years passed and I remained barren, and youthful, and healthy, there had come suspicion, then fear. Seven men in a long boat took me out to sea. They rowed until the land was but a smudge on the horizon. I begged them, offering all I had of myself to them, but they were not swayed. When they dared go no further Gott seized me by my waist and tossed me in to the cold gray water. I struggled in the foaming waters as he lifted the sack. His shoulders heaved and suddenly I was torn from the surface, darkness closing over me, cold and pressure growing, growing, darker and darker…

The hunger refused to allow me to sit. There were trees further up the beach, almost impossibly far, but I forced myself to crawl, my skin cracking and peeling, sloughing off in great scabs, the sun burning against the newly exposed flesh. I reached the tree line after what had to be hours of effort and continued inward, my nose leading me towards a tantalizing scent of rot until I came to a fallen trunk, half sunk in to the sandy soil. I cast about and spied a stone, seized it and wielded it with desperate strength, splitting the rotted wood to expose a wriggling, crawling mass of protein.

I lunged at the insects, gathering them in my cupped hands and shoveling them in to my mouth, chewing just enough to let the foul juices moisten my parched mouth before swallowing, then digging greedily for more. Next was water and I had good fortune since it appeared there had been rain very recently- small pools of rainwater collected in puddles and hollows cooled the burning thirst.

It was fully a day before I had the strength and clarity to examine my situation- the flora of the area was foreign to me. The night sky was strange and the sun was more directly overhead- I was far from the lands I had known. Could I have drifted so long? The cords on my wrists had parted easily once I had the strength and will to try- how long would leather retain its strength? And my legs; assuming I had been held fast until the flesh and bone parted, how long had I been lost? All questions I desired answers to, but all secondary to finding enough food to fuel the furious pace of recovery now remaking me by the hour.

Monday, March 10

I have noted several times that I dislike the concentration on politics that has overtaken this project nearly from its opening day. After posting earlier today I found myself decidedly displeased with myself for having dipped in to the well of such commentary yet again.

It is not that I feel political discourse is beneath me, or unseemly, rather it is that I cannot believe that there is any point to laying out opinions on a regular basis when I honestly believe I have little of any originality to offer.

Pursuant to that I am going to eschew any further commentary on current political events for a time and concentrate on other writing. At least until such time as something truly momentous unfolds- and in case you might wonder, no, I do not include the initiation of hostilities with Iraq in the category of “momentous events.”

Originally I wished to write of the past, and culture, and entertainment, and sex, and food- I wanted to be hedonistic and debauched. Instead I waste my time being pompous and stuffy. Let that be a lesson to all and sundry- never let events sway you from your dreams.

I am not a terribly political animal, despite the apparent leanings of my writings to this point. It is the times, I suppose. Now I find myself considering what the post-UN world will look like. I still suspect that the United States and the United Kingdom have some hope of prevailing in the UNSC; however, such a development would in my opinion merely serve to postpone the inevitable. As I noted some time ago, entities such as the United Nations and NATO rarely cease to exist overnight, rather they die by degrees, with the dénouement arriving publicly long after all parties privately acknowledge the beast is no more.

What comes next is an interesting question. The United Nations’ major flaw is its need to treat all nations as essentially equal, even if it treats five members as more equal than the others. Any cretinous thug who manages to seize power must eventually be treated as a legitimate head of state possessing sovereign powers within his borders. This was necessary when the UN was formed, but it has become an outdated and dangerous practice over the past few decades. Anything that follows after the UN will be required to make distinctions between such nations.

Very loosely I suspect such an organization might form around requirements such as these:

Member nations would be democracies.

Member nations would guarantee freedoms as defined in terms of western liberal political systems.

Member nations must maintain a credible military force, most likely with a requirement that there be a credible “Ready Force” for expeditionary operations.

Each of these requirements poses problems. What does one say about China, which lacks any credible claim to democracy, but which is clearly moving in the direction of open capitalism? I would expect that the definitions of the terms in question would be loosened just enough to recognize reality; however, it is just as likely that the UN could be replaced by a number of organizations, perhaps regionally based. Either way what results is an organization that discerns between governments that serve the public and governments that the public serves.

The critical issue is that whichever organization forms around the United States immediately becomes the organization of choice for nations and peoples interested in maintaining their own security and prosperity. Many would be able to make the choice to join without huge changes in policy. For others it would be a more wrenching decision. Most of modern western Europe would be faced with a choice between a US/UK centric organization which requires a step back from the socialism-light which currently prevails, or they can continue to cling to a European Union which would demand much and provide little in the way of security or prosperity. This is not a clear-cut choice- the EU represents a familiar framework that would be very, very seductive to those political entities most resistant to change. Again, it promises much, but it is structurally incapable of delivering.

David Gelertner posits an organization built around the US, the UK and Russia that could slowly, but inexorably rise to replace the UN. This is as likely (probably more so) than what I have speculated upon. I am also heartened that he also has the “credible military force” requirement included. He relates that the UN’s problems are deep-seated and once again, that it is the idea that member nations are sovereign by right of holding power that begins to poison that institution at its very roots. That is the issue that must be corrected, either by reform or replacement, in order for an international organization to begin to hold forth the promise of a safer, more secure, more prosperous world.

This is a discussion that needs to be on going in the upper levels of the US government. Given the predilections of the current Secretary of State, I suspect it is.

The link to Gelertner's article in the Weekly Standard was found at Occam's Toothbrush

Thursday, March 6

There is a thought I have run across once or twice in the past several months that seems to be missing from the general debate regarding the upcoming war to remove the current Ba’athist regime in Iraq. This is simultaneously disturbing and understandable. Disturbing in that it appears rather simple and straightforward to me. Understandable because where politics are concerned western peoples tend to immediately discount the simple and straightforward analysis, eschewing directness in favor of more convoluted explanations taking in to account all sorts of conflicting and esoteric political motivations.

The thought? That the current President of the United States is more intent upon accomplishing a task he views as absolutely necessary to the security of his nation and the world, than he is upon securing his reelection in 2004.

I had this reinforced over the past few days as those dedicated to maintaining the processes of the UNSC to the detriment of the world in general and the Iraqi people in particular have maneuvered to ensure a nineteenth Security Council resolution on Iraq fails before it could come to a vote. When I see this and I listen to the unhappiness of those who understand the necessity of war and the glee of those sworn to maintaining the status quo I have to realize that many, many people who claim to have an encompassing world view have missed that one fundamental fact. George Bush has already decided that the time has come. The new resolution move served two purposes- an attempt to provide additional political cover for the United Kingdom, and a distraction to keep those determined to protect the current world order safely ensconced in the illusion that they actually have something to say about it.

I am not entirely delighted that events have unfolded as they have. There was a time not so long ago when I entertained the hope that other western nations would come to understand that the time had come to begin eradicating the brutish thug-ridden cesspools dotting the face of the earth. Unfortunately there is still a deeply entrenched cadre of nations whose view of world power includes recognizing regimes whose sole claim to legitimacy is that they have managed to rape, plunder and slaughter their way to the top of the rock pile in their tiny corner of the planet. How supposedly liberal and sophisticated polities can countenance such attitudes in this modern age is almost a mystery to me. Almost.