Postmodern classic?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Collateral damage, what is the worth of foreign lives?

So we missed Ayman al-Zawahiri in the targeted missile airstike last week in Pakistan, too bad. Looks like we killed about 4-5 of his henchman, perhaps even some big guys like they're making this Damadola out to be. Unfortunately, around 18 local Pakistanis also got it. They were either hosting this celebratory dinner, or they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The concept of collateral damage- an attempt to quantify the moral calculus of targeting. Is this a futile exercise?

The rhetoric flies... is this just propagandized cover your ass? Certain people seem to think so.

I would like to think there is a balanced way of looking at this. Ultimately, I don't think any moral calculations will be satisfying. You can cold-heartedly say (like I would), those Paki's were probably sympathizers, whatever- it's still regrettable. A part of me thinks, in some kind of romantic 'code of the warrior', that those who are willing to make a moral stand and put their life on the line are to be respected- one can imagine that in the right circumstances, they would be a credit to their society. But they have the misfortune to fight a more organized and capable force. This is the price paid when we follow through on our stated objectives of capturing or killing members of Al Qaeda, devoted to the endangerment of our way of life.

We don't need some heightened circumstances of 'being in a war' to justify this kind of violence inflicted on other people. Some people in the comments of the Washington Monthly raise some interesting, if facetious comparisons- what if it was Americans or other Westerners? Wouldn't we feel the same way?

No. We, by our very nature (or at least the broad set of cultural values known as the West) generally value our individuals very much (some would say out of proportion). While in the 'West' 18 people would be a tragedy (ie: recent story of the 13 miners), for the billions of 3rd worlders living in the chaos between anarchy and authoritarian government, a different calculus exists. Maybe when you reached 180,000 people would start to pay attention, but then probably only a decade later and with little fanfare. A famous quote of Stalin comes to mind: 'One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.' The truth of the matter is that it seems to take something like a democratic institution of government to give individuals their value, not easily done outside of aristocratic institutions like royalty or wealth in these societies, much more restricted than our own.

But we can't justify our actions on their failures. That might illuminate their hypocrisy, but it does not legitimize this effort. Archaic viewpoints, as institutionalized in irrelevant codes such as the Geneva convention attempt to provide an answer to this 21st century conflict and fall short. This Euro-centric outlook falls apart when you are not fighting Europeans. We look to the world, valuing our people, and wishing to defend their way of life against those who would take it, with little value for their own people. The dictators of the 20th century have followed the patterns of the past, attempting to overwhelm with numbers and force what they could not master by negotiation or ideas, and failed despite the conventional wisdom.

This is the dilemna of the West in the 21st century, an existential war in the midst of our culture. For what is worth fighting for? I read this awful article about the problems that many countries are having with their Muslim immigrants, or their nationals living in Islamic countries- violence on women being a central difference. We have tried to value our women (even if one must frankly admit a lack of perfection), while others have made no such efforts. How can we defend our ideals if we can't defend ourselves?

Meanwhile, more and more people come into the world, and we look to new technology as our solution while natural resources decrease. Clearly competition exists still, even among the 'civilized' the cutthroat murderous impulses lie deep in the recesses of our psyche.

The lives of those supporting the local insurgent networks here cross my mind, along with a contemplation of what additional methods might be applied towards the goal of their pacification. But a more urgent example may be the fact that roughly 70 million people live in Iran. How much time will they give us until the value of their people drops below acceptable standards with the contemplation of the nuclear ayatollahs? Then perhaps there is some moral math, when our perception of danger reaches a certain zenith that we value their lives at the same level they do, this can only mean destruction is imminent.

Collateral damage seems to be merely a psychological displacement to avoid the consequences of our actions. We need to face up to this. Following these outdated moral codes is a recipe for suicide. Following no codes is nihilism and anarchy. We must look at this in a determined manner, because once the math takes over- rationality of this sort can be very bloody.


  • Good ommentary.

    2 coal miners perished in W Virginia yesterday in a fire and it's national news. Sensationalism at it's best. At least the desert heat isn't getting to your head!

    See any good deal on silk carpets lately?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:48 PM  

  • Still looking for the carpets, I'm afraid...

    By Blogger sunguh5307, at 7:11 PM  

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