The battle for right

Who is a soldier? Is he a fighter in a noble cause? Or is he a villain used by the forces that are to channel his blood lust in the direction of who is perceived to be the enemy? Then should he be noble in his actions or should he be as dastardly in his deeds as his conscience provides provision for and his superiors give him leeway?

Talking about Ajantha Mendis, in a post that directed a fair bit of strong points of view in my direction. I became embroiled in this argument/discussion/casual chat with Mr. David Blacker. Though we started off talking about Ajantha Mendis, as all arguments go, this one ended up at a stalemate where there was a hold off on the meaning of one word and its implications.

The word was 'virtue' as it was used by Nicholas Machiavelli in his Art of War.

My argument was that soldiers, in order for war to be truly effective and not beget terror in any other form, have to be essentially 'good' people, and should not mistake going to war with having an opportunity to unleash suppressed animal instincts on innocents met along the way. To make things clearer I'll highlight a couple of exchanges me and David had. The extracts are from our last two comments.

Me: Virtue after all simply put, refers to good qualities doesn’t it?

DB: Over-simply put, I'm afraid. Good, after all, is a subjective term. But I think it's clear that Machiavelli didn't mean "goodness, honesty" etc. He was talking about strength, ambition, manliness.

Alright, let's assume that Machiavelli did mean these things when he spoke about 'virtue'; but then strength, ambition and manliness does not necessarily detract from being 'good' does it? one does not have to be evil to be strong, ambitious or manly. As a matter of fact, it can be argued that true manliness arises from achieving your ambitions in a way where you extract as little unnecessary discomfort on your fellow human beings. One can argue that it is a weakness and not a strength to trample upon the already downtrodden.

So therefore shouldn't soldiers essentially be good people? Shouldn’t they refrain from raping, pillaging, shooting unarmed civilians and leaving the women and children unharmed?

Perhaps it is the rationale behind the war in the first place that makes soldier behave in certain ways. If motives behind the war in question are contrived to seem good and just whereas there were ulterior motives present (take the Iraqi war for instance) then the soldiers will not be fully convinced as to the justifiability of their actions. The hidden truth will permeate down through the ranks and there will be a certain sense of frustration and greed and ambition that will be directed at achieving that ulterior motive in the level of the soldiers themselves. Translating into deeds that are commonly known as 'crimes of war' but pass unnoticed in most cases due to the confusion. Because essentially the actual motive behind the whole war is essentially in currently defined terms a 'crime'.

Iraq was a crime. There were no WMD's found there. Ever. The whole thing was a fisco. Some say the reason behind it was oil. But it was not a battle between good and evil or whatever you may call it. That much was painfully obvious. Here is where we specifically discussed a soldier's behavior;

Me: I beg to differ David. It is goodness that keeps a soldier from stealing from the dead. It is honesty that keeps him from lying to his superior to save his own neck. It is goodness and virtue in its 'modern meaning' that keeps a soldier from not shooting down an unarmed enemy; it is goodness and 'virtue' that would prevent all the war crimes that go unheeded in Iraq and perhaps, in our own land.

DB: That is true, and the fact that such atrocities occur (and have always occured) is in fact because virtue (in its modern sense) does not exist in the military. Virtue would prevent atrocities, yes, but it would also prevent the ruthlessness needed by military leaders which must sacrifice lives for objectives, ignore civilian suffering, and abandon everything but victory. Virtue, in its modern sense, would prevent an individual from even being a soldier who must kill and maim his fellow human beings in order to achieve a political objective. True virtue would prevent war.

But would virtue or being good and honorable actually reduce the effectiveness of a soldier? Or is soldiering just like anything else we humans do? and do we have a choice to choose whether to be honorable or bloodthirsty while doing it? like in Business, Career, Sport etc. can we always be virtuous and still win wars?

6 comments:

David Blacker said...

Whackster, I'm a bit disappointed that you chose to selectively use portions of that debate to support your line of thought. Why not reproduce the full discussion or at least link to it. Once more you oversimplify things in order to get a black vs white contrast which does not exist in reality. Here's an example:

When I said: "Good, after all, is a subjective term. But I think it's clear that Machiavelli didn't mean "goodness, honesty" etc. He was talking about strength, ambition, manliness."

You now reply: "Alright, let's assume that Machiavelli did mean these things when he spoke about 'virtue'; but then strength, ambition and manliness does not necessarily detract from being 'good' does it? one does not have to be evil to be strong, ambitious or manly. As a matter of fact, it can be argued that true manliness arises from achieving your ambitions in a way where you extract as little unnecessary discomfort on your fellow human beings. One can argue that it is a weakness and not a strength to trample upon the already downtrodden."

Here you're applying an artificial veneer of good over the qualities of strength, ambition, and manliness -- in reality these qualities are neither good nor bad, but can be used for either. So the Machiavellian virtue was neither good nor bad.

I really suggest you reproduce the entire discussion if you sincerely want to pick up where we left off (which BTW in no way was a stalemate). I accused you of being intellectually dishonest last time because you would go back and reattribute certain things to yourself and pretend to have meant things which were patently not so. I'm afraid your selected extracts leave me with the same impression of you.

TheWhacksteR said...

Look David, let’s not go back to the whole discussion we did have. But if anyone wants to check it out and see if your accusations had any foundations they can easily do so. For I as a matter of fact did leave a link. It’s on the ‘this’ bit (2nd para, line 2).

The last point you raised, I never responded to, only because I felt that here was an area you and me fundamentally disagreed upon (On the virtues of soldiers), And we do not necessarily need to bring Machiavelli into this if you like, for he may be authoritative, but he does not necessarily have to be the com all and be all on the philosophy of war.

I didn’t produce the whole conversation because it was too long. I was trying to be as least biased as I could. But tell me if I am wrong in assuming that what you said;

"Virtue would prevent atrocities, yes, but it would also prevent the ruthlessness needed by military leaders which must sacrifice lives for objectives, ignore civilian suffering, and abandon everything but victory. Virtue, in its modern sense, would prevent an individual from even being a soldier who must kill and maim his fellow human beings in order to achieve a political objective. True virtue would prevent war"

Basically sets out the argument between my point of view and yours?

aufidius said...

"DB: That is true, and the fact that such atrocities occur (and have always occured) is in fact because virtue (in its modern sense) does not exist in the military. Virtue would prevent atrocities, yes, but it would also prevent the ruthlessness needed by military leaders which must sacrifice lives for objectives, ignore civilian suffering, and abandon everything but victory."

I may perhaps be doing injustice to DB's intentions by taking the risk of taking the above quote out of context, but if i was to dissect verbatim what he has said i very strongly disagree.

That quote easily creates two camps in the entire global armies, soldiers that fight for virtue and soldiers that dont.

The virtuous nature of the armies is defined by the political nature of the cause of war, whether an army is virtuous or not depends on what virtue the war is fought for, that same virtue that defines the war decides if an unarmed enemy soldier is to be shot on the spot or taken as a POW and treated kindly, after all a soldier is a paid employee and doesnt necesserily have the intellect to understand the deeper political intricacies for which his leaders pay him to kill.

Yes ruthlessness is compulsary but that doesnt necessarily trancend human emotions, slodiers or not.

Taking POW's would be costly for the Isrealis and their expansionist policies are all but virtuous,hence they may perhaps kill the unarmed enemy soldier. But in a situation like when NATO attacked Serbia when Slobodan Milosovic was cleansing the ethnic Kosovan population, A NATO soldier killing an unarmed serbian soldier would paradoxify NATO's intention of playing the role of "good cop".

I didnt read the entire discussion to which the whackster has given a link, so bear with me if i have taken things out of context.

David Blacker said...

Well, Whackster, the basis for your argument seems to have changed very little from the one we had back in July -- essentially the meaning of the word 'virtue'. Now (as then) you prefer to interpret the Machiavellian Virtue (which you, not I, brought up now as well as in July) by its modern definition of the word (ie: 'goodness'). Machiavelli's Virtue didn't mean 'goodness', but something akin to 'excellence', or if you prefer its modern application, 'professionalism'. I'm glad you agree with me that Machiavelli isn't the last authority on war, which is why it's puzzling that you keep introducing him to your arguments.

So before we go down this road (again!), Whackster, I will ask you (as I did in July) to define your understanding of the word virtue, since you say that it is a necessary trait for the modern soldier. I have given you my definition of it. If you still cling to the idea that 'virtue' means 'goodness', then reread our July discussion as it seems you've not understood it.

Aufidius, just have a look at the last three or four comments in the July thread for why I think 'goodness' is unnecessary to the modern soldier. If you still disagree with me, I'll respond to your comment.

For the record, I agree that the original meaning of Machiavellian Virtue (excellence/professionalism) is necessary for a modern soldier, while the modern interpretation of virtue (goodness) is unnecessary.

TheWhacksteR said...

Hmmm ok. So let’s go beyond that argument then. Right so to answer your question David,

"Define your understanding of the word virtue, since you say that it is a necessary trait for the modern soldier"

I agree with you that virtue is 'excellence' that’s true and believable. But I still insist that Machiavellian meaning itself did not detract from the meaning of 'goodness' meaning it’s possible to interpret virtue as goodness as well as excellence. Seeing as these two things are not contradictory. Agreed? Responding to you comment

‘Here you're applying an artificial veneer of good over the qualities of strength, ambition, and manliness’

I could say the same about an artificial veneer
of ‘badness’/ruthlessness/evilness

But no matter. My real point is that I believe that soldiers should essentially be ethical and moral human beings. Excellence, manliness and all these things can be (and should be) in a person who is ethical and treats his fellows with respect and understanding. I am forming the impression that you believe a soldier should be a brainwashed killing machine. Such a killing machine would not necessarily have to 'believe' in the cause he is fighting for. But I think that’s what is wrong with war. A just war would have honorable soldiers fighting for causes they believe in.

And they wouldn’t go about killing children, raping women, and murdering surrendered enemy troops and unarmed civilians. There is a difference between a soldier and a criminal. That’s my point.

David Blacker said...

" But I still insist that Machiavellian meaning itself did not detract from the meaning of 'goodness' meaning it’s possible to interpret virtue as goodness as well as excellence. Seeing as these two things are not contradictory. Agreed? "

I'm afraid I can't agree, Whackster. Excellence has nothing to do with goodness or badness, which are moral definitions. If you want to interpret 'excellence' or 'professionalism' as being 'good' (ie good at what you do), then I agree. However, being excellent (or good) at your job as a soldier (or any other profession) has nothing to do with 'goodness' which is a moral position. Adolf Eichmann was excellent at exterminating the Jews. In other words, he excelled at it, or was professional in his job. Therefore, to work backwards, he was a virtuous man (in the Machiavellian understanding)! However, I doubt any of us, would consider Eichmann to be virtuous in the modern sense. I hope you now understand that Machiavellian Virtue (excellence/professionalism) has nothing to do with modern virtue (goodness) or its opposite -- badness. Machiavellian Virtue can be either good or bad depending on how that virtue is executed, which was my point when I said: "Here you're applying an artificial veneer of good over the qualities of strength, ambition, and manliness" and why your comment "I could say the same about an artificial veneer of ‘badness’/ruthlessness/evilness" just supports my argument.

"My real point is that I believe that soldiers should essentially be ethical and moral human beings. Excellence, manliness and all these things can be (and should be) in a person who is ethical and treats his fellows with respect and understanding"

Whackster, we should ALL be thus, not just soldiers. But MY point was that if we are all moral and ethical human beings, there would be no need for soldiers.

"I am forming the impression that you believe a soldier should be a brainwashed killing machine. Such a killing machine would not necessarily have to 'believe' in the cause he is fighting for. But I think that’s what is wrong with war. A just war would have honorable soldiers fighting for causes they believe in."

Really? The Waffen-SS and the Wehrmacht considered themselves ethical and moral, and fighting for a cause that they believed in, as did the Imperial Japanese forces. So did that make their cause just? The Germans were very similar in culture to the British of the time, yet the soldiers of both sides believed their causes just. Most atrocities in war are committed because soldiers DO believe in their cause; they believe in it so much that they are willing let the cause rise above morality and conscience.

Soldiers have never been brainwashed killing machines, and never will be. Nor would it be a good thing if they were. There's a fine line between discipline and machinery, and the military tries to walk that line. However, the military does try to replace conventional ethics and morality that manifests itself through a soldier's conscience by replacing it with a new value system. But that value system will still be based on that of the civil society the military defends.

"And they wouldn’t go about killing children, raping women, and murdering surrendered enemy troops and unarmed civilians. "

They might, or they might not. As I said before, all of the above's been done both by soldiers who considered themselves moral and believing in a cause, and by soldiers who were conscripts, and by soldiers who were just in it for the money. It makes no difference in the larger scope.

Can you point to any war where a moral principle prevented atrocities? There are none. Can you point to any war where a lack of belief in a moral cause created more atrocities? There are none.

The issue is not the morality of the soldier, but the morality of the society that spawns his army. The Nazis didn't create the widely accepted ethics of Germany in WW2. They merely focused it into a pattern of behaviour. If a society will accept a certain morality, then its army will follow that morality -- whether it is to liberate Kuwait, exterminate the Jews, destroy the Red Indians, or whatever.

If a soldier holds a morality different to that of his army, it can then cause ripples of varying effect. For instance, during the German invasion of the USSR in 1941, Wehrmacht battalion commanders were ordered to round up and execute any Jews in the towns and villages they captured. Most of these officers complied and carried out their orders. A small fraction refused to follow conventional morality, and followed their conscience. However, there was no great reaction from the German high command, and the officers were not punished. In Vietnam, when Lt Calley's and his men turned away from the conventional morality of Americans and murdered the civilians of My Lai, there was an outcry.

Largely, the military tries through training and discipline and a special value system to prevent such rebellion.