A Philosopher's Blog

War Dead

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2012
ARLINGTON, VA - DECEMBER 27:  U.S. Marine Corp...

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There was a brief flap in the media about American marines allegedly urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Rick Perry weighed in on this as did John McCain.

On the one hand, it is easy to understand why soldiers might urinate on or otherwise desecrate the bodies of fallen foes. First, soldiers facing the sort of situation that exists in Afghanistan probably feel frustrated and angry to a degree that exceeds that felt during a more conventional war. As such, when an enemy is killed, there probably remains some desire to continue to “hurt” him. Second, getting people to be willing to kill other people already puts them in a state of mind in which they have already overcome some rather serious behavior barriers. After all, the behavioral barrier that normally prevents us from shooting other people in the head is probably a much higher moral barrier than the one that normally keeps us from urinating on the corpse of an enemy. Second, the mistreatment of the dead can be seen as part of the violence of conflict. In the past it was not uncommon for the bodies of the slain to be mutilated (sometimes in the belief that these injuries would be carried into the afterlife). As such, the desecration of the enemy is merely the continuation of the violence that began with his death.

On the other hand, this sort of behavior seems to be morally reprehensible. First, to reverse the situation, Americans were horrified when the body of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland was dragged naked through the streets of Mogadishu as people cheered and abused his remains. Given our view of this abuse of our dead, we would seem to be obligated to be consistent in our principles and thus condemn the mistreatment of the corpses of our enemies.

Second, even though the dead are most likely not hurt by this (it seems unlikely that this mistreatment somehow carries over into a metaphysical afterlife), Kant’s arguments about the treatment of animals can be modified to be used to argue against mistreating corpses.

While a corpse cannot be harmed by the abuse (the dead are presumably beyond such things), such abuse does harm to the person engaged in it and, as Kant argued, could damage their humanity and make them more inclined to act badly towards living people. As such, the dead should be treated with a reasonable degree of respect.

Of course, as noted above, if people are already killing people, then it might seem to miss the point to be nonplussed about the killing but outraged at the urination. After all, if people are already at the point where they are fine with killing, then it could be argued that they are already morally damaged to a degree that a little urination will not increase.

In reply, it can be argued that killing in the time of war is somehow consistent with treating people with respect and that a person can be both a killer and morally decent person, at least in the context of war. While this might seem to be a bit insane, experience does seem to support this. After all, while soldiers do suffer emotional trauma, most combat troops do not regard themselves as murderers and they are generally not regarded as such.

One way to make sense of this is to consider why the soldiers are killing and the typical attitude towards what they are doing. In generally, they are killing to achieve military objectives and the attitude typically does not involve a desire to murder but rather a desire to achieve the objectives (and not die) with minimal casualties (after all, most professional soldiers prefer that the enemy surrenders as opposed to fighting to the death). In the case of desecrating a corpse, this does not contribute towards achieving a legitimate military objective and it involves a degree of personal animosity that is not typical of military operations.

As a final point, there is also the moral concern of the impact of such behavior. In the case of the endless war on terror, one major objective is to win over “hearts and minds” (something that we attempted in Vietnam). Obviously enough, urinating on dead Taliban fighters is not going to help America’s image in the region (and the world) and will serve to put American forces in the region in somewhat greater danger. As such, desecrating corpses is something that should not be tolerated.

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$360 Million

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 19, 2011
Various Federal Reserve Notes, c.1995. Only th...

Have you seen this lost money?

I recently heard that the US military lost about $360 million in Afghanistan. My first thought was, of course, “at least it wasn’t billions, like in Iraq.” The money was not misplaced or left in a bathroom like a wayward umbrella. Rather it seems that it ended up being funneled through whatever passes as legitimate businesses in Afghanistan into the criminal world. Some of the money seems to have ended up in the coffers of our enemies, thus continuing our long standing tradition of funding folks who are trying to harm us (yes, I am looking at you Pakistan).

Having become cynical about such matters, I was not at all surprised by this. As noted above, I actually thought that it would be more than a mere $360 million. I do try not to think about what this wasted money could do in the United States. For example, I try not to imagine that even a modest chunk of it could have helped FAMU and FSU with their budget woes. I am accustomed to the folks “in charge” throwing away money. I resent it and use my limited capabilities to rail against it, but in the end the government folks seem incapable of preventing this sort of thing.

To be fair, perhaps this is just how things work. In the United States we have modest corruption, mainly because of our laws and traditions. Some other countries lack such laws or, if they have them, they still lack a tradition of integrity. In some cases, bribery, corruption and other criminal activities are the tradition. I would like to think better of Afghanistan, but perhaps it is essentially a criminal culture-or at least the people that we have unwisely elected to do business with are part of a criminal culture. I suspect the latter over the former.

The United States has an unfortunate history of supporting the wrong people (like the Shah of Iran) and of failing to properly control the millions and billions that we dump in other countries. While this money is tiny compared to our massive debt, these tiny drops do add to that ocean of debt. Apparently we are also bad at learning from past mistakes and seen incapable of avoiding being duped by financial criminals-our own and those in other countries. It is, to say the least, embarrassing to read about our financial idiocy.


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Pakistan & The Taliban

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 14, 2011
Flag of the Pakistan Army

Image via Wikipedia

Pakistan has long played a dangerous game with terrorists. On the one hand, they have supported terrorist groups, mainly in the hopes of using them against India. On the other hand, they have also been attacked by some of these groups and have taken action against them.

Recently the Pakistani Taliban (not to be confused with the Afghan Taliban) claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on a military training center. They claim that these were retaliation attacks for the death of Bin Laden. They also claimed that they will launch more attacks on the US and Pakistan because the US killed Bin Laden and they claim that the Pakistani military told the United States were to find him.

If these attacks were motivated by revenge, they would be rather ironic. After all, influential Pakistanis clearly had to be involved in protecting Bin Laden. He lived among active and retired military personnel near the Pakistani version of West Point, thus suggesting a somewhat cozy relationship between Bin Laden and certain elements in the Pakistani military. Currently, it seems that Bin Laden’s location was not provided by the Pakistani military and, in fact, the United States was prepared to engage these forces if they had tried to intercept the raiding party. Naturally, it can be claimed that all the hostility between the United States and Pakistan on this matter is just a cover for Pakistan, but that seems unlikely. As such, when the Taliban attacks Pakistan in retaliation for Bin Laden’s death, they would seem to be attacking his defender. Of course, terrorists are not known for their rationality.

There is evidence that these attacks are not actually related to Bin Laden’s death, however. It has also been claimed that the attacks were made by a splinter group that has been fighting with the Army.  However, the fact remains that terrorists are active in Pakistan in part due to Pakistan’s own decisions to make use of terrorists.

Pakistan should be learning the lesson that we learned: do not expect gratitude from terrorists, even when you fund them. We, however, had somewhat better sense and never allowed our terrorists to set up significant bases of operation in our country.

Pakistan should also be learning that terrorists have a tendency to regard an ever expanding circle as their enemies and they obviously have little or no moral limitations. They are, after all, terrorists.

Given that Pakistan has nuclear weapons and a strategic location, it is a matter of considerable worry as to whether or not the state will be able to sustain itself against the seeds of destruction that the state itself helped plant.

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The Ethics of Wikileaking, Revisited

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 6, 2010
Logo used by Wikileaks
Image via Wikipedia

My ethical principle regarding leaks is based mainly on the principle of utility: a leak is morally justified when it will bring about more happiness for humanity and wrong when it will bring about more unhappiness. Naturally, this general principle might need to be tweaked in specific circumstances.

In the case of leaking information to the world, the main avenue of moral justification seems to be that the leak reveals misdeeds or illegalities. People who commit misdeeds would seem to have little moral claim to secrecy and the rest of the world would seem to have the right to know about so injustices so that they might be rectified or, at the very least, exposed to the light of day.

If Wikileaks had merely leaked information relating to morally questionable acts or illegalities, then I would have regarded such leaks as morally acceptable and even laudable. However, the folks at Wikileaks have crossed a moral line by publishing a cable providing a list of  resources and assets “whose loss could critically impact the public health, economic security, and/or national and homeland security of the United States.”

While some of the potential targets are obvious (dams, telecommunication systems, strategic areas, etc.), the leaked information provides rather specific details that would be rather useful to anyone interested in attacking the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries where these potential targets are located.

This information does not, obviously enough, seem to reveal to the world misdeeds, illegalities or injustices that need to be exposed to the light of day. As such, this leak cannot be morally justified on these grounds.

The leak does, however, provide useful information to those who might wish to attack democratic countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.

It might be argued that the leak is acceptable because the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies do bad things. As such, they are being justly punished by revealing critical information to their enemies and potential enemies.

However, this is easy enough to counter.

The main opponents of the West include various terrorists groups as well as rather undemocratic countries such as North Korea and Iran. As such, Wikileaks would seem to be aiding organizations and countries that seem to be morally inferior to the West. Obviously, the Western nations are not moral angels, but they seem to be objectively better than Al Qaeda and North Korea, for example. Compare, to use a specific example, the rights of women in the West with the treatment of women by groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. As another example, consider the individual liberties in the United Kingdom versus those in North Korea.  As a final example, compare the relative openness of the United States with the secrecy of China. Making attacks on the West easier does not aid a morally superior side (which could justify the leak). Rather, it aids a morally worse side. As such, the leak is morally unacceptable.

In a previous post, I noted that I had questions about the wisdom and moral authority of the folks at Wikleak. This latest release has answered those questions. I no longer have any doubts about their lack of wisdom and moral authority.

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Burning the Quran

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 8, 2010

With 9/11 approaching, it is hardly surprising that there has been an increase in anti-Muslim sentiments. In some cases, specific events have been planned to express this view. As one example, a pastor in Florida has been considering burning Qurans. As one might expect, the government and the military are encouraging people to not engage in such activities. After all, these incidents seem to provide groups like the Taliban with propaganda gold and can lead directly to an upswing in violence against American troops.

Obviously enough, people have the legal and moral right to express their dislike of Islam and Muslims, provided that such expressions do not extend to actual violence. As such, the pastor is well within his rights to burn Qurans. He can even BBQ pork over the burning books, should he so desire. Likewise, people who dislike Christianity have the right to burn bibles.

Of course, having the right to do something does not entail that it should be done. It even does not entail that the action is morally right. For example, a person has the right to say mean things to other people. However, this does not entail that we should say mean things nor does it entail that it is morally right.

As the government and military spokespeople have pointed out, these sort of incidents do not help our relations with Muslims and do put American soldiers in greater danger. As such, people who intend to take such actions should consider the practical consequences as well as the moral implications. Since it seems that no real good can come from burning Qurans, it seems reasonable to think that people should not do this, even though they have the right to do so.

There is also the matter of treating others as we would like to be treated, as per the Golden Rule. I infer that the pastor would not be pleased with people burning bibles on the anniversaries  of various misdeeds committed in the name of Christianity. As such, he should consider how Muslims will feel and what they will think when they hear that their holy book is being burned.

It might be replied that as Americans we should not be held hostage by how people in other countries will react. For example, the fact that American women are allowed to go around with their skin exposed and are allowed to drive and go to school no doubt upsets and angers some people. However, it hardly follows that we should change our behavior to suit them-even if this means that we are at greater risk of attack.

That is, of course, a reasonable reply. However, there seems to be an important distinction between these sorts of cases. To expect us to oppress our women to appease certain people is to expect us to engage in immoral actions. To expect us to not burn Qurans is simply to expect us to show a reasonable degree of respect to the religion and hardly seems to be too much to ask.

But, someone might reply, those people who will be angry about Americans lighting up the Quran probably include people who burn American flags. So, we should burn their book.

The obvious reply is that two wrongs do not make a right. If burning our flag is wrong, then it would seem that burning their book would be wrong as well. Also, of course, there are American Muslims-so we would be burning our own book. In any case, burning things that are important to people hardly seems to be an effective way of making the world a better place.

My overall view is that people have the right to burn Qurans (or bibles). However, they should consider the consequences of their actions and also consider what they would think about someone burning something important to them.

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Leaking Blood?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 12, 2010
Logo used by Wikileaks
Image via Wikipedia

One rather important moral concern about WikiLeak’s leak of information about the war in Afghanistan is whether this leak will result in people being killed. The main concern is that the Taliban has made it clear that it will be going through all the documents looking for the names of those who have helped Americans. They intend, of course, to kill those people.

The most obvious and probably the most plausible view regarding the ethics of the situation is that it would be morally wrong for WikiLeaks to leak documents containing such names. This can be argued for on the grounds that the actions of the folks at WikiLeaks would play a role in the death of other people and playing a role in the deaths of other seems to be clearly wrong. It can also be argued for on the grounds that the folks at WikiLeaks made it clear that they regard themselves as obligated to not cause such deaths. As such, a fatal leak of this sort would  violate their own apparent moral standards.

Of course, there are cases in which leaking information that causes deaths is seen as not being bad. For example, the United States is rather busy trying to get information about terrorists, the Taliban and other enemies in order to kill them. Obviously, folks in the government and the military would be fine with such leaks.

Naturally, the folks in the Taliban regard the leaks that help them in the same way. This then pushes the moral debate back a bit, from the ethics of leaking to the moral status of those who use such leaks to their advantage.

As I see it, the United States has a clear moral edge over the Taliban. This is not so say that the United States is morally pure. Far from it. However, a comparison between the United States and the Taliban will show that the Taliban is considerably more evil. To use but one area of concern, one has but to consider how the Taliban treats women to get a clear picture of the evil committed by the Taliban.  In contrast, the United States advocates the view that women are people and should be treated accordingly.

It must be noted that from the perspective of the Taliban, they are in the right (and on God’s side) and the United States is in the wrong. As such, the folks in the Taliban no doubt would regard any leaking of such names to be a good action. They, no doubt, would also regard the murder of those they regard as collaborators as just actions. In this they would be mistaken.

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Leaks, Pakistan and the Taliban

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 27, 2010
The coat of arms of Pakistan displays the nati...
Image via Wikipedia

WikiLeaks recently published (formerly) secret information about the war in Afghanistan.  As is to be expected, this leak has been attacked as being a threat to “national security.” Of course, that line is used so often  that its edge has been blunted.

The leaked information seems to support the obvious-Pakistan has probably been providing support for the Taliban. As the experts have long pointed out, Pakistan’s main concern is with its traditional rival, India and it makes sense that they would cultivate groups that they believed could be used to counter India. In this regard, they were taking a page out of our play book-we have been willing to bolster comparable groups to use against our enemies. In fact, we did so in Afghanistan itself, back when the Soviets were the occupying force.

As happened to us, the Pakistanis found that the groups they supported were not eternally grateful. After all, Pakistan has found itself in danger from some of the people it had previously supported.

While the revelations of the alleged connection between Pakistan and the Taliban will create some political trouble (after all, we have been pouring vast sums of money into Pakistan and it seems likely that some of this has been funneled to the very Taliban that has been killing Americans), I suspect that the United States will continue to work with Pakistan. In fact, some experts have argued that we should be willing to work with the Taliban, provided that they agree to not attack us and agree to not work with groups that might attack the United States. Since we already seem to have been funding the Taliban, perhaps we already have the basis for a working relationship.

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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 8, 2010
45th Munich Security Conference 2009: Hamid Ka...

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After years of war in Afghanistan, things are still not going well. By most accounts the police force is not up to doing a proper job despite the billions the United States has dumped into the country. President Karzai accused the United State and the UN of being behind the fraudulence in the recent election. His brother is well known for his involvement with narcotic trafficking. The Taliban, once thought defeated, is back.

Part of the reason for the problems is that we took our eye off Afghanistan for our prolonged adventure in Iraq. Another reason is that after building up the insurgents in Afghanistan to kill the Soviets, we lost interest as soon as the Russians left. There are, of course, the other factors that have long made Afghanistan a place where conquerors fail.

Obviously, leaving Afghanistan is not a great option. The country would probably slide back into even greater chaos and become even more of a hotbed for terrorists.

Staying in Afghanistan is also not the greatest idea. After all this is an expensive undertaking and we could certainly use that money domestically. For example, my university is cutting budgets as are other public universities. Clearly, we could use some of the money currently being dumped into Afghanistan to do things like retain faculty and provide scholarships.

There is also the concern that Americans are being killed in Afghanistan and the fact that it is using up some of our military resources.

If we had done things better in the past, we would most likely not be facing problems as extensive or severe as those that exist now. Of course, this does not help us now. Except, of course, to remind us that what we do (or do not do now) could well lead to even greater problems in the future.

At this point, the obvious question is “should we stay or should we go?” The unfortunate answer seems to be that we should stay, because the consequences of doing so. are less bad than those of leaving. Of course, this means that we have to expect to dump billions more into the country and more deaths. What can we expect to get in return? Probably harsh words from whatever corrupt politician is in charge of some of the country.

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Child Terrorists

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 6, 2010
terrorists at Mumbai with AK 47
Image by dotcompals via Flickr

A school for brainwashing children into becoming terrorists was found in Pakistan. Interesting enough, the Taliban denied ownership of the specific school, but they claimed that “they are actively training children from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East to be suicide bombers.”

The general tactic used by the terrorists is to try to convince the children that if they are killed while engaging in terrorist attacks, then they will go to Heaven and be rewarded for their deeds.

While adults are often irrational enough to buy into this, children are even more vulnerable to this sort of approach. After all, their cognitive and critical skills are even less developed than adults (and most adults have extremely limited skills). They are also more inclined to trust adults and to accept fantastic claims. After all, children readily accept Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Hence, buying the notion of a Heaven for murderers is an easy one for children to accept.

Targeting children is, of course, an old tactic. In the 20th century, Hitler developed this approach to a new level with his Hitler Youth. Less destructively, people in marketing also made this realization and target kids for such things as tobacco and alcohol in addition to kids’ products such as toys and boy bands.

While terrorism is bad enough, doing this to children is truly horrific. The main harm being done, aside from the killing, is that children are being robbed of their futures through the use of lies. Obviously, the children most likely lack the ability to make a rational assessment of what is being offered and cannot make a free and informed choice.

Those who do this might believe in what they are doing, but they are truly evil to use children in such a manner. Of course, using the youth in this manner is an old tradition-the older men sending the young out to die.

This shows part of the stakes on the table: the future and well being of children. This is yet another reason why we need to rid the world of the various terrorist groups: they bring death and steal the futures of children.

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Can We Win in Afghanistan?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 8, 2009
Taliban in Herat.
Image via Wikipedia

While I am a professional philosopher rather than a social scientist, I believe that the situation in Afghanistan can be assessed from a philosophical perspective.

One of the main questions about Afghanistan is whether we can win there or not. Of course, before it can be decided whether we can win or not, there needs to be a clear definition of what counts as a win and what counts as a loss. Clearly, there can be numerous levels of victory (or loss), but we need to have a clearer picture of our goals and then it will be possible to provide a better assessment of whether they can be realistically achieved using the resources we are willing to spend.

If we set a rather lofty goal, like creating a functional democracy, then victory is all but impossible. We lack the resources and the capacity to create a functional nation from what is currently available. Also, there is the moral question about whether we should be doing that sort of thing or not-after all, it seems unlikely that we have the moral right to impose a country on people. Also, the people of Afghanistan have not been able to achieve this over the centuries, hence it seems unlikely that we can do it in a matter of years or even decades.

If we set a more realistic victory condition like weakening the Taliban and Al Qaeda, then this would seem possible. After all, we did it before and presumably can do it again-unless we get distracted by another war (perhaps Iran this time…). Obviously, we need to take into account the fact that changes took place in Afghanistan while our main attention was on Iraq and it must be determined just how much these changes will impact the cost of this sort of victory.

Weakening these groups will be very much like pest control-we will be committed to maintaining our efforts for the foreseeable future, otherwise they (like roaches) will surge back. We saw this happen when we shifted our efforts to Iraq and we can expect it to happen whenever we look away in the future. As such, we can expect to be paying an ongoing price to maintain this sort of victory. This is, of course, quite doable. After all, we have been maintaining forces around the world and this would be more of the same.

It would, of course,  be preferable to be able to completely neutralize the Taliban and Al Qaeda. While this would be extremely challenging and quite costly, it does not seem to be beyond the realm of possibility. Naturally, we would also have to ensure that other groups did not arise to take their place, otherwise we would be just exchanging one problem for another. Having a lasting solution of this sort would require addressing the conditions that give rise to such groups in an effective an enduring manner.

I am not sure that we can do this.  After all, we have not been able to neutralize gangs and other criminal organizations in our own country. However, we can probably have a “war on terror” that is as effective as our own “war on crime” and “war on drugs.” That is, we can suppress the problem (at great cost) while never being able to truly achieve an end to the war.

Realistically, I think we can expect to stay in Afghanistan for decades. I suspect that we cannot remake Afghanistan into a self-sustaining state. I also suspect that we cannot fix the underlying conditions that gave rise to the Taliban. So, we have to be ready for a long haul-assuming that it is worth the price. We should, of course, consider whether it is worth the cost to stay there and to assess what would happen if we simply packed up and left (again).

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