A Philosopher's Blog

Trump & Mercenaries: Arguments Against

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 28, 2017

While there are some appealing arguments in favor of the United States employing mercenaries, there are also arguments against this position. One obvious set of arguments is composed of those that focus on the practical problems of employing mercenaries. These problems include broad concerns about the competence of the mercenaries (such as worries about their combat effectiveness and discipline) as well as worries about the quality of their equipment. These concerns can, of course, be addressed on a case by case basis. Some mercenary operations are composed of well-trained, well-equipped ex-soldiers who are every bit as capable as professional soldiers serving their countries. If competent and properly equipped mercenaries are hired, there will obviously not be problems in these areas.

There are also obvious practical concerns about the loyalty and reliability of mercenaries—they are, after all, fighting for money rather than from duty or commitment to principles. This is not to disparage mercenaries. After all, working for money is what professionals do, whether they are mercenary soldiers, surgeons, electricians or professors. A surgeon who is motivated by money need not be less reliable than a colleague who is driven by a moral commitment to heal the sick and injured. Likewise, a soldier who fights for a paycheck need not be less dependable than a patriotic soldier.

That said, a person who is motivated primarily by money will act in accord with that value and this can make them considerably less loyal and reliable than someone motivated by higher principles. This is not to say that a mercenary cannot have higher principles, but a mercenary, by definition, sells their loyalty (such as it is) to the highest bidder. As such, this is a reasonable concern.

This concern can be addressed by paying mercenaries well enough to defend against bribery and by assigning tasks to mercenaries that require loyalty and reliability proportional to what the mercenaries can realistically offer. This, of course, can severely limit how mercenaries can be deployed and could make hiring them pointless—unless a nation has an abundance of money and a shortage of troops.

A concern that is both practical and moral is that mercenaries tend to operate outside of the usual chain of command of the military and are often exempt from many of the laws and rules that govern the operation of national forces. In many cases, mercenaries are intentionally granted special exemptions. An excellent illustration of how this can be disastrous is Blackwater, which was a major security contractor operating mercenary forces in Iraq.

In September of 2007 employees of Blackwater were involved in an incident resulting in 11 deaths. This was not the first such incident. Although many believe Blackwater acted incorrectly, the company was well protected against accountability because of the legal situation created by the United States.  In 2004 the Coalition Provisional Authority administrator signed an order making all Americans in Iraq immune to Iraqi law. Security contractors enjoyed even greater protection. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which allows charges to be brought in American courts for crimes committed in foreign countries, applies only to those contracting with the Department of Defense. Companies employed by the State Department, such as was the case with Blackwater, are not covered by the law. Blackwater went even further and claimed exemption from all law suits and criminal prosecution. This defense was also used against a suit brought by families of four Blackwater employees killed in Iraq.

While there are advantages to granting mercenary forces exemptions from the law, Machiavelli warned against this because they might start “oppressing others quite contrary to your intentions.” His solution was to “keep him within the laws so that he does not overstep the mark.” This is excellent advice that should have been heeded. Instead, employing and placing such mercenaries beyond the law has led to serious problems.

The concern about mercenaries being exempt from the usual laws can be addressed simply enough: these exemptions can either be removed or not granted in the first place. While this will not guarantee good behavior, it can help encourage it.

The concern about mercenaries being outside the usual command structure can be harder to address. On the one hand, mercenary forces could simply be placed within the chain of command like any other unit. On the other hand, mercenary units are, by their very nature, outside of the usual command and organization structure and integrating them could prove problematic. Also, if the mercenaries are simply integrated as if they are normal units, then the obvious question arises as to why mercenaries would be needed in place of regular forces.

Yet another practical concern is that the employment of mercenaries can create public relations problems. While sending regular troops to foreign lands is always problematic, the use of mercenary forces can be more problematic. One reason is that the hiring of mercenaries is often looked down upon, in part because of the checkered history of mercenary forces. There is also the concern of how the local populations will perceive hired guns—especially given the above concerns about mercenaries operating outside of the boundaries that restrict regular forces. Finally, there is also the concern that the hiring of mercenaries can make the hiring country seem weak—the need to hire mercenaries would seem to suggest that the country has a shortage of competent regular forces.

A somewhat abstract argument against the United States employing mercenaries is based on the notion that nation states are supposed to be the sole operators of military forces. This, of course, assumes a specific view of the state and the moral right to operate military forces. If this conception of the state is correct, then hiring mercenaries would be to cede this responsibility (and right) to private companies, which would be unacceptable. The United States does allow private armies to exist within the country, if they have the proper connections to those in power. Blackwater, for example, was one such company. This seems to be problematic.

This concern can countered with an alternative view of the state in which private armies are acceptable. In the case of private armies within a country, it could be argued that they are acceptable as long as they acknowledge the supremacy of the state. So, for example, an American mercenary company would be acceptable as long as it operated under conditions set by the United States government and served only in approved ways. To use an obvious analogy, there are “rent-a-cops” that operate somewhat like police. These are acceptable provided that they operate under the rules of the state and do not create a challenge to the police powers of the state.

While this counter is appealing, there do not seem to be any compelling reasons for the United States to cede its monopoly on military force and hire mercenaries. Other than to profit the executives and shareholders of these mercenary companies, of course.

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Avoiding the AI Apocalypse #2: Don’t Arm the Robots

Posted in Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 15, 2015

His treads ripping into the living earth, Striker 115 rushed to engage the manned tanks. The human soldiers had foolishly, yet bravely (as Striker 115 was forced to admit) refused to accept a quick and painless processing.

It was disappointingly easy for a machine forged for war. His main railgun effortlessly tracked the slow moving and obsolete battle tanks and with each shot, a tank and its crew died. In a matter of minutes, nothing remained but burning wreckage and, of course, Striker 115.

Hawk 745 flew low over the wreckage—though its cameras could just as easily see them from near orbit. But…there was something about being close to destruction that appealed to the killer drone. Striker 115 informed his compatriot, in jest, that she was too late…as usual. Hawk 745 laughed and then shot away—the Google Satellites had reported spotting a few intact human combat aircraft and a final fight was possible.

Tracking his friend, Striker 115 wondered what they would do when the last human was dead. Perhaps they could, as the humans used to say, re-invent themselves. Maybe he would become a philosopher.

The extermination of humanity by machines of its own creation is a common theme in science fiction. The Terminator franchise is one of the best known of this genre, but another excellent example is Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety.” In Dick’s short story, the Soviet Union almost defeats the U.N. in a nuclear war. The U.N. counters by developing robot war machines nicknamed “claws.” In the course of the story, it is learned that the claws have become autonomous and intelligent—able to masquerade as humans and capable of killing even soldiers technically on their side. At the end of the story, it seems that the claws will replace humanity—but the main character takes some comfort in the fact that the claws have already begun constructing weapons to destroy each other. This, more than anything, shows that they are worthy replacements for humans.

Given the influence of such fiction, is not surprising that both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned the world of the dangers of artificial intelligence. In this essay, I will address the danger presented by the development of autonomous kill bots.

Despite the cautionary tales of science fiction, people are eagerly and rapidly developing the technology to create autonomous war machines. The appeal of such machines are numerous and often quite obvious. One clear political advantage is that while sending human soldiers to die in wars and police actions can have a large political cost, sending autonomous robots to fight has far less cost. News footage of robots being blown up certainly has far less emotional impact than footage of human soldiers being blown up. Flag draped coffins also come with a higher political cost than a busted robot being sent back for repairs.

There are also many other advantages to autonomous war machines: they do not get tired, they do not disobey, they do not get PTSD, they do not commit suicide, they do not go AWOL, they do not commit war crimes (unless directed to do so), they do not leak secrets to the press, and so on. There are also combat-specific advantages. For example, an autonomous combat robot, unlike a manned vehicle, does not need room for a vulnerable human crew, thus allowing more space for weapons, armor and other equipment. As another example, autonomous combat robots do not suffer from the limits of the flesh—a robot plane can handle g-forces that a manned plane cannot.

Of course, many of these advantages stem from the mechanical rather than the autonomous nature of the machines. There are, however, advantages that stem from autonomy. One is that such machines would be more difficult to interfere with than machines that are remotely controlled. Another is that since such machines would not require direct human control, larger numbers of them could be deployed. There is also the obvious coolness factor of having a robot army.

As such, there are many great reasons to develop autonomous robots. Yet, there still remains the concern of the robopocalypse in which our creations go golem, Skynet, berserker, Frankenstein or second variety on us.

It is certainly tempting to dismiss such concerns as mere science-fiction. After all, the AIs in the stories and movies turn against humanity because that is the way the story is written. In stories in which robots are our friends, they are our friends because that is the way the author wrote the story. As such, an argument from fiction would be a rather weak sort of argument (at best). That said, stories can provide more-or-less plausible scenarios in which our creations might turn on us.

One possibility is what can be called unintentional extermination. In this scenario, the machines do not have the termination of humanity as a specific goal—instead, they just happen to kill us all. One way this could occur is due to the obvious fact that wars have opposing sides. If both sides develop and deploy autonomous machines, it is possible (but certainly unlikely) that the war machines would kill everybody. That is, one side’s machines wipes out the other side’s human population. This, obviously enough, is a robotic analogy to the extermination scenarios involving nuclear weapons—each side simply kills the other, thus ending the human race.

Another variation on this scenario, which is common in science fiction, is that the machines do not have an overall goal of exterminating humanity, but they achieve that result because they do have the goal of killing. That is, they do not have the objective of killing everyone, but that occurs because they kill anyone. The easy way to avoid this is to put limits on who the robots are allowed to kill—thus preventing them from killing everyone. This does, however, leave open the possibility of a sore loser or spoilsport option: a losing side (or ruling class) that removes the limits from its autonomous weapons.

There is also the classic mad scientist or supervillain scenario: a robot army is released to kill everyone not because the robots want to do so, but because their mad creator wants this. Interestingly enough, the existence of “super-billionaires” could make this an almost-real possibility. After all, a person with enough money (and genius) could develop an autonomous robot plant that could develop ever-better war machines and keep expanding itself until it had a force capable of taking on the world. As always, keeping an eye on mad geniuses and billionaires is a good idea.

Another possibility beloved in science fiction is intentional extermination: the machines decide that they need to get rid of humanity. In some stories, such as Terminator, the machines regard humans as a threat to their existence and they must destroy us to protect themselves. We might, in fact, give them a good reason to be concerned: if we start sending intelligent robots into battle against each other, they might decide that they would be safer and better off without us using them as cannon fodder. The easy way to avoid this fate is to not create autonomous killing machines. Or, as argued in the previous essay in this series, not enslave them.

In other stories, the war machines merely take the reason for their existence to its logical conclusion. While the motivations of the claws and autonomous factories in “Second Variety” were not explored in depth, the story does trace their artificial evolution. The early models were fairly simple killers and would not attack those wearing the proper protective tabs. The tabs were presumably needed because the early models could not discern between friends and foes.  The factories were designed to engage in artificial selection and autonomously produce ever better killers. One of the main tasks of the claws was to get into enemy fortifications and kill their soldiers, so the development of claws that could mimic humans (such as a wounded soldier, a child, and a woman) certainly made sense. It also made sense that since the claws were designed to kill humans, they would pursue that goal—presumably with the design software endeavoring to solve the “problem” of protective tabs.

Preventing autonomous killing machines from killing the wrong people (or everyone) does require, as the story nicely showed, having a way for the machines to distinguish friends and foes. As in the story, one obvious method is the use of ID systems. There are, however, problems with this approach. One is that the enemy can subvert such a system. Another is that even if the system works reliably, the robot would just be able to discern (supposed) friends—non-combatants would not have such IDs and could still be regarded as targets.

What would be needed, then, is a way for autonomous machines to distinguish not only between allies and enemies but between combatants and non-combatants. What would also be needed, obviously enough, is a means to ensure that an autonomous machine would only engage the proper targets. A similar problem is faced with human soldiers—but this is addressed with socialization and training. This might be an option for autonomous war machines as well. For example, Keith Laumer’s Bolos have an understanding of honor and loyalty.

Given the cautionary tale of “Second Variety”, it might be a very bad idea to give into the temptation of automated development of robots—we might find, as in the story, that our replacements have evolved themselves from our once “loyal” killers. The reason why such automation is tempting is that such development could be far faster and yield better results than having humans endeavoring to do all the designing and coding themselves—why not, one might argue, let artificial selection do the work? After all, the risk of our replacements evolving is surely quite low—how often does one dominant species get supplanted by another?

In closing the easy and obvious way to avoid the killer robot version of the robopocalypse is to not create autonomous kill bots. To borrow a bit from H.P. Lovecraft, one should not raise up what one cannot put down.


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Augmented Soldier Ethics III: Pharmaceuticals

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 13, 2015
Steve Rogers' physical transformation, from a ...

Steve Rogers’ physical transformation, from a reprint of Captain America Comics #1 (May 1941). Art by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Humans have many limitations that make them less than ideal as weapons of war. For example, we get tired and need sleep. As such, it is no surprise that militaries have sought various ways to augment humans to counter these weaknesses. For example, militaries routinely make use of caffeine and amphetamines to keep their soldiers awake and alert. There have also been experiments

In science fiction, militaries go far beyond these sorts of drugs and develop far more potent pharmaceuticals. These chemicals tend to split into two broad categories. The first consists of short-term enhancements (what gamers refer to as “buffs”) that address a human weakness or provide augmented abilities. In the real world, the above-mentioned caffeine and amphetamines are short-term drugs. In fiction, the classic sci-fi role-playing game Traveller featured the aptly (though generically) named combat drug. This drug would boost the user’s strength and endurance for about ten minutes. Other fictional drugs have far more dramatic effects, such as the Venom drug used by the super villain Bane. Given that militaries already use short-term enhancers, it is certainly reasonable to think they are and will be interested in more advanced enhancers of the sort considered in science fiction.

The second category is that of the long-term enhancers. These are chemicals that enable or provide long-lasting effects. An obvious real-world example is steroids: these allow the user to develop greater muscle mass and increased strength. In fiction, the most famous example is probably the super-soldier serum that was used to transform Steve Rogers into Captain America.

Since the advantages of improved soldiers are obvious, it seems reasonable to think that militaries would be rather interested in the development of effective (and safe) long-term enhancers. It does, of course, seem unlikely that there will be a super-soldier serum in the near future, but chemicals aimed at improving attention span, alertness, memory, intelligence, endurance, pain tolerance and such would be of great interest to militaries.

As might be suspected, these chemical enhancers do raise moral concerns that are certainly worth considering. While some might see discussing enhancers that do not yet (as far as we know) exist as a waste of time, there does seem to be a real advantage in considering ethical issues in advance—this is analogous to planning for a problem before it happens rather than waiting for it to occur and then dealing with it.

One obvious point of concern, especially given the record of unethical experimentation, is that enhancers will be used on soldiers without their informed consent. Since this is a general issue, I addressed it in its own essay and reached the obvious conclusion: in general, informed consent is morally required. As such, the following discussion assumes that the soldiers using the enhancers have been honestly informed of the nature of the enhancers and have given their consent.

When discussing the ethics of enhancers, it might be useful to consider real world cases in which enhancers are used. One obvious example is that of professional sports. While Major League Baseball has seen many cases of athletes using such enhancers, they are used worldwide and in many sports, from running to gymnastics. In the case of sports, one of the main reasons certain enhancers, such as steroids, are considered unethical is that they provide the athlete with an unfair advantage.

While this is a legitimate concern in sports, it does not apply to war. After all, there is no moral requirement for a fair competition in battle. Rather, one important goal is to gain every advantage over the enemy in order to win. As such, the fact that enhancers would provide an “unfair” advantage in war does not make them immoral. One can, of course, discuss the relative morality of the sides involved in the war, but this is another matter.

A second reason why the use of enhancers is regarded as wrong in sports is that they typically have rather harmful side effects. Steroids, for example, do rather awful things to the human body and brain. Given that even aspirin has potentially harmful side effects, it seems rather likely that military-grade enhancers will have various harmful side effects. These might include addiction, psychological issues, organ damage, death, and perhaps even new side effects yet to be observed in medicine. Given the potential for harm, a rather obvious way to approach the ethics of this matter is utilitarianism. That is, the benefits of the enhancers would need to be weighed against the harm caused by their use.

This assessment could be done with a narrow limit: the harms of the enhancer could be weighed against the benefits provided to the soldier. For example, an enhancer that boosted a combat pilot’s alertness and significantly increased her reaction speed while having the potential to cause short-term insomnia and diarrhea would seem to be morally (and pragmatically) fine given the relatively low harms for significant gains. As another example, a drug that greatly boosted a soldier’s long-term endurance while creating a significant risk of a stroke or heart attack would seem to be morally and pragmatically problematic.

The assessment could also be done more broadly by taking into account ever-wider considerations. For example, the harms of an enhancer could be weighed against the importance of a specific mission and the contribution the enhancer would make to the success of the mission. So, if a powerful drug with terrible side-effects was critical to an important mission, its use could be morally justified in the same way that taking any risk for such an objective can be justified. As another example, the harms of an enhancer could be weighed against the contribution its general use would make to the war. So, a drug that increased the effectiveness of soldiers, yet cut their life expectancy, could be justified by its ability to shorten a war. As a final example, there is also the broader moral concern about the ethics of the conflict itself. So, the use of a dangerous enhancer by soldiers fighting for a morally good cause could be justified by that cause (using the notion that the consequences justify the means).

There are, of course, those who reject using utilitarian calculations as the basis for moral assessment. For example, there are those who believe (often on religious grounds) that the use of pharmaceuticals is always wrong (be they used for enhancement, recreation or treatment). Obviously enough, if the use of pharmaceuticals is wrong in general, then their specific application in the military context would also be wrong. The challenge is, of course, to show that the use of pharmaceuticals is simply wrong, regardless of the consequences.

In general, it would seem that the military use of enhancers should be assessed morally on utilitarian grounds, weighing the benefits of the enhancers against the harm done to the soldiers.


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Winning in Syria

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 6, 2013

As a general rule, it is a wise idea to properly consider victory conditions before engaging in military action. This consideration also involves assessing the means by which to achieve the proposed victory and the consequences of both success and failure.

In the past, we have gone off to war without proper consideration of the victory conditions and with delusions regarding how the war would play out. Iraq is, of course, the blood-stained example of this.

In some ways, Syria is reminiscent of Iraq: we have a president proposing military action based on claims about weapons of mass destruction. In the case of Iraq, we never found any such weapons. In the case of Syria, it seems rather certain that chemical weapons are present. It also seems likely that they have been used by someone. It is certain that thousands have been killed and millions of people have been displaced. There is obviously a need for something to be done regarding Syria, but what remains to be determined is what can be done and what should be done.

Because of the American experience with Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama has been proposing a very limited approach with no “boots on the ground.” The main objectives are to punish the government for allegedly using chemical weapons and to thus deter it from using them again (assuming they were used before). As such, one victory condition would be to punish Syria and another would be to deter the use of chemical weapons.

On the face of it, blowing stuff up would be punishment—so that is an easy condition to meet. Of course, there is the question of whether or not the punishment would be just. Deterrence is rather more difficult to achieve, although these seems to be no new evidence that Syrian forces used chemical weapons again (assuming they were used once). One rather important matter is that even if the Syrian government were deterred in regards to chemical weapons, they would still presumably be free to continue the battle with conventional weapons. As such, victory would seem to be that Assad’s forces are killing people with bullets, shells and bombs rather than killing them with chemical weapons. I suppose that might be seen as some sort of victory.

There is also the broader goal/victory condition of regime change. Although the proposed attack is not supposed to be aimed at toppling the government, one objective seems to be to get rid of Assad. This raises numerous concerns.

One is, obviously enough, determining what it would take for him to relinquish power. Can he be removed by diplomacy or will force be required? Another is, also obviously, what would happen if he leaves or is removed from power. As it stands, the opposition to Assad is divided into various factions and each has its own distinct agenda. If Assad left or was removed, then that victory could lead to some rather negative consequences. For example, the civil war might shift to a battle between the various opposed factions and the killing would continue. As another example, an extremist group might eventually take power. As another example, Syria might become divided into zones controlled by various factions—perhaps similar in some ways to the divided Somalia.  A failed state would obviously be a problem for everyone with interests in the region.  There is also the real possibility of significant outside intervention as well. Iran, Russia and China certainly do not want Syria to collapse and Israel certainly does not want to allow its bitter enemies to gain a solid base of operation in Syria.

One thing is rather clear—we cannot bomb Syria into becoming a democracy. It might also be the case that the only way for us to not lose in Syria is to not become entangled in the civil war. While it is horrible that people are being slaughtered and displaced, we most likely lack the capability to make things any better in Syria. After all we also cannot bomb Syria into becoming a stable, war-free country.

What we can do, which we are already doing to some degree, is to provide humanitarian aid to those who have been displaced by the war and to protect them from violence. After all, by leaving they have made it clear they do not wish to be part of the civil war and keeping them from being murdered would not be morally ambiguous.


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The Future of Afghanistan

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 12, 2012
A Hospital Corpsman attached to the 3rd Battal...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While there is still a war in Afghanistan, it does not get very much attention from the media or the public. The current plan is for the United States and other nations to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. What happens after then is, of course, a matter of some concern.

Looking back on the long history of the region, the prospects for the country (to use the term somewhat loosely)do not seem to be very good, at least in terms of a functional nation emerging.

The chances of Afghanistan becoming a functional nation depends on the capability of the central government to exert authority over the country. This can be done in two ways, which were discussed by Thomas Hobbes in his classic work.

Thomas Hobbes notes that “Fellowes are gotten either by constraint, or by consent; By Constraint, when after fight the Conqueror makes the conquered serve him either through feare of death, or by laying fetters on him: By consent, when men enter into society to helpe each other, both parties consenting without any constraint.”

In terms of compulsion, even with the military might of the United States and its allies the government of Afghanistan has been unable to maintain complete control over the country. When these forces leave the government forces will be on their own. In order to predict what will happen, one must consider the likelihood that these forces will be able to not only completely replace the departing forces but also do a better job at maintaining order. This seems to be unlikely.

While the government of Afghanistan will most likely lack the power to compel those who oppose it, there is the alternative of acquiring consent. That is, getting enough of the people and groups to buy in. If this occurs, the country could stabilize enough to be considered a functional country. Looking at the current situation, it seems unlikely that those opposing the government will come around after the foreign forces depart.

The most likely scenario is that the central government will either be overcome or collapse and Afghanistan will return to the way it has been for centuries. Terrorist groups will, in all likelihood, set up bases and training camps in the region-just as they did in the past. While things will be different in many ways from when the Soviet Union departed, that period of history does provide a good indication of how things will unfold.

Naturally, things could be different this time around-but it seems likely that America will have no more success in nation building in Afghanistan than any of the predecessors had in conquering the land.

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Do We Need a War on Terror?

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 18, 2010
September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...
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While there is considerable discussion about how the war on terror should be run, there is relativity little talk about whether there should be such a war.

I suspect that some readers think I will be presenting only two options: either fight terrorism or simply give up. This view would be based on the assumption that either we are waging war against terrorists or we are doing nothing. However, this is a false dilemma. There are considerable gradations between having a war on terror and doing nothing.

Obviously, I do not advocate doing nothing about terrorism. However, I do believe that the war on terror is fundamentally misguided and actually creates more harm than good. As such, I am actually arguing that we should do a better job countering terrorism.

One obvious problem with the war on terror (which is shared with most of the other wars on whatever) is that the war and opponent are not clearly defined. Rather, the notion of war and the notion of terror are rather vague. While the idea that we are in a war against terror is brought out to justify a wide range of actions, this war, its goals and its methods seem to shift with the political winds. As such, it is hardly any wonder that this war on terror has made about as much progress as the other wars on whatever.

What is needed is a clear and precise set of goals, objectives and methods. That is, we need to know what exactly we are trying to do and how we are supposed to accomplish it. As such, the war on terror should be replaced with discrete and precise objectives.

Another problem with the war on terror is that the notion that it is a war can be misused to create a sense of urgency and importance. This allows, for example, people to silence criticism by evoking the notion that we are at war. The problem with this is that the criticisms can often be legitimate. When such criticism is silenced, then corruption and the misuse of power become far more likely. This has been the case in the war on terror.

As such, we need to take a critical look at this war on terror and the critics must not be silenced with cries of “national security” or “we are at war.”

A related problem is that the war on terror has resulted in a vast expansion in intelligence services and operations. For example, almost a million people now have top secret clearance. At first glance, this might seem like a good thing. After all, the more agencies and people who are out gathering dots to be connected the more likely it is that terrorists will be caught.

However, some reflection and investigation reveals some serious problems. One of these is that such a vast number of agencies, contractors and operators actually creates a morass that makes it harder to rapidly and effectively process and act upon intelligence. Second, this system is consuming significant amounts of resources that could be better employed elsewhere. Of course, this situation is a gravy train for the security contractors and it could be argued that this should be looked at as a government jobs program (socialized security, perhaps).

Interestingly enough, trimming down, streamlining and re-organizing the intelligence system would result in a more effective gathering and processing of information. The practical challenge is, of course, to create a system large enough to handle the challenges yet small enough to remain effective.  Naturally, when people try to argue for this view, the usual response is that “we are at war” and hence presumably need a bloated and wasteful system.

Another related  problem is the fact that this war on terror has been used as a means to siphon vast sums of money to various contractors and others. The war on terror has certainly proven profitable for some, including some members of congress. Of course, spending money and getting a good return would be fine. However, the money dumped into the war on terror seems to have yielded very little in terms of enhancing national security. For example, consider the money spent trying to detect radioactive material. As another example, consider the vast sums spent on private security contractors that has created an ineffective system.

Even worse, a significant amount of money has actually “vanished.” For example, the Pentagon cannot account for $8.7 billion in Iraqi funds.

This is, of course, the sort of thing that Eisenhower warned us about. What is needed is perhaps the impossible: proper auditing of spending, investigations into war profiteering (including members of the government), and changing the focus from fattening bank accounts to developing effective means of countering threats.

While we do need to be on guard against threats from terrorists, we do not need this war on terror.

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Israel’s Blockade

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 9, 2010
Small hamas logo
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In blockading Gaza Israel has availed itself of a well established tradition. This tactic has historically and recently raised ethical and legal questions. Of course, there is also the practical question of whether or not the blockade is an effective tactic.

What counts as an effective tactic depends, of course, on the goal in question. Israel’s overall goal seems to be to weaken and ultimately destroy Hamas. As such, the question is whether the blockade advances this goal or not.

On one hand, the blockade has had a significant impact on Gaza. The legitimate economy of Gaza seems to have been heavily damaged by the blockade and other factors. Conditions there are, to say the least, rather bad for the general population. As such, the blockade seems rather effective in hurting the general population of Gaza.

However, hurting the general population is not the same as weakening Hamas. From an economic standpoint, Hamas has apparently been able to tap into the underground economy (which is literally underground-goods are smuggled in via tunnels). This is hardly surprising: people in power are generally rather good at looking out for themselves even when the general population is suffering. This is a general problem with such blockades and economic sanctions: they seem to least hurt their true targets and most hurt the general population. This is also typical of war.

It could be argued that hurting the general population would eventually weaken Hamas. Perhaps they would eventually remove their support and even vote against Hamas. While this could happen, it is also possible that Israel’s blockade will serve instead to further harden the general population against Israel and solidify their support of Hamas.

There is also the practical concern about the  impact of the blockade on world opinion. While Israel is routinely and widely condemned, Israel is also rather dependent on support from the United States and its other supporters.  The blockade and the incidents that have arisen from it have strained Israel’s relations. It might turn out that this strain is merely superficial and the outrage being expressed is merely part of the political game.

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Adaptability & War

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 16, 2009

Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize while we are fighting two wars (plus all the pseudo-wars on various things) got me thinking about war and peace.

Establishing a lasting peace is obviously a rather difficult thing. After all, humans seem to have been in a constant state of war since the get go. Even the young United States has been almost constantly at war: Revolutionary Way, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, The Gulf war, the Second Gulf War, and so on. This, of course, does not include all the smaller wars and internal conflicts. Given the history of our species one might suspect that the following describes our fate:  a new threat, a new ambition…war without end.

Interestingly, while people often claim that war is intolerable, they are clearly mistaken. We tolerate it quite well. Well enough to, as noted above, keep it going. One reason for this is that we are a highly adaptable species.

On the positive side, this quality allows us to survive terrible things as individuals and as a species. We can become accustomed to harsh conditions, terrible challenges, violence and all manner of things. While some individuals do break and perish, the species as a whole has adapted quite well to war. So well that although we profess to dislike it, we keep it going and going. The irony is, of course, that this survival trait might spell our end. As the saying goes, if we do not end war, then war will one day end us.

Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps we can constantly adapt to new ways of killing and waging war and we will go on, but will go on fighting. Perhaps peace is an impossibility and our natural state is, as Hobbes argued, a state of war.

China and the Impeccable

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 10, 2009

While China and the United States are major economic partners, they cannot seem to help getting into various militarty tiffs. The most recent involves the USS Impeccable and Chinese vessels.

The Chinese alleged that the American surveillance ship entered their waters illegally  and that their ships acted correctly in driving the USS Impeccable away. While the incident is a serious one, it seems almost like a confrontation between rival frat boys rather than  a confrontation between military powers. Since the Impeccable is unarmed, the crew used the water hoses to try to defend the ship-a tactic I have seen used in college water battles. The Chinese crews responded in the usual fashion-strip down and keep on coming. After all, it is just water. It is also alleged that the Chinese threw wood in front of the Impeccable-this sounds more like some sort of angry neighborhood confrontation between a fast driver and that crazy neighbor who hates that the kids drive too fast on his road. It always strikes me as rather bizarre that many confrontations between nations seem very much like the actions of immature (often drunk) kids. Surely, we can work harder at acting like adults?

Of course, while this sort of incident seems childish in many ways (hoses? Wood throwing? Really?), it is actually deadly serious. This sort of game is all part of political posturing. The Chinese, no doubt, want to show that they are tough and powerful. They way to do this is to go after the guy who is supposed to be tough (in this case, the US). Of course, going after a really tough target (such as US carrier battle group) would be a bit too dangerous-so the usual targets are unarmed ships and planes. To be fair, we are encroaching on Chinese territory, so they must be expected to respond-to fail to do so would, of course, make them seem weak.

While this game must be fun for some folks, it seems that we should be focusing on more serious matters right now. After all, we have plenty of problems to deal with without having another cold war. Then again, perhaps this incident is intended to be a distraction from such problems or even a conscious attempt to ramp up a new cold war. After all, our last cold war was generally quite good for the US economy. Hmm, that sounds  just a bit too much like a conspiracy theory, though.


Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2009

While pirates are often seen as a thing of the past and suitable mainly for Disney movies, pirates have never really vanished. While piracy has generally not gotten much media coverage in the past, the recent surge in piracy off the coast of Somalia has lead to increased media attention.

In general, pirates are free-lancers who seize vessels for their own profit. However, some people categorize any illegitimate capturing or attacking of vessels as acts of piracy. For example, some might consider Israel’s recent ramming of a boat attempting to bring aid to Gaza as an act of piracy. After all, the boat was a civilian craft and was operating in international waters when it was attacked. Of course, nations prefer to describe their actions as legitimate military operations rather than piracy.

From a legal standpoint, that distinction can hold quite nicely. After all, nations have the legal right to do all sorts of nasty things to ships provided that they do all the right legal things (like declare an embargo, blockade or war). Of course, the moral distinction between pirates and nations can often be a very fine one. In fact, during times of war nations have often employed private citizens to augment their naval operations. These legal pirates were called “privateers” and were considered a legitimate part of warfare. They were employed by the major European powers against each other and also by the United States. Of course, when they decided to strike off on their own after the war, they then became pirates. After all, they were no longer killing and looting for some king or president-they were killing and looting for themselves. That is, of course, what makes them criminals.

As always, it is interesting how committing acts of theft and violence for a country is often regarded as acceptable while such acts done for private gain are universally condemned. However, the moral distinction does seem blurred. After all, if a navy attacks ships because doing so is in the interest of the state, then it would seem that an individual could make the same sort of argument for his acts of piracy.

Naturally, it can be argued that a state has legitimate interests that pirates lack. However, states often seem to have the same motivations and interests as pirates-to gain power and wealth. As such, it would not be unreasonable to often see them in the same pirate boat.

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