Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Technology and moral progress

Walter Benjamin famously observed in the late 1930s that one of the horrors of technological advance is that it was not accompanied by a similar advance in morals. This disjuncture meant that the physical capacity for executing evil was advancing without parallel growth in humanity's countervailing moral capabilities, thus setting the stage for unimaginable, unprecedent horrors. As with so much else Benjamin wrote, this thesis was thought-provoking -- and also dead wrong.

Matt Yglesias today provides a quite brilliant capsule discussion of how, in fact, the massive advance in the destructive capacity of the military has been paralleled by an advance in moral sensibilities about the application of these capacities -- to the fury, of course, of the Barbarous Right. I quote at length:

It's very hard to see what moral principle could condemn the means by which Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed that wouldn't also condemn earlier actions (Dresden, Tokyo) that had the same object -- wholesale devastation of civilian populations -- albeit accomplished by cruder methods. Ultimately, the question of whether we should condemn the strategic bombing writ large or not strikes me as an issue that's almost too momentous to resolve. Truman, FDR, and Churchill lived in what was, despite Grand Theft Auto, an almost unimaginably more brutal era than our own. A time when the "good" side in a war could be composed of a global empire and a apartheid quasi-democracy working in alliance with Joseph Stalin. And they really were the good side, because the enemy was just that bad. And not just almost absolutely malign, but (unlike, say, your latter-day sub-Saharan genocidaires) genuinely threatening and capable. So what to say about it all?

The important thing, I think, is to be clear-eyed about the nature of the allied victory and just how at odds the means by which it was achieved sit with our contemporary moral standards in order to avoid drawing facile lessons. Before the current war, the alleged feasibility of reconstructing Iraq along liberal, democratic, pro-American lines was often bolstered with reference to the post-war occupations of Germany and, especially, Japan. In days, months, and years to come the school of thought which holds that our failures in Iraq are primarily failures of technique rather than failures of the concept will doubtless make recourse to similar analogies. The differences, of course, are and always were extremely large. Strategic bombing, however, seems especially salient. Not only did this entail massive destruction, but it implicitly threatened worse. The point was not merely that cities had been destroyed but that we would keep on destroying them unless and until a surrender was on the table. Combined with blockade, strategic bombing constituted a threat of near-total annihilation of the Japanese population -- that's the sort of thing that makes an impression on people.

Needless to say, thanks to technological improvement it would only be easier nowadays for the United States military to defeat adversaries through such tactics. But technological improvements have also made it much easier to accomplish the reverse. Today's bombs (and, for that matter, artillery) are by no means incapable of going astray and killing some civilians. But compared to those of the 1940s they are vastly more precise and targetable. It now is possible to do enormous damage to military targets while mostly sparing civilian ones, and for that reason it seems incumbent upon us to try and do it. And while we don't always do it as well as one might like, we do do things very differently from how Curtis LeMay and Bomber Harris did them.

We could vaporize Falluja, Ramadi, and all the rest tomorrow if we wanted to without any real difficulty. But we don't. Because we don't want to. Because it would be wrong.

And good for us. But people need to seriously consider the possibility that such moral constraints place real limits on what can -- and should -- be accomplished through force of arms. The methods morally available to us are very good at destroying an enemy's weaponry, but not so good at utterly wrecking his country, his worldview, his spirit. Max Boot thinking along similar lines last week went horribly awry:

Does this make us more enlightened than the "greatest generation"? Perhaps. We certainly have the luxury of being more discriminating in the application of violence. But even today, there is cause to doubt whether more precision is always better. During the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. was so sparing in its use of force that many Baathists never understood they were beaten. The butcher's bill we dodged early on is now being paid with compound interest.

This sort of thing needs to be called what it is -- barbarism of the most repugnant sort. The mask here has slipped, and not for the first time, from the allegedly humanitarian nature of the mission in Iraq. What was arguably justifiable in pursuit of a war of self-defense at a time when existing technology did not offer many alternatives is most certainly not justifiable as a war of choice undertaken in the name of idealism at a time when the techniques of war provide us with options.

But here we face the central paradox of humanitarian warfare. Our new, more humane techniques are perfectly adequate to meeting purely military objectives. Destroy a tank. Destroy an airbase. Destroy a missile silo. A weapons lab. A communications center. They are not, however, nearly so good at achieving what one might call the humanitarian fringe benefits that accrued following the Allied victory. But to use mass slaughter of civilians as a technique of humanitarian warfare is absurd, repulsive, and unacceptable. [Boldface added.]

As Henry Farrell points out, there's a deeply nasty disconnect between neo-cons' purported aims and methods -- it's a position with a venerable pedigree that was perhaps most famously expressed by the Vietnam captain who claimed he had to destroy a village in order to save it. Yglesias is right that the willingness (perhaps even the desire) to apply barbarous force underpins the thinking of the "retreat forward" (or "Tehran, ho!") crowd. They respond to the rejection of our campaign to allegedly liberate the Middle East from its own oppressive forces by arguing that we need to apply more and more force.

Thus it happens that these so-called conservatives arrive, irony of ironies, at the old Rousseavian paradox about "forcing men to be free." And we know where that sort of reasoning leads: to the guillotine, to the gulag, and now to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. And just as the argument that there were many perfidious aristocrats in ancien regime France doesn't justify the Terror, so the argument that there are many terrorists in the Middle East or Iraq will not justify Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo in the eyes of history.

1 comment:

Phil said...

You and Yglesias make a really important point. It's one that could be taken too far, in the sense that if, for example, we ever do want to go and prevent a genocide somewhere, it's nice to know we've got precision weapons that could help.

One other thing is that the asymetry between the risk to our military and its lethality serves to delegitimize any military undertaking on our part in the eyes of the rest of the world, and to legitimize terrorist activity against us. Every time we destroy another country's military with little risk to our soldiers, we underscore to everyone in the world that terrorism is the only viable oppositional tactic. We didn't lose many soldiers in WWII compared with Germany, Russia, or Japan, but clearly it was a conventional war for all sides in addition to a terror war against civilians.