Archive for November, 2010

Stanford and ROTC

(In 1970, in the tumult of the Indochina wars and ongoing protest, Stanford University decided to cut many of its ties to the US military. All military training on campus was phased out by 1973. Students still can, and do, train with the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) of the US military off-campus. Stanford is considering expanding its relationship with the ROTC. A committee has been tasked to “explore the logistical, financial and pedagogical implications of any such relationship for Stanford and its wider mission”, and solicited submissions from the Stanford community to share its thoughts. The text of my submission follows.)

To the Ad Hoc Committee on ROTC:

I write in response to your letter of November 2010 requesting input from members of the Stanford community in relation to your committee’s considerations. I welcome the efforts of the committee to engage the community, and the opportunity to present my thoughts on the issue. I am a recent Stanford Ph.D. graduate in mathematics (2009), I also have a degree in law, and am presently a Visiting Assistant Professor in mathematics at Boston College.

My comments follow. They are somewhat involved, but the upshot is clear: Stanford should not expand its relationship with the ROTC in any fashion; current arrangements are adequate and require no further revision.

They come in three parts. Firstly, I argue that there is an underlying central question that the committee not only should, but must consider; and it appears in danger of failing to consider it. Secondly, I present an approach to answering this question. Thirdly, I make some related considerations.

1. The central question

The issues being considered are supremely important ones. They pertain to the relationship between two fundamental sets of institutions in society: universities and the military. In a society such as the United States, these issues are magnified to titanic proportions: the university system contains many of the world’s leading institutions (such as Stanford), and the military system is so gargantuan that it accounts for approximately half the military spending on the planet. They must therefore be considered with utmost attention and thoughtfulness.

And so this central question must be addressed: upon what principles should the relationship between these two institutions be based? The question for the committee is essentially the concrete application of this question of principle, in its purest possible form. Related issues arise when considering military grants for research, scientific research with military applications, and so on. These are important issues also, but far more involved; none is so pure as the mere question of the university’s cooperation or noncooperation with recruitment and training of military officers.

To ignore the central question would constitute failure of the committee’s duty. If the central question is not addressed, the committee cannot properly claim to have carried out its mandate. This is not only true as a matter of principle, but also as a matter of the committee’s duty within Stanford University, even narrowly construed. The committee’s mandate from the Faculty Senate is to “explore the logistical, financial and pedagogical implications of any such relationship [with ROTC] for Stanford and its wider mission” (emphasis added). Stanford University’s wider mission is not parochial or self-interested; on the contrary, it extends itself self-consciously to the broadest interests of human society. The university’s founding grant extends its purposes to “promot[ing] the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If the committee limits itself to such details as outlined in the second-to-last paragraph of its letter — though they are very important — such as choice of subjects, the academic merit of ROTC courses, and “value of such a program to Stanford and the nation” (emphasis added), then it would be failing in its duty. No implications — whether logistical, financial, pedagogical, or otherwise — of Stanford’s relationship with military recruitment can be drawn without some understanding of the central question, which itself is central to Stanford’s self-stated mission. What relationship with the military best exercises an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization?

The committee’s letter soliciting comments indicates a desire to avoid the central question. Nowhere in the committee’s letter are the considerations of the above paragraph raised. Indeed, the letter raises significant doubts that the committee intends to consider it at all. The letter presents a potted history of the issue at Stanford: the 1968 appointment of a committee was “when sentiment against the country’s conduct of the Vietnam War was high”; the 1970 Senate and ASSU votes were made “[a]gainst the backdrop of the U.S. Invasion of Cambodia, proposals by President Nixon to eliminate student deferments from military service, and threats of violence on campus”, so that “the political climate had changed considerably”. This description, whether intentionally or not, insinuates that all opposition to ROTC, other than narrow “institutional” reasons as outlined in the committee’s second-to-last paragraph, is based on opposition to a specific war or invasion, student self-interest in avoiding the draft, or cowering before violent threats. While this does accurately represent the majority report of 1969, I find it impossible to believe, based on my own knowledge of history and interactions while at Stanford, that the opposition to ROTC was not based, to some extent, if not fundamentally, on consideration of the central question of the relationship between the university and the military — particularly in the light of what that military actually does in the world. The committee’s letter notes, and appears to tacitly endorse, the position of the majority report from 1969 that all relevant arguments other than the narrow “institutional” ones are “political”, and thereby excluded from consideration. The majority report of 1969 goes further, arguing that even to consider broader questions of principle would be “fruitless”, and “[f]rom our institutional perspective, such political or normative evaluations would have provided neither necessary nor sufficient justification”. Not only is this statement clearly wrong — normative evaluations are explicit in the “institutional perspective”, indeed written in the first clause of its founding grant, for how else is it to “exercise an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization”? — but a more flagrant abdication from consideration of relevant questions of principle is scarcely imaginable. The committee’s letter seems to endorse the approach of the 1969 report, particularly with its focus on the same narrow (although important) issues. This is a mistake which the committee should be careful not to repeat.

To ignore the issue constitutes a tacit decision. For if a decision is made based entirely on those grounds specified in the second-to-last paragraph of the committee’s letter, important as they are, that decision not only fails to carry out the committee’s mandate. It also, in effect, makes a decision on the central question of principle: namely, to go along with whatever the status quo may be. Some unstated assumptions will then lie behind every piece of reasoning that the committee makes. Perhaps they could be guessed at, by reading behind the lines; but this is entirely inappropriate for an academic committee. An academic committee, making recommendations to an academic institution, must give academic reasoning. Its assumptions and philosophy must be upfront and explicit. Those assumptions will doubtless have some political content. Making narrow arguments, as in the second-to-last paragraph, based on unstated assumptions, which would effectively constitute an endorsement the political status quo, would turn the committee into an organ of established political order. An academic committee simply cannot legitimately operate by making recommendations with an implicit unstated political agenda. Thankfully, there is a simple way to avoid this problem, and provide legitimacy, reasonableness, and candour to the committee’s deliberations: in the best traditions of political philosophy, assumptions should be simply stated, and where necessary, defended.

Previous committee considerations of the issue have plainly avoided the central question. This is clear both from the majority and minority reports from 1969, and the present committee’s letter. Yet even the present committee’s recollection of the history of the issue demonstrates that broader considerations — which no doubt extend beyond those that could be deemed “institutional” — have proved decisive in the past. The majority report of 1969 is written in a detached scientific tone, declaring itself independent from the realities of war which surrounded it; but when the war, and protest, escalated shortly afterwards, positions roundly changed. Such an air of scientific detachment, whether feigned or not, today reads as utterly unrealistic.

2. An approach to the central question.

The central question may appear intractable, but it is not. It is certainly complex and involved; indeed, it is a topic which occupies a great scholarly and popular literature. This may lead the committee to think, quite independent of any desire to avoid “political” issues, that the issue is simply too complex to consider at length; the need for concision may dictate, arguably, that the best amount of attention to pay to the question is zero, or close to it. However I think this would be a mistake: there is a minimal approach to the issue, which appropriately avoids unnecessary controversy but appropriately considers the central question of the relationship between the university and the military, in the light of Stanford’s mission “in behalf of humanity and civilization”. I present it now.

Humanity and civilization” is not an empty concept. One might be tempted to assume that humanity and civilization are conditions automatically satisfied in the present day. After all, it is the 21st century, the universal declaration of human rights is over 60 years old, and Stanford is a peaceful university forming a hub of advanced scientific and technological research and knowledge. It may be tempting to think that, in an age of web start-ups, semiconductor design, and string theory, questions of essential “humanity and civilization”, which predate this age by several centuries, are well settled and established. Indeed they are well settled in principle; but if they are not observed in practice, then an advanced institution like Stanford must do its utmost to remedy the problem. One cannot build an advanced technological society on inhumane and uncivilized foundations.

Considerations only need extend to compliance with minimal standards of “humanity and civilization”, not to all relevant social questions. There are many social questions which remain controversial, as minds may differ on issues of the day. Most social and political controversies in advanced industrial democracies rest upon solid foundations of civility and respect; they are carried out within humane and civilized parameters. For any controversy carried out within these parameters, the question of “acting in behalf of humanity and civilization” is redundant; its affirmation is implicit. It is only when the most minimal standards of human civilization are threatened, or questioned, or violated, that the obligation to act “in behalf of humanity and civilization” carries positive content. In this case — when there is a controversy over questions which pertain to “humanity and civilization” — any individual, committee or institution acting “in behalf of humanity and civilization” is compelled to consider this central question explicitly. Further, they are not merely compelled to consider the question: they are constrained to answer the question in a way which affirms humanity and civilization.

What are appropriate minimal standards? The question then arises: which controversies — political, social, economic, or otherwise — call into question minimal standards of “humanity and civilization”, and which are “merely political”, being carried out within humane and civilized parameters? I do not propose an answer to this question in general; but I offer a minimal standard of what “humanity and civilization” must include, if it is to carry any content at all.

If “humanity and civilization” means anything, it includes a commitment to international law and human rights. Over the ages, human societies have not yet developed anything like a universal code of morals or laws, as governing all human beings. But they have managed to establish a minimal set of principles which are now accepted by almost every nation in the world; they constitute a system of minimal standards by which a society may call itself humane and civilized. These are collectively known as international law; they are embodied in various international treaties, agreements, statements of international courts and legal institutions, and custom. Not every inhumane or uncivilized action violates fundamental human rights; but every action violating fundamental human rights is inhumane and uncivilized. It thus constitutes an appropriate, cautious, objective, conservative system of principles by which this committee may evaluate whether any proposed activity in “in behalf of humanity and civilization”.

Stanford’s founding grant explicitly endorses an interpretation of “humanity and civilization” that includes human rights. It enjoins acting not just “in behalf of humanity and civilization”, but to do so in a particular way: namely, by “teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. The basic civil liberties operating at the basis of international law are written into Stanford’s founding grant. This is essentially a statement of human rights as developed at the time of the grant; one can certainly argue that that founding grant, within which this committee operates and to which mission this committee is explicitly referred in its mandate, compels their actions to be “in behalf of” human rights and international law per se.

Fundamental principles of international law include, inter alia, absolute prohibitions on aggressive war and torture. Indeed, we can take an ultra-conservative approach. Among the principles of international law, there is a subset known as jus cogens, fundamental peremptory norms of international law from which no derogation is permitted. Laws may sometimes allow exceptions; to rules of jus cogens, no exception is permitted. The status of some norms of international law as jus cogens is controversial; however, torture and aggressive war uncontroversially hold this status. The UN Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a party, makes clear in article 2(2) that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” Aggressive war is even more clear: article 2(4) of the UN charter prohibits the “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”, and has been affirmed by the International Court of Justice as part of customary international law; force may only legally be used in international relations in self-defence in response to armed attack, or with the approval of the UN Security Council. It is, by its nature, the worst crime known to international law: in the words of the Nuremberg tribunal, “To initiate a war of aggression… is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” We need not delve too far into the legalities. We only need make clear that aggressive war and torture have objective legal status as peremptory norms of international law: they do indeed violate fundamental principles of human rights and international law, and “humanity and civilization” — in case it were not obvious.

Military aggression and torture in US foreign policy. Indeed it may not be obvious, because the US military has been involved in international criminality of this type for a long time, without a word being mentioned of it by the committee. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was as clear a case of aggressive war as it is possible to imagine: there was no “armed attack” from Iraq to justify any self-defence, and there was no approval from the UN. The US military was therefore the agent of the supreme crime against international law. Indeed the same applies to the attack on Afghanistan and subsequent war and occupation: there was no UN approval, and no “armed attack” by the government of Afghanistan. The attacks on the US of 11 September 2001 were partly planned in Afghanistan (and in other countries), and the Afghan government did provide a haven to some of the perpetrators; but the Afghan government was not itself the attacker, and it made offers of extradition, which the US government refused. Torture and inhumane and degrading treatment at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have become notorious; and also its outsourcing, as in the US policy of “extraordinary rendition” and order “frago 242”; this is not to mention military and foreign aid to a long list of groups and regimes which engage in torture. Remaining with the supreme international crime of aggression, through the history of US foreign policy one finds several similar examples, including of course the case of Vietnam, which sparked the previous committee’s considerations in 1969; for other recent examples, the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo had no justification of self-defence or UN sanction; the US invasion of Panama in 1989 was clear aggression; and the US military (and other government agencies) were condemned by the International Court of Justice for international criminality in its attacks on Nicaragua (along with support for rebel military forces) in the 1980s. There is also a long list of governments destabilized, undermined, or overthrown by US policy, whether by military or covert intelligence operations: since the end of the Second World war, one can note such activities through the 1940s (Italy, Greece, Philippines), 1950s (Germany, Iran, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Syria, British Guiana), 1960s (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Haiti, Ecuador, Congo, Brazil, Peru, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Indonesia, Ghana), 1970s (Chile, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Australia, Angola, Zaire, Seychelles), 1980s (Morocco, Suriname, Libya, Nicaragua, Panama), 1990s (Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Kosovo), through to the 2000s (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Venezuela); this list is by no means complete. To be clear: US foreign policy, and especially its military component, has a long tradition of flagrant and even supreme violations of fundamental principles of international law. The factual, historical evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion that the United States does not respect minimal standards of humanity and civilization, as embodied in peremptory norms of international law, in the practice of its foreign policy. Indeed, the US rejects the International Court of Justice per se; its previous acceptance turned to boycott of the court in 1985 after it started losing the case brought by Nicaragua. Nor does it accept any jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

Even a civilian “apolitical” military degrades humanity and civilization if it follows orders to that effect. It may be objected that this international illegality, degrading to humanity and civilization as it is, is a product of a civilian political establishment, rather than the uniformed military itself. Indeed, foreign policy is formulated by civilians within the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the White House, and other civilian government institutions; and indeed the military is obligated to, and does, follow their orders. But when this illegality in the use of force is carried out, it is of course committed by military or intelligence agencies, and the military plays a preponderant role. The status in law of the excuse of “superior orders” is controversial and need not detain us for present purposes. But even if the military is “only” carrying out orders to commit the supreme violation of international law, it is the agent which does in fact commit that violation; it is performing those acts which in practice degrade humanity and civilization through such violation. The US military compels and coercively obligates its members to follow orders; and those orders historically have been far from actions “in behalf of humanity and civilization”.

Individuals vs. institutions. No doubt the above argument will sound harsh to ears trained to mainstream discussion; it is not heard often enough within the US. But that does not make it wrong. Few things are as sacred within mainstream US culture as respect for, and glorification of, the military. Much is made of the notion of individual sacrifice and service to the nation. Indeed sacrifice and service for a greater good are noble; the problem is that there is nothing good about the institution violating international law and thereby degrading humanity and civilization. The motivations and pscyhology, virtues and vices, of individual military recruits is irrelevant to the present discussion. The present discussion is about the US military as an institution: the policies it implements as an institution, and whether they serve humanity and civilization. Soldiers are individuals; we are focused on the institution. In all social analysis, one must draw a distinction between institutions and the people who occupy them. This point is no doubt obvious to an academic committee, but given US political and cultural conditions it may be necessary to make clear. The culturally sacrosanct nature of the US military means that criticisms of its crimes may elicit horror and scorn not of the crimes, but of their critic. All institutional analysis is, formally at least, independent of the individuals holding positions within that institution.

National vs. global interest. In a similar vein, it would be remiss not to mention the role of patriotism in this issue. Without considering the merits of the concept in general, we note that, especially in US culture, patriotism is regularly used to endow US foreign policy, and particular military policy, with an implicit or assumed benevolence. It should not be necessary to mention that patriotism in any form which includes reflexive obedience, unwillingness to dissent or to listen to dissent, or which considers the interests of one nation above those of others, is no virtue at all. I am sure the committee is well aware of these obvious truths, but they are perhaps worth recalling as the committee performs its deliberations. A slightly less trivial point is that the US military serves US national interests, but the committee does not. Indeed, the committee’s mandate, in accordance with Stanford’s mission, requires it to serve the interests of humanity and civilization as a whole. The committee is not only enjoined to make its deliberations rational and unencumbered by jingoistic mantras; it is also constrained not to apply any reasoning which puts US interests above those of humanity as a whole.

Conditions for a civilized military. It should be clear that the above criticism of the US military is not on the basis that it is a military institution, per se. Rather it is on the basis of its actions, and the pattern revealed by their history. So then one should ask: what would make it civilized? What policies could it implement in order for its actions to meet minimal standards of humanity and civilization? Plainly if, as we have argued, fundamental human rights and peremptory norms of international law are minimal standards of humanity and civilization, then the military ought to implement them. Thus, for example, the following conditions could be demanded of the military:

  • Accepting the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice.
  • Training all members in both the international humanitarian law governing the conduct of war, and the public international law governing the legality of war per se.
  • Incorporating aggressive war and similar crimes into US civilian and military law.
  • Prosecuting those who engage in aggressive war and torture.
  • Expanding conscientious objector status from its present minimal form (only admitting those soldiers who oppose participation in all war) to one that embodies international law (e.g. admitting all soldiers who oppose participation in wars they reasonably believe to be illegal under public international law).

Indeed, an institution which has regularly carried out acts of aggression and unlawful uses of force in international relations, yet which does not even recognise them as crimes in its governing national law, is not just one which acts in behalf of inhumanity and uncivilization: it is an international outlaw organisation.

What is the university? In its majority report of 1969, the committee found it necessary to define “the concept of the university” in order to properly make its deliberations. It defined the university as “a community whose members, including both faculty and students, have a primary commitment to the creation and dissemination of knowledge, in an environment of free intellectual activity”. The committee did not mention that their particular university’s mission and founding statement commits it to promoting “public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — but with this elaboration, the majority report’s definition is sound. Primary among those great principles of government, which are the interests consistent with the university’s definition, are the international laws prohibiting aggressive war — so that all peoples can carry on their lives and their pursuit of happiness in liberty, free from external aggression. An institution, such as the US military, which has routinely violated these great principles — and the historical record is now much longer than it was in 1969 — cannot be considered consistent with the university’s definition.

The inescapable conclusion, in answer to the central question — upon what principles the relationship between these two institutions should be based — is that the university, as an institution, should have as little to do with the US military as possible — at least until it achieves minimal standards of “humanity and civilization”, for instance by implementing the policies suggested above. Until then, it does not belong in any other civilized institution, such as a university.

3. Subsidiary considerations.

In my view the above considerations are the most important or the committee to consider. However, there are others, including those raised by the committee in its letter.

The question is not whether students should be able to join the military. To be clear, none of the above relates to the decisions of individual students. Many of the same considerations apply, but students as individuals have the liberty to associate themselves with whatever institutions they choose. If students want to join the military, or in particular the ROTC, they can, and indeed the university has no power to infringe upon their liberty to do so.

Militaries arguably degrade humanity, by their nature. I have not referred to these above, as I do not consider them essential, but the arguments are well-known. As long as there is a strict chain of command, militaries demand strict obedience; of course this conflicts with the definition of a university, which includes “an environment of free intellectual activity” — in particular, to dissent. The quote of Albert Einstein is well known:

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.

Also well known and studied (for instance by Dave Grossman in his “On Killing”) are the propensities of human beings to not kill each other, even when ordered to do so; an efficient military, then, must overlay the humane instincts of soldiers with conditioning to kill without thinking, before the impulses of humanity can react. The observation that war debases its victims (as well as its perpetrators) is a mere truism. Military institutions may well be sadly necessary in a world which is brutal at the international level; a military is never a desirable institution, only one that can be accepted with a heavy heart. Regardless of whether the US military is more responsible for causing or preventing such international brutality, an institution which is degrading to humanity is at odds with an institution whose mission is to promote humanity and civilization.

ROTC violates academic freedom. This is a narrower ground but it is of great importance to students. Our definition of a university requires “an environment of free intellectual activity”. While procedures vary between different branches of the military, all present significant impediments to the ROTC student’s choice of major and subjects to study. In return for funding students through university, the ROTC mandates their subsequent career path; an obvious impediment to choice of career path and life decision. A university is a place where many human beings learn a great deal about the world, indeed it may be the most formative time of their lives; locking them into a career path just before entering university is thus a particularly odious restriction of liberty. These inconsistencies are not merely institutional; they affect students severely on a practical everyday level.

A closer relationship between the university and military has troubling consequences. Of course these cannot all be foreseen, but there is no doubt the military has a strategy to exploit any breach it can make in the ivory tower: Lt. Marc Lindemann writes in his article “Storming the Ivory Tower” of an “historic opportunity” for the military. He suggests that the military can shape academic curricula in its interests; increase the visibility of itself and its point of view among students; and improve its legitimacy. No doubt the university should be aware of this conscious strategy, not only to compromise its academic mission and manipulate it in its interests, but also for the military to promote itself as an institution. Prof. David Kennedy has also argued that ROTC money would relieve the university of some of its financial aid obligations; potential financial dependence on another institution is always troubling for an independent institution such as a university.

Special qualities of Stanford students? An argument made by Prof. William Perry, among others, is that Stanford should have a closer relationship with ROTC because of the calibre of its students. This argument is almost beneath comment, as clear self-serving back slapping within an elite establishment, but in fact it may be worth some remarks. One might argue, for instance, that Stanford students would be likely to improve the military, even if it does engage in internationally illegal behaviour, destructive of humanity and civilization, on a regular basis. One could point to the fact that Prof. Philip Zimbardo has studied how people can willingly participate in abusive behaviour, merely by being placed in an abuse-producing situation; and has developed techniques to avoid such participation in uncivilized behaviour. But, this is obviously a weak argument; not all students study psychology, and psychology courses are not conditioning against abusive behaviour. And, on the other hand, one can point out that Stanford students have the special quality that their faculty includes such luminaries as Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz, who share responsibility for a significant proportion of the criminality in US foreign policy in the last 3 decades. Rice was a principal architect of the aggressive war in Iraq, and authorised torture in the form of waterboarding. Shultz was deeply involved in the illegalities against Nicaragua, as Secretary of State, publicly lauding the US-funded Contras as “the Nicaraguan democratic resistance”, even as they destroyed clinics, hospitals, murdered health professionals, looted pharmacies, disrupted a vaccination program, attacked lumber yards, coffee processing plants, and electrical stations, killed telephone workers, coffee pickers, teachers, technicians, and midwives, deliberately targeted civilians, tortured, kidnapped, burned, and raped. In 2009 Shultz gave public lectures on the ethics and morality of his policies as Secretary of State, entitled “The Power of the Ought”, by all accounts to rapturous applause from the Stanford community. So perhaps Stanford students may have some special qualities after all.

In conclusion. No doubt much of the above is strongly worded. There are extremely significant matters; the activities of the US military every day are life and death matters. The relationship between the university and the military is an important and central one; it cannot be avoided by reference only to subsidiary matters. No doubt you will feel an intrinsic horror at the idea of mentioning these uncomfortable facts about US foreign policy. You may feel they are stained with the smell of “political” rather than “institutional” issues. But you are tasked as a committee to explore the implications of this relationship for Stanford and its wider mission, which includes as a first and guiding principle acting in behalf of humanity and civilization. You live in an unfortunate juncture where acting in behalf of humanity and civilization — even in its minimal form of respect for the most fundamental, peremptory norms of human rights international law — is controversial and may carry political costs. But those who are the victims of inhumane and uncivilized military policies suffer worse than controversy and political costs. Perhaps you will come to the conclusion you seek by avoiding the real issues; and perhaps you will find that an expedient strategy. But I urge the committee to look to its conscience and the world in which it lives, and ask itself what really matters, at this point in history, in promoting humanity and civilization.


Written by dan

November 30th, 2010 at 3:54 am

Heroism in War

In contemporary society, perhaps all societies, violent actions are often applauded and labelled heroic — and especially actions in war. And so the question arises: what makes actions such heroic, if at all?

This is a question close to pure moral philosophy. It is really just the question of which actions involving physical violence count as morally exemplary.

The most insular, reactionary answer to this question is the one that applies the labels to acts of might or power by one’s own military, and not to others. This answer, of course, can be dismissed out of hand.

A somewhat more enlightened answer goes along the following lines: heroism and courage know no external context. There is heroism implicit in anyone who, even misguidedly, gives their life for their country. Even if the cause is bad, the action itself is virtuous, if it is brave, even if misguided.

Let us consider this argument.

Well, if we take context the statement about context literally, the argument is ludicrous. How can we even refer to an event without describing any of the context? A bullet entered someone’s body, is that heroic per se? No, clearly not, at the very least the identity of the person whose body was entered by the bullet is relevant, and that is contextual. So the question is better phrased as what contexts can make actions heroic, how broadly do our considerations have to extend; and the argument becomes: the context of serving one’s country bravely is per se virtuous and heroic.

This argument is still indefensible.

If a general orders cannon fodder-soldiers to certain death and they accept it and die, for no good cause other than “for the country”, then I certainly wouldn’t regard that as heroic. Rather, the general is morally criminal and the soldiers are pitiable. The country, the geographical State, is not a worthy moral thing per se in any case.

In fact, the war which most typified this absurd and pointless massacre of cannon fodder — the first World War of 1914–1918 — produced probably the strongest, most graphic and most touching artistic denunciation of this absurdity: Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”, one of the greatest antiwar poems ever written. The title is half of an ancient Latin adage: “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” — “it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country”. The adage is given its modern, civilized interpretation: “The old lie”. To idea that dying for one’s country, per se, is noble: this is a lie that has led humanity to untold sorrow, and still does.

That is, in Owen’s poem, this Latin adage is meant, not earnestly or even ironically, but as a bald-faced lie, yet regarded as ancient and venerable, sending millions to their deaths — which it still does.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

So I think that the context of “doing it for one’s country” is not enough.

Another context often advanced is that of “following orders”. Again, this is indefensible. Acting according to orders conveys no positive moral status to an action, let alone exemplary status. Consider the famous anti-militarist passage of Einstein: he specifically denounces heroism and love of country, per se, in this context. (I think this quote is often clipped; the full version, which I believe is the following one, is much better.)

He who joyfully marches to the music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.

And I agree: violent action, even “selfless” action which prevents the death of others by whatever means (taking bullets for them, shooting more enemies, etc.), when done purely on orders, does basically not involve higher brain function. Here Einstein by “heroism” clearly means this kind of physical violence. For something to be “heroic”, in the sense of morally exemplary, I would say, it must involve higher brain function. It must be self-actuated.

The counterargument, I suppose, is that actions can be heroic even when not self-actuated; mere “physical courage” can be heroic. Well, if it does not involve higher brain function then it is just the activation of primordial violent instincts, senseless or family-protecting etc, or conditioning to be violent. Perhaps one can
justify violence on the ground that it protects people the family or tribe — or in general, people to whom one has a close emotional connection — but that is an independent moral justification. There is nothing moral about conditioning or violent instincts per se. The inculcation of violent conditioning, especially as refined an art as it has become in contemporary militaries, should be properly regarded as a debasement of soldiers’ humanity. It is of course true that humans tend not to kill each other, even in a war context; there are striking and surprising statistics from various wars that large numbers of soldiers simply did not shoot at each other. So then, an efficient (i.e. efficiently conquering and death-producing) military is one that debases its members’ humanity. Of course this requires ideological glorification of this debasement, which is then called “heroism”.

I can imagine selfless physical violence, taking bullets, etc, to be heroic in certain contexts extending to various ranges of considerations: where the alleged hero honestly believes it is for the greater good, for protecting family or friends, for for the protection of another human being. I can even imagine a motivation “for the country” in certain contexts really being a shorthand for “for independence from foreign domination” or “for self-determination” or “for international law” or “for democracy” or “for socialism”, etc. These are the sorts of things which make actions morally exemplary, because they are moral considerations, whether small-scale ethics (“inner politics”) or large-scale political philosophy. They come from intentionality and will, from higher cognitive capacities.

One can enter, I suppose, into more difficult questions about the relationship between conditioning/instinct and intentionality/will. This is an interesting question for philosophers and for neuroscientists alike. But for practical purposes — even though I tend to think we ought to condition ourselves to act in ways we agree in advance are morally good, and that part of being a developed human being is having developed the habit to act for the good — I think we can draw a distinction between these for present purposes. If one wants to get technical, one should probably say that those actions brought about by reflexive conditioning which is itself self-actuated for moral reasons, can be heroic actions; and now I suppose we are entering a convoluted philosophical realm. But in general it is the intentionality and will which makes actions moral.

Anyway, these are some considerations. They are very different, I assume, from the considerations the military uses to award its medals.

Written by dan

November 5th, 2010 at 3:36 am

Libertarian socialist reading

Is there a standard set of libertarian literature? Well, of course there is a long history in the socialist tradition. I tend to roll together libertarian socialism and anarchism together, as historically tends to happen. Here is a brief list off the top of my head.

  • Daniel Guerin (ed), No Gods No Masters — the standard anthology of anarchist writings.
  • Peter Marshall, Demanding the Imposible: A History of anarchism — probably the best historical reference on the topic, though I find him a bit idiosyncratic in places.
  • Noam Chomsky, Power and Prospects, and, Government in the Future — talks/articles where he speculates on future organisation. Of course almost anything by this author is a good reference.
  • Robin Hahnel, Economic Justice and Democracy — more general as the title suggests, but there is a very good chapter on Libertarian Socialism and another chapter by Chomsky in reply.
  • Michael Albert, Parecon — presents an economic model, essentially an updated version of the Spanish libertarians, for a post-capitalist society.
  • Sam Dolgoff, The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ self-management in the Spanish revolution — useful description of libertarian activities during the revolution including lots of primary sources.
  • Bertrand Russell, Proposed Roads to Freedom — maybe a little outdated now, and probably not exactly in the libertarian tradition, but a useful presentation of Russell’s version of socialism.

Then there are the classic anarchist and libertarian texts like: anything by Emma Goldman; Kropotkin, Mutual Aid; Proudhon, What is Property?; Bakunin, God and the State. Oscar Wilde also has a wonderful essay called The soul of man under socialism.

There are then authors less identified as libertarian and more as left-marxist or left communist, who are not so far away philosophically: Gramsci, Pannekoek, Luxembourg, and even Marx, particularly his earlier work. There is also the utopian socialist tradition, often placed in contrast to the marxist “scientific” idea of socialism and sometimes overlapping with libertarian ideas: Owen, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and so on. There is also something of a utopian/libertarian socialist fictional literature, of which I think Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is far and away the best. Others like Thomas More’s Utopia and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward lie in the same tradition and I find as wonderful books but are more
authoritarian and betray their age.

A lot of good stuff on the topic is accumulated on znet, which is run by Michael Albert, mentioned above, and others. They are trying to build something like a left-libertarian social network.

Written by dan

November 5th, 2010 at 2:59 am

Deciphering sectarians

The recent layoff of 500,000 employees by the Cuban government brought very different responses from socialist groups. For instance, the Party for Socialism and Liberation wrote about it here, and the International Socialist Organization here.

How should we read these articles? Some comments.

1. I’m by no means an expert on Cuba. I know something about the revolution and the early sixties there, mostly because there are accessible scholarly books on the subject. In more recent times, one is forced to rely on less scholarly sources.

2. And so, this first problem is tied to a second one: it’s hard, or at least I find it hard, to get a good analysis of what’s going on in Cuba. (Maybe I’m missing some good sources; if you know any, let me know!) Most of the information we see comes through orgnisations devoted to either the destruction (US govt, CIA, terrorist exiles, etc) or the defence (PSL, various marxist groups) to the Cuban
revolution. We are really forced to read between the lines. No doubt there are several factors contributing to this problem: the entire US political mainstream has no problem with US terorrism and aggression against Cuba, and does not take any effort to try to stop, or even to explain, what is going on; Cuba is not a huge place; Cuba is actually repressive of the free press, so there’s little good information coming off the island; the general disintegration of the left, and so on. And so here, as it seems you found, we are faced with taking information, if not from the mainstream media, then from partisan authoritarian socialist with sectarian ideological fixations on the issue.

3. Well at least there are some obvious things one should say about Cuba. The US has been criminally and terroristically trying to crush the government for about 50 years. The revolution did overthrow a horrible US-backed dictator and establish a regime which improved living standards and advanced various economic and social goals, nutrition, health care, education, and so on. The regime has withstood this half a century of superpower onslaught, and it is still standing. This is fantastic defiance.

On the other hand, the regime is actually dictatorial. Basic civil and political rights are horribly restricted. The party dominates political life. The economy is not democratically controlled. Rather it is run by authoritarian central planning, with a small amount of legal capitalism, and a large black market run in US dollars. Though the regime seems to go back and forth over time between slightly more or less democratic approaches, my understanding is that the general nature of the economy is actually authoritarian and undemocratic (although non-capitalist).

4. In any situation of revolutionary government, of course the new regime will be mercilessly attacked, from within and without. There are massive pressures on any such regime. The pressures are massive to restrict the free press in the flood of enemy propaganda. The pressures of external subversion, probably well-founded, lead to massive hesitation to leave the system to run by participatory or workplace, or even representative parliamentary democracy. The pressures are massive to rapidly and even ruthlessly build up a set of institutions to defend the revolution, creating a disciplined population, working hard, armed, militaristic, and ready to defend against reactionary attack — which, in the case of Cuba, has actually happened, both at the level of armed invasion at the bay of pigs, and at the level of superpower confrontation which nearly (in fact should have, but for one man) destroyed the world. So one should understand the difficult situation faced by a single revolutionary government, facing the wrath of the established world order. And, the revolution is under threat from our own State’s terrorism and subversion, our first responsibility is at home. But, that should not stop us being critical of abuses within a revolutionary government — in fact, all the more so, if we want to see socialism succeed.

Both the articles do note their primary role to stop US aggression against Cuba, and I think this is correct.

5. The PSL article seems clearly terrible for the most part. It has almost every stereotypical problem one expects from a statement of an authoritarian communist party, and in this way guarantees its own irrelevance. Euphemisms and spin are used to play down the Cuban “revolutionary” government’s harmful policies. Gratuitous references to the USSR are made, even though they are mostly unnecessary to explain the party’s position — but they are necessary for ideological conformity. That of course doesn’t mean that they recall Soviet policies accurately; as an authoritarian communist party the horrors of Soviet collectivization and repression must be ignored, neglected, or sanitised. There is, as there must be, a section about the greatness of Marx and how we deduce what to do from his writings; completely analogous to the tendency of Christian fundamentalists to quote scripture and derive their actions from the Bible. This is
guaranteed to alienate most readers who are not Marxist fundamentalists, and lose every possible mainstream reader. And of course that doesn’t mean that they recall Marx accurately; they read Marx in their authoritarian sectarian fashion, so that a “socialist basis” means State ownership, and “socialist methods” mean authoritarian scentral planning. There is no such dictum from Marx. Not that it matters so much; the question rather is why Marx is so extensively quoted in the first place. There have been many writers since Marx with theories and analysis that are much more applicable to Cuba; but the answer of course is that he is included for partisan-sectarian-religious reasons, not for reasons of better explaining what is happening.

6. This level of ridiculousness from the PSL is not matched by the ISO. Since the PSL is ideologically committed to defending the Cuban government, but the ISO is not, we should expect the ISO to sound more reasonable, as it has more space for honesty. On other matters I’m sure it would be the other way round: an assessment of Trotsky, I would think, could be done far more accurately by the non-Trotskyists, who are not bound like the ISO to lionize him at all costs, and therefore may be a little more honest.

7. That said, there does seem to be some useful analysis in the PSL article: the remarks on overproduction, the comparison with China, the role of trade with the USSR and its collapse leading to vast economic trouble for Cuba since 1991, and so on. When they stick to the facts and concrete analysis, as one might imagine, since they presumably actually do know a lot about Cuba, they seem to be presenting something much more useful.

8. The ISO analysis generally seems much more accurate, at least to anyone who thinks socialism should mean, at base, worker’s control. It largely sticks to the relevant facts, and doesn’t go far into history. That generally means it can’t go too far wrong, and I think it was useful to read. But it does not go into the general problem of how to achieve socialism in Cuba, which is much more difficult. The PSL, thinking that the Cuban government is actually still on the road to socialism, has all sorts of remarks on the best path for the party to take along that road — even if they do it in their alienating and irritating orthodox-Marxist fashion. The ISO, thinking that socialism is long lost in Cuba, doesn’t have to. That makes their task much easier again; and again although I’m not an expert, I tend to agree with them here.

Written by dan

November 5th, 2010 at 2:46 am