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August 10, 2003 Mail

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I do send out some odd email, and receive equally odd email in return.  Here I will print some of it, with, now and then, my responses.   Before I post anyone's writing, I will ask your permission to post your comments and whether I should use your name or not, or use an alias you wish to use.
War Crimes - Or Just Standing Up for Yourself?
From Dresden to Tokyo to Inglewood to Baghdad

Item 1:

Last weekend Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense under presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, had a piece in the opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times, and I suppose it was syndicated elsewhere.

In my email discussion group this raised some issues.  Many months ago we had a go-round on what the United States did to the city of Dresden in 1945.  Some of you remember that from Slaughterhouse Five, the novel by Kurt Vonnegut about February 13 of that year when we firebombed that city - and took out tens of thousands of civilians in a place where there were few if any military or industrial targets.

Our original discussion had to do with civilian casualties as a result of the Iraq invasion, the moves to secure that country and remove its government, and the subsequent occupation in force.  This time the civilian casualties were, relative to the forties, few.  But civilians were still dead.  What was acceptable?  How many dead civilians could we write off as "Freedom Fries?"  We batted that around.

Now on the fifty-eighth anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb dropping, McNamara dropped his own bomb.  [reference - We Need Rules for War: History shows why U.S. should back the international court  by Robert S. McNamara   August 3, 2003  The Los Angeles Times]

McNamara in his piece recounted events of his working with General Curtis LeMay on the bombing of civilian targets in Japan.  On the night of March 9, 1945 LeMay had sent out 334 B-29 bombers, seeking to inflict, as he put it, the maximum target destruction for the minimum loss of American lives.

World War II was entering its final months, and the United States was beginning the last push for an unconditional Japanese surrender.  That night the bombs caused the death of 83,793 Japanese civilians and injured 40,918 more. The planes dropped firebombs and flew lower than they had in the past and therefore were both more accurate and more destructive.

As McNamara recalls in his after-action discussion with LeMay "Of course we didn't burn to death 83,000 people every night, but over a period of months American bombs inflicted extraordinary damage on a host of Japanese cities - 900,000 killed, 1.3 million injured, more than half the population displaced."

LeMay was convinced that it was the right thing to do, and he told his superiors (from whom he had not asked for authority to conduct the March 9 raid), "If you want me to burn the rest of Japan, I can do that."   LeMay's position on war was clear: If you're going to fight, you should fight to win.

In the years afterward, he was quoted as saying, "If you're going to use military force, then you ought to use overwhelming military force."  He also said: "All war is immoral, and if you let that bother you, you're not a good soldier."

Today, looking back almost 60 years later and after serving as secretary of Defense for seven years during one of the hottest periods of the Cold War, including the Cuban missile crisis I have to say that I disagree.

McNamara goes on to discuss that point.  His position now?  War may or may not be immoral, but it should be fought within a clearly defined set of rules.

One other thing LeMay said, and I heard him say it myself: "If we lose the war, we'll be tried as war criminals."

On that last point, I think he was right.  We would have been.  But what makes one's conduct immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

He argues if you use the idea of a Just War then you action should be proportional to your aims.  And that, he thinks, is why the United States so badly needs to participate in the International Court for Crimes Against Humanity, which was recently established in The Hague.

The Bush administration believes, and many agree with it, that the court could become a vehicle for frivolous or unfair prosecutions of American military personnel. Although that is a cause for concern, I believe we should join the court immediately while we continue to negotiate further protection against such cases.

If LeMay were alive, he would tell me I was out of my mind. He'd say the proportionality rule is ridiculous. He'd say that if you don't kill enough of the enemy, it just means more of your own troops will die.

But he argues we need to participate, that the human race desperately needs an agreed-upon system of jurisprudence that tells us what conduct by political and military leaders is right and what is wrong, both in conflict within nations and in conflict across national borders.  And he thinks we need a clear code, internationally accepted, so that not only our Congress and president know, but so that all our military and civilian personnel know as well what is legal in conflict and what is illegal.  And he adds we need a court that can bring wrongdoers to trial for their crimes.

Indeed.  For those of us who were part of the national debate regarding the Vietnam War, when McNamara was so controversial, this is odd stuff.

From Atlanta, one friend wrote this:

I can't help but think, after reading this article, of Lyndon Johnson, sitting at the long dark table, first with his palm on his forehead, then his forearm over his sinking head, and finally his face on the table, buried in the thought "My God, what have I done!"  All this inspired by his military men admitting that the Viet Nam war could not be won and we were wasting our time and precious lives.  Body language most explicit.

McNamara mentioned he had developed a conscious a few years ago and said he had erred in backing one war, and regretted it, or so I am told his autobiography reports.  Well, it was a stressful job after all, and you can certainly make mistakes in judgment under stress.

But the generals who issue commands to "bomb the hell" out of enemies really want to bomb, like a Labrador retriever wants to fetch a ball.  It must be obsessive for them.  The guilt would have to be buried pretty deep and overshadowed by an anxiousness to finally do their job as guy in charge of bombing the hell out of things.  With 83,00 dead in a night at your hands it would have to be exponentially more horrible than hitting your own kids, and what kind of mind could justify away the regret.

At a gig with a "born again" bass player soon after 9/11 I was confronted (as the outspoken leftist) with the statement, "Must be hard to be a flower child these days."  I figured he was parroting some deacon in his church and saw me as an easy win in the hawks over the doves sentiment that was so pervasive that September.  My Senator, Zell Miller had evoked the phrase "I think we should bomb the hell out of them (in Afghanistan)" - Give 'em Hell, Zell, I thought he should be called.

"I don't think much of all that bombing," I replied.  "Too indiscriminate, too easy to hurt the innocent." I hoped he would think of Jesus, surrounded by all the little children, being incinerated by one errant bomb, along with a few lambs.  But we dropped a pile of them, each one could have bought countless textbooks with their relative high pricetags, and with every one dropped orders were placed for two more bombs to replace it.  And what a mess they made, and how many fell in the wrong place.  We were there to teach Al Queda a lesson though, and I'm sure the message got through.  Yep, we have the biggest can of whoopass ever, is there any doubt?  But then there is regret, unless putting yourself in the other guys shoes, empathy, completely atrophies.  Sometimes it takes the judgment of another to activate it, and maybe it is history that makes McNamara want to sanitize his idea of fair war.  I think we see an emerging guilt in Robert, but it's a little late for that.

I replied:

You wrote - "I hoped he would think of Jesus, surrounded by all the little children, being incinerated by one errant bomb, along with a few lambs."

I wonder.  Perhaps the born-again evangelical Christian hawks - who believe that "preventative war" is a good thing, or that we were right to send a message - that those who mess with us die - think that Jesus would be glad. 

There is the God of Vengeance of the Old Testament, that "beta version" of the Bible that came before the Bible 2.0 with the pacifist, wimp Jesus.  Folks tend to use the bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament when it suits their purposes, and the forgiving, turn-the-other-check New Testament God when that (He) is useful. 

Of course maybe they think Jesus would be glad to die if we were showing that no one messes with us - and he and those little children and fluffy lambs mistakenly just got in the way.  They say he died for us once before.  And most everyone likes roasted lamb.

And empathy doesn't atrophy.  It is discarded when it gets in the way of a "higher purpose." 

The current rumor buzzing around DC this week is that Colin Powell will resign at the end of this presidential term, and be replaced by that Rice woman, who seems to get caught in embarrassing lies now and then, or Paul Wolfowitz, the man who thinks diplomacy is for wimps and effective foreign policy consists of single message: no talking - agree or die.

But folks want things this way.  All the polls show that.

Item 2:

Old-School Cops in a New-School World by Peter Moskos 
Tuesday, August 5, 2003  Page A15 The Washington Post

This was a discussion of the trial of a police officer out here in Inglewood, California who was videotaped, by a civilian, as he slugged and slammed around a black teenager, one Donovan Jackson, who was already in handcuffs and apparently subdued.  This went to trial.  The officer claims he was justified, because the suspect grabbed his testicles and you couldnt see that on the tape.  The jury was hung, seven to five for conviction.  No decision.

Moskos is a doctoral candidate at Harvard and was a policeman in Washington DC.  He writes,

One school of thought -- call it old school -- believes in the moral righteousness of hitting back.  Phrases like "he got what he deserved" and "you reap what you sow" come to mind.  If someone disrespects you and grabs your private parts?  The old school says legal niceties be damned.

But the law is new school. The new school doesn't believe in hitting someone back. The new school says two wrongs don't make a right. If you find the whole concept of "disrespect" a bit bizarre, you're new school.

Moskos concludes the while things are changing to new school in police forces, in the meantime, it does little good to be surprised, even shocked, when police smack a sixteen-year-old with a bad attitude.  Donovan Jackson will not be the last person hit by police.  Not as long as we demand new-school policing from old-school police.

I wrote to the group -  "Empathy doesn't atrophy.  It is discarded when it gets in the way of a 'higher purpose.'"  Well, this is about the opposite of empathy.

The issue is respect.  When one is dissed that is, disrespected then the question becomes how one responds to that. 

The idea raised here by this guy is this - in this culture, now, perceived disrespect requires violent retaliation.  Otherwise, how could you live with yourself?  How could go look yourself in the mirror?  People would walk all over you.  You'd hate yourself.

It is easy to extrapolate current political stances from this article about local police work out here in Los Angeles.  The "attack of the airliners" a few Septembers ago was the ultimate "diss."  We had to whip someone's ass.  How else could we live with ourselves?

The writer in the Post posits that there are folks who let it go, and just enforce the law.  He says this is a minority, but growing. 

I seriously doubt that. 

This country in the last two years pulled out of a lot of treaties, but the most important was the International Criminal Tribunal. 

Just as cops out here will likely beat the shit out of you for your perceived bad attitude - they're not going to shrug, cuff you and leave your actions up to some judge - so we act as a nation.

But then again, a good friend from Pasadena wrote back, ignoring the national implications.

This is not "Old School vs. New School" or anything thing else that resembles proper police behavior or rational thinking.  It is clear police brutality, and a racist act attempting to beat an inferior black youth into submission.  "New School" white policemen will continue the same practice.  Here again, it was only because the camera was there that we even know about this racist behavior.
What is the first, almost instinctual, thing any man would do if someone reached for or grabbed his testacies? 
You would, without a doubt, quickly and carefully jump back, yell to the grabber, "Let go or I'll ... " - and probably even eventually punch the person if he didn't let go.
There is nothing on the tape that remotely indicates that the office moved back, jumped back, or said anything to the handcuffed kid, that would lend any truth to his accusation.
He came up with that excuse after reviewing the tape and realizing that the camera did not show the kid's hands.  The jury should have seen through that and found him guilty.  

Yeah, well, my argument, on an international scale, is we really got Saddam for the 9/11 airplane thing. 

Wasn't on the tape?  No evidence? 

Doesn't matter.  We were dissed.  We need to show no one disses us.  And everyone got more careful, I think.  Didn't they?

Street justice.