Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dannatt, elite consensus and Samuel Huntington

This Martin Kettle op ed from the Grauniad regarding General Dannatt's act of random reason and senseless honesty really annoys me. First up, this quote from Samuel "Clash of Civilisations" Huntington, and Kettle's approving comments:
In the end, although the generals might propose, it was the political leaders who disposed, even in the heat of war. The high-minded judgment by the political scientist Samuel Huntingdon that "if the statesman decides upon war which the soldier knows can only lead to national catastrophe, then the soldier, after presenting his opinion, must fall to and make the best of a bad situation" remains largely true today in theory and practice. Theirs but to do or die, even when someone has blundered.
Shorter Sam: Back in your box, von Stauffenberg. Really, has there been any issue in this man's career he hasn't been catastrophically wrong about? In the 1960s he wrote a book about how converting people into refugees in Vietnam - "forced-draft urbanisation and modernisation" as he put it - was "the solution to "wars of national liberation"". Bombing and dragooning them into the slums would expose the enemy and permit the government to keep tabs on them whilst also exposing them to the material benefits of western society. (That is, if we hadn't given them third-degree burns in the process.)

Quite a lot of US generals, like the hopeless William DePuy ("the solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells and more napalm until the enemy cracks and gives up"), actually believed this obscene nonsense, at least until the Tet offensive demonstrated that transferring a guerrilla sympathiser from his village to the capital only makes him that much nearer your office. But that didn't stop Sam. He also believed that western and communist economies were converging, that - say - Hungary and Italy were developing industries in a similar fashion. Ouch. Most recently, he came up with his clash of civilisations. Like all his big ideas, it's a superficially attractive notion with the great advantage that it suggests doing what the elite to which it is directed already thinks is right. I am reminded of Fafnir's crack about "Tell me more about this "not-our-fault" theory - I find it oddly compelling."

Its vacuity is best demonstrated by the fact that civilisations are resolutely refusing to clash. Where is the great struggle for influence between Orthodox and Western Christianity, between Buddhism and Hinduism, between China and Russia? It's not as if, say, Turkey, Indonesia, India and Albania were locked in bloody conflict with their non-Islamic neighbours. If it has any validity at all, it's more like the clash of some bits of some civilisations somewhere and sometime, which is to say "the stuff that's been going on through the whole of recorded history". Huntington, I award you one of Anders Sandberg's warning signs for tomorrow:

The black lightbulb, for really stupid ideas. After all, Huntington and Kettle's vision of civilian control of the armed forces would be as if Tony Blair's doctor was summoned, to find the prime minister begging for his heart to be removed. The doctor would say "There is no need to remove your heart." Blair insists. It's the central front in the war on cardiac arrythmia. The doctor says that it's extremely dangerous, in fact it would be fatal. Blair won't go back on his decision to fight the enemy within. "Prime Minister, this is madness," says the doctor. "You will certainly die." Blair says that leadership is sacrifice. "I took the Hippocratic oath," says the doctor. "Ethically, I can't operate on you to no purpose. And the operation will certainly kill you. But it would be unconstitutional to refuse. Pass the scalpel!"

In essentially all Western armies, the soldier is under a duty to obey any legal order, and a further duty to disobey any illegal order. I think there is a strong analogy that the head of the army has a duty to disobey an order that would be impossible to carry out, or to resign rather than attempt to carry it out. Certainly, the just war doctrine holds that war is morally defensible when the order to begin it comes from legitimate authority, the evil caused is less than the alternative, and there is a reasonable prospect of success. After all, if the effort to prevent the greater evil fails, all it will have achieved is the additional evil of going to war.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. Traditionally, the separation of politics and command is meant to constrain the military from positive action. Civilian control is there to prevent war or tyranny. But the logic that the army must be prevented from doing illegitimate or dangerous acts falls down if the civilian government is bent on doing them itself. Then, if civilian control is absolute, why is it not also absolute with regard to the individual? No-one, I take it, thinks that the individual should not have the right to refuse an illegal order. To put it another way, the government cannot legitimately use civilian control to order war crimes. So why should it have the right to use it to order, say, the crime of aggression in international law? Martin Kettle presumably doesn't accept the "only obeying orders" defence as any fit way for a citizen to conduct themselves. So it is very strange to see an editor of the Guardian - the newspaper founded to defend Liberal principles - arguing Keitel's side.

Oh yes, that elite consensus. Moving on, Kettle rolls out some really awful media-managerialist nonsense to support his conclusions. Or rather, having approvingly cited Huntington's Nuremburg nonsense, he then tacks away from it, claiming he is only doing so for form's sake, and ends up indulging in what Roland Barthes would have called Neither-Nor criticism. The civilian control of the military is absolute to the degree described above, but even so, Dannatt was probably right to speak out. And why? Consider these paragraphs:
But we also have to recognise that these are changed times. Military action, especially by democratic states, requires new and more modern forms of legitimacy if it is to be politically sustainable. The reason why all our political parties now agree that parliament should have the final say on going to war is because most of our foreseeable wars are elective, just as Iraq was. They are fought on behalf of consumerist societies almost wholly unaffected by any form of direct engagement. They can no longer be fought or carried to completion without ongoing public education, debate and scrutiny. Excluding the military from this process is not impossible, but it would be bizarre, not least because the military's own credibility is so much at stake too.


We are already in an age in which military action requires new forms of consent. The disciplines and sacrifices of the total wars of the 20th century are now a receding memory. Today's wars are won and lost on primetime, almost as if they are reality TV. Soldiers in the field now claim and exercise rights - to call up chatshows, and to phone, text and email home - that would have brought the campaigns on the western front to their knees within minutes. All of this makes military action much harder to launch and maintain than in the very different conflicts of bygone times. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a separate point. But these are debates from which military commanders surely cannot be uniquely excluded.
Note the managerialist insistence that everything is different and must be new, new, new. But what does it mean to say that wars can no longer be fought without ongoing public education, debate and scrutiny? When could they be? The 18th century, perhaps. Exactly the disciplines and sacrifices of the total wars of the 20th century required the public's total attention - that's why they were "total" wars, no? In 1942, at the nadir of the Allied cause, there was a vote of no confidence in the Churchill government after a full-dress debate in the Commons. The Beveridge Report, ultimate touchstone of the postwar settlement, was prepared in mid-war. The First World War saw not one but two changes of government. The Korean War overlapped a general election and two changes of prime minister.

Furthermore, what evidence is there that more communication with the home population would have brought about a swift end to the First World War? The nations whose public opinion eventually did collapse - Germany and Austria - if anything had far stronger censorship. And Germany gave up because Ludendorff informed the government that there was no point fighting on, rather than dutifully defending the Meuse, the Mosel, and finally the Rhine at vast further cost in lives as, presumably, he should have done. But the content is not the point. The point is that it's all different now for the usual vaguely defined half-reasons ("media", "prime time" and the rest), and therefore the elite knows best. Just as elite consensus knows that there is an unbridgeable conflict between Britain and Iran, that David Cameron is exciting, and that Samuel Huntington's advice is less dangerous than a sack of snakes.

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