Sunday, October 15, 2006

Iraq and the "War on Evil"

"When you believe in things you don't understand, then you suffer. Superstition ain't the way."

-- Stevie Wonder

An October 14 story by Tom Raum of Associated Press proclaimed "Bush Keeps Revising War Justification." That's hardly news, but Raum makes a pretty good point about the neocon administration's shifting war aims.
Initially, the rationale was specific: to stop Saddam Hussein from using what Bush claimed were the Iraqi leader's weapons of mass destruction or from selling them to al-Qaida or other terrorist groups.

But 3 1/2 years later, with no weapons found, still no end in sight and the war a liability for nearly all Republicans on the ballot Nov. 7, the justification has become far broader and now includes the expansive "struggle between good and evil."

That's about the size of it. The harder it comes to justify our woebegone war in Iraq, the more abstract the justification has become, and "evil" is about as abstract (and subsequently irrational) a reason to fight a war as there is.

The Good, the Bad, and the Manipulated

Some people believe in the concept of an abstract "evil," some don't. I choose not to, not out of any particular spiritual or moral conviction, but because belief in forces that exist beyond the physical universe leads to superstitious thinking and irrational actions.

We have much to fear from both nature and our fellow human beings, but that doesn't necessarily make either of them "evil." Lightning is not something that spiteful, malicious god-like creatures hurl to earth to make it a living hell. It's a natural phenomenon, and the more we understand lightning's underlying scientific aspects, the better we can learn to protect ourselves from it.

It's probably fair to say that all human beings have baser instincts, instincts that spring from our need to survive as individuals and as a species. Most of us learn to harness these base instincts in constructive ways that allow us to exist peaceably in society. A lot of us don't. Among those who develop anti-social behaviors, some end up in prison and some turn into monsters. It's easy to fall into thinking of a Hitler or a Stalin as being "evil personified," but to do so is to grant them a supernatural status that makes them virtually undefeatable. But, as history shows, the rest of humanity defeated both Hitler and Stalin, and it didn't do so with talismans or exorcisms.

Any time the word "evil" crops up in war propaganda, the intent is to throw irrational fear into the hearts and minds of a political leader's following. By frightening a populace into an irrational state, the political leader clears the way to act in any manner he wishes without having to give rational explanations for those actions to his followers.

Hence it is that any time young Mister Bush and his echo choir are pressed to give specifics on strategies or war aims, they shift to the "evil" meme, a meme so primal that it strikes a chord not only neoconservative's autistic religious right base, but in self-styled skeptical sons of the enlightenment like little old me.

That's the really scary part of all this. As much education and experience as I have in military and foreign policy issues, and in propaganda techniques, and as much effort and thought as I've put into deconstructing this administration's lunatic policies and rationalizations, they still at times throw enough oogey-boogey into me to make me want--if only briefly--to believe everything else they say and go along with whatever they want to do. That gives me a profoundly frightening perspective on the effect their manipulations must have on the portions of the population that are predisposed to believe and follow them.

So is it any wonder that when the Rovewellians throw doggerel like "If we withdraw before the job is done, the enemy will follow us here " into the Big Brother Broadcast, nobody in the "base" or even in the so-called "liberal media" bothers to ask "What does 'withdraw' mean?" or "What is the 'job?'" or "How will we know when the 'job' is 'done?'" or "Who is the 'enemy?'" or "How will the 'enemy' follow us here?"

The mouth breathers of the base are so brainwashed and brain dead from all the "evil" talk that they don't have capacity to imagine such questions, and the "liberal media" won't ask them for fear of being labeled part of the evil-doer axis and losing audience share to the Big Brother Broadcast (Fox News, AM talk radio, etc.).

It saddens me no end to see how far my country has turned from its original moral and intellectual principles. America's greatest founding fathers--George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine--were students and proponents of the 18th century Enlightenment Movement, a philosophy that sought to replace the superstition and tyranny of what we now call the Medieval Age with scientific methods, logic, and individual rights, dignity and determination.

Under its present neoconservative rule, America is headed back to creating the very kind of world it sought to change. When I was a kid, George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 were taught in American elementary and high schools as examples of the evils of Leninist socialism. Today, they reflect the basic tenets of American neoconservative capitalism. The very kinds of absolute powers King George III tried to impose on the American colonies are the very same sort of absolute powers President George III wants to exercise on the United States of America. And given the state of technology in our age, President George has more tools at his disposal to impose tyranny than either George the king or George the author could have imagined.

Democratic victories in the November congressional elections won't solve all of America's problems, but that's the best hope we have to keep our country from turning into the stuff of a futuristic dystopia novel. If the Republicans manage to keep control of the legislature, the best strategy I can think of for what's left of the enlightened segment of the American population is to take a page from Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451. Start memorizing your favorite books and stake out a cave to hide in before the Great Satan starts fire-hosing your home library with kerosene.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at ePluribus Media and Pen and Sword.


  1. I don’t see ‘evil’ as being necessarily connected to anything supernatural. Instead, I use it as an adjective with its first definition being “profoundly immoral and malevolent” and would argue that there have been plenty of people throughout history whose acts fit that description. If that leads one to conclude that the people committing the acts are themselves also evil, I probably would not argue.

    Case in point: torture. In my view, torture is indefensible, and is, in and of itself, evil. To deliberately and methodically create indescribable pain for its own sake in a person under your total control—I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything more evil. (Given the choice of being tortured or murdered, I’d prefer to be murdered.)

    I also don’t view evil as being some disembodied force permeating the universe: it’s simply vast human ugliness taken to its most extreme. So, I would agree with you that evil as an abstract concept is a only manipulative meme, and that a “war on evil” is but an absurd (and misleading) notion, but I would also argue that there are some human acts in this world for which the word ‘evil’ remains the best description.

  2. Wow, mentioned three of my favorite books, you did.

    You know, I think I read somewhere that the chances of dying by lightning are greater than the chances of dying from a terrorist attack, in most countries anyway.

  3. “The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”

    -Albert Camus

    I think the above statement is generally a good understanding of evil, although there are certainly times when it is intentional. I agree with Kathleen and Jeff that evil is not some abstract force that exists and tries to bend our actions to its purpose.

    I do think things are a bit more situational than Kathleen does, however. Torture, for example. While I agree torture is evil in the case of, for example, the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, I do not think the same torture would necessarily be evil under other circumstances. For example, suppose some guy had buried alive five little girls and there were only hours available to find out where they were and save them. In that case, some people might think of torture as a necessary evil, but I have a hard time reconciling the words "necessary" and "evil." Rather, I think torturing the guy to get the information would be justified and not evil in the first place.

    But to get back to Camus and tie it in to current events - I think many of the people who support Bush's policies, including evil ones like torture of prisoners, do so from ignorance. It's not that they're evil people who long to see bad done in the world. They've simply bought in to the idea that we're in terrible danger and that the admin is keeping us and our children safe. In other words, they're ignorant of the true state of affairs.

    Even within the administration itself, I tend to think the officials are probably doing what they think is right (in other words they are ignorant of the wrongness of it, or the ineffectiveness of it, or what have you).

    War on evil is certainly misleading and inaccurate. It is meant to inflame emotions. Of course, 'war on terror' is much the same. How do you have a war on a concept like terror? Even considering terror as a tactic (i.e. terrorism) it is hard ot have a war on it. It would be like the British having a 'war on blitzkrieg' in WWII. Their war wasn't on blitzkrieg, it was on the people behind it. Similarly, any war we are in now isn't a war on a concept or tactic, but on people.

    I think it is easier to stomach war when one doesn't think of the people behind it - it is easier to think of a war as being on terror or evil than on a group, because that makes it easier to forget that there are faces on the other side of it.

  4. Doesn’t this rather make a mockery of due process? If we can so easily “convict” this guy and proceed to torture him (because surely we would only torture the guilty guy, right?), why do we bother ever having trials for anyone?

    And then there is the issue of efficacy. Many studies have been done, and interrogators confirm, that torture is not an effective means of extracting information. Yes, there are occasional instances when it has worked, but the reason they’re even reported is that they’re so unusual. Most of the time, torture results in interrogators obtaining the information they want, regardles of its veracity, which means that it is useless.

    So given that torture may occasionally produce the desired result - accurate information - it usually does not, and how then can truth be distinguished from fiction?

    There are always “what if...?” scenarios that can be conjured up to defend pretty much anything, but how far should we take the torture of the guy in your example? What procedures should be done, and who should administer them? Who decides when torture is deemed necessary? The cop on the beat? The station sergeant? The governor? What modes of torture would be effective in “just hours” and if these modes exist, why are we finding it “necessary” to torture Guantánamo prisoners for multiple years?

    What is the point of having the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause in the Constitution, if we can administer cruel and unusual pre-punishments?

    I think the greatest danger of torture is not to the tortured (although their suffering up to death is horrendous in utterly inexcusable). No, the danger it presents is to the torturers themselves, and the society that backs them up. By embracing evil, they become evil, and torture itself is a form of terrorism. In fact, it is probably equally intended to instill fear in the general populace as it is to accomplish its stated goal.

    In short, torture is known to be ineffective in nearly every case; torture is an administration of punishment without due process; torture is a form of punishment that violates civilized norms. Whether you look at it from a pragmatic or a moral perspective, torture does more harm than good, and it fulfills ever aspect of “profoundly immoral and malevolent,” regardless of the circumstances. If we are going to consider torture to be acceptable in any circumstances, then any one of us should be willing to perform the acts of torture deemed necessary, because we really are responsible for those things committed in our names.

    As far as ignorance being any sort of excuse for those who are responsible for the commission of torture, it won’t wash. Ignorance is no excuse, maybe even less of an excuse than “I was just following orders.” It does seem that we have come one hell of a long way from where we were in the 1940s during the Nuremberg trials, and have forgotten the collective horror that greeted those revelations. I don’t know what has happened to change us, but it might just be the most important thing we need to examine.

    So I stand by my original statement: torture is evil.

  5. Kathleen:

    In terms of my hypothetical, would you condone any means necessary to get the information (i.e. torture) or not? Since you said a hypothetical can be used to defend anything, are you agreeing with me on the hypothetical or not? If you do agree with me on it, then your stance isn't an absolute one, which is the point I was making.

    Absolutes don't often work well, in my view.

  6. I must not have been clear. I should have said that hypothetical scenarios can be conjured up in the attempt to defend anything; I did not mean that I agreed it was a valid defense.

    I will agree that "absolutes don't often work well," but I consider torture to be an exception to this generalization. In my opinion, torture is never excusable, always evil. It is the only thingI can think of at this moment that I would put into this category. And I would extend it to include the torture of animals as well.

  7. Jeff, sorry to change the subject, but have you seen this story? (November surprise = staged attack on the Eisenhower.)

    In reading the comments, I found myself alternately poop-in-my-pants scared and reassured. The military commenters seemed to think the whole thing was No Big Deal. I hope they're right.

  8. Thanks, Kathleen. I had a similar discussion with a good friend who holds your position as well. I still think the torture in my hypothetical is not evil at all, and I would condone it to save those kids. My initial feeling was that inaction in that particular case would actually be bordering on immoral, but I've been argued off of that position to some extent. Makes for interesting philosophical discussion.

  9. Thanks for the fine discussions, gang. Like I said, "I choose not to believe in evil" simply because I think it too often implies supernatural forces, and I KNOW it does when it's used in war propaganda.

    I do believe in lack of moral restraint, sociopathic behavior, etc. simply because it clearly exists and it refers to human behavior, not "the devil" making someone "do it."

    I can go along with Kathleen's and Mus's definitions of "evil" as a way of describing a human behavior, but like I said, I don't think that's how the term is used in manipulative language.

    Douglas, I don't really know what to make of all the naval activity. As I've written before, in a saner time, I wouldn't be too excited about it. Today, I don't think any speculation can be dismissed as paranoid.