Category Archives: war

Congressional Military Oversight: A Trial Without A Judge

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The US Congress holds the constitutional responsibilities of declaring war and raising, equipping, and maintaining the military (clauses: Declare War, Army, Navy, Regulate, Installations). The framers of the constitution intentionally gave the legislature these powers to divide control of the military between it and the executive. They sought to prevent either branch of government from using the fighting force to oppress the people or to engage in wanton war making. In short, they wanted an adversarial structure to the mechanism that controlled the military; an institutional check on military and executive decisions that relate to war and national defense.

To fulfill this constitutional duty, congressional committees frequently hold hearings to investigate ongoing military issues, to learn about strategies being employed, and to hold military leaders accountable for the decisions they make. When done right, congressional oversight can be extremely effective (Truman Committee: here). The Senate Armed Services Committee handles these duties for the Senate.

Unfortunately, committee members frequently use hearings for personal or political advantage. Consider testimony on the Syrian Civil War and the Iraq War:

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On 10/27/2015, Senator Lindsey Graham (above) engaged in an emotional questioning of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (below) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford about the ongoing Syrian Civil War. He asked both individuals questions on the US strategy to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Asad from office and in all cases he proceeded to interrupt and answer for the witnesses (video: here). His line of questioning was less about learning and more about criticizing the Obama administration. Despite hearing such as the one shown here, Congress is still yet to authorize the ongoing military operations in Syria and Iraq, consciously choosing not to vote on an Authorization for Use of Military Force.

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On 9/11/07, then Senator Hillary Clinton (Dem) spent 6 minutes giving a speech criticizing the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War before ever asking a question. In this speech she essentially accused the witnesses General David Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker of lying (video: here; article: here), stating: “Despite what I view is your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think that the reports that you provide to us really require a willing suspension of disbelief.” It was later revealed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that Clinton admitted that she only voted against the surge for political reasons (article: here).

In contrast to Senator Clinton, in the same set of Iraq War hearings Senator John McCain (Rep) asked several softball questions that supported the ongoing Bush-Petraeus surge strategy. McCain was a noted supporter of the surge and his leading questions did very little to probe the war effort or provide any real oversight (video: here; support: here).

Although congressional hearings have a question and answer format reminiscent of a lawyer’s examination of a witness in a courtroom and they are similarly intended to seek some approximation of the truth, there is no equivalent to the judge to keep the questions on track and professional. It’s unfortunate that committee hearings frequently turn political instead of being informative. It’s also easy to understand why witnesses so uniformly hate testifying before Congress.

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War Ethics for Dumdums (Bullets)

Posted by Sarah:

Before sports or electoral politics, there was war.  It is the primordial adversarial institution and only recently has there been a concentrated effort to legally establish permitted weapons, methods, and targets.  Yet, with common sayings like, “all’s fair in love and war,” and “war is hell,” it’s clear that these efforts have had only modest impact on “civilizing” war by bringing deliberate ethical standards to its conduct.

Unlike other adversarial institutions, such as sports and business, there no powerful global regulatory authority to make states play by the rules.  Instead, adherence to the rules of war depends, for the most part, on positive reciprocity and mutual self-respect. Deposed dictators and war criminals on the run may get dragged into international courts now. But powerful states have always been free to choose to forgo the rules – e.g., in situations where the enemy is at a distinct military disadvantage or where abrogation confers the only or best opportunity to defeat a superior enemy.

The US and its NATO allies have routinely been accused of flouting the rules of war in recent engagements. But we can find great powers selectively ignoring, or “gaming,” the rules of war for as long as there have been attempts to formalize such rule.

Consider how the British ignored the St. Petersburg Declaration (1868), which outlawed exploding “dum dum” bullets, in the Battle of Omdurman (1898) during the Mahdist War (also called the Anglo-Sudan War) between the Mahdist Sudanese and Egyptian/British forces.  The effectiveness of the dum dum bullets allowed the British to kill over 11,000 Dervishes, compared to only 47 British casualties.  The British justified their actions by arguing that the St. Petersburg Declaration only applied to signatories, which did not include the Dervishes.

As one Greek officer during the Balkan Wars reasoned, “When you have to deal with barbarians, you must behave like a barbarian yourself.  It is the only thing they understand.” Such logic implies that that the “barbarians” will not adhere to the rules of law and thus, “civilized” societies must adopt barbaric practices as well — otherwise it would be like fighting with one hand tied behind their back.  When one side refuses to comply with international agreements limiting weapons or tactics, abiding by a standard that was designed to be bilateral puts a state at a distinct disadvantage.

It is clear, however, in this battle, the Dervishes could not have used dum dum bullets, regardless of whether they were signatories to the St. Petersburg Declaration.  With no threat of retaliation, the British took advantage of a legal loophole to obliterate the enemy with the most effective weaponry at the time.

When the object is decisive victory with the lowest cost, were the British actions at the Battle of Omdurman “cheating” or immoral – or were they ethically acceptable?  If both sides have not agreed to adhere to the rules, are all actions morally permissible? What mechanisms mediating international relations exist or might be created to augment incentives to comply with ethical norms in conducting war, particularly when conflict is asymmetric, involving inferior or irregular combatants?

These are the kinds of questions I’ll be exploring in future posts on this blog.

Bubbling up in the Ethics-for-Adversaries lab…

In this blog we have spent a lot of our time with case studies drawn from the “Big 4” large-scale deliberately adversarial institutions: markets, electoral politics, sports, and the justice system. But some of the most illuminating analyses are sparked by adversarial activities in other realms, or in peculiar corners of the Big 4.

Based on an initial brainstorming session with this year’s team of bloggers, here are a few of the realms of structured competition you can expect to see future posts on:

  • University Student Politics (ought we to expect an emphasis on certain unwritten democratic norms that have fallen by the wayside in big-money national politics?)
  • Debate Club (how is it like a sport? what is its function? is this a better way to develop public-speaking and logic/rhetorical skills than other pedagogical or social means? what formal and informal rules and norms surround the competitions?)
  • Academic Philosophy (similarly, what can we learn by contrasting student and professional academic philosophy communities that place greater or lesser emphasis on aggressive argumentation?)
  • Job Hiring for Non-Adversarial Institutions (there are formal and informal competitions going on all the time in even the most non-adversarial institutions. E.g., competitions for student placement or job hiring. How do otherwise non-adversarial institutions best handle and constrain these competitive moments?)
  • Ballet-Company Politics (one such non-adversarial institution — after all, its purpose is to put on a show that is evaluated on its own terms by aesthetic criteria — is the ballet company. And yet at all levels, we are told that the competition between dancers, and their parents, is like a blood sport.)
  • Animal Mate-Selection (what can we learn from the mostly genetically-encoded norms that govern mate-selection in different parts of the animal kingdom? Robert Frank has recently written that  Darwin, not Adam Smith, is really the father of modern thinking about market economics. So what can we learn from Darwin about the social benefits of a well-designed adversarial practice?)
  • International Relations, Diplomacy, Espionage, and War.  (At the limit: surely one of the oldest, and most ritualized, deliberately and inherently adversarial practices.)
  • Scientific Research (a cooperative community in a common search for the Truth, or red in tooth and claw? What kinds of tactics and strategies are justifiable in the competition for grants, patents, and publications?)

Expect this list to grow over the coming weeks. If you have suggestions for other  adversarial realms we should be working on, please let us know in the comments section, below.

Do we really care if political leaders lie to us?

This afternoon I attended a terrific seminar at the Kenan Institute for Ethics led by Amber Diaz, a PhD student in political science at Duke. Amber was presenting some preliminary results from a large survey she has conducted on Americans’ reactions to learning that their political leaders sometimes mislead them. According to the Kenan Institute’s web site, her dissertation is tentatively entitled: “Bumbling, Bluffing, and Bald-Faced Lies: Mis-Leading and Domestic Audience Costs in International Relations.”

It shouldn’t surprise readers of this blog that during the discussion of many different kinds and contexts of deception in politics, it seems to make a difference whether we interpret the deceptive politician as being engaged in an essentially competitive or a non-competitive activity.

In competitive “games” — especially those involving strategic rationality, where one party is taking into account how the other is trying to outwit her — we routinely leave room for “ethical deception,” or at least ethically excusable deception. Poker players can bluff, quarterbacks can pump-fake, pitchers can throw change-ups, negotiators can deliver a phony ultimatum, detectives interrogating suspects can trick them into believing they already have DNA evidence proving their guilt; and so on.

What about political leaders? Do we demand that they always tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? We might be inclined to answer, “Yes, of course!” And when we say this it is because we are thinking about them as our public servants, with a fiduciary duty to look after our interests rather than their own. One of these interests is in knowing the truth, and not being manipulated or disrespected. We hate the idea that a political leader would lie to us because he knows full well we would not go along with his scheme. We hate it even more if he lies to us in pursuit of some personal or partisan interest.

Amber Diaz’s research aims to see just how righteously indignant we really are when we realize we’ve been duped. Is this something that we make politicians pay a price for? (Amber is more than welcome to post on this blog if she wants to tell us more about the answers her research and number-crunching are turning up!)

But the fact is, we are not always upset about politicians being deceptive, and not just in cases where we might want to say “I know he’s a sonuvabitch, but he’s our sonuvabitch!” Sometimes we recognize that politicians are engaged in deliberately adversarial contests; and we respect them for being wily in some of these situations.

This is most obviously the case in the conduct of foreign affairs (a realm Amber is looking at, in fact). Here we see our leaders as engaged, at least partly, in an adversarial contest against our national rivals or enemies. We expect them to deceive these rivals sometimes (e.g., to send spies and special ops into other countries), and this may well require that they deceive us too. Similarly, we might expect political leaders involved in sensitive international negotiations (e.g. for trade, or arms-reduction, treaties) to bluff and make hollow threats.

But we may even excuse deception within domestic politics precisely because we take seriously the constitutionally adversarial nature of democracy. Political leaders are not merely public servants with paternalistic duties to look after our interests. We have deliberately locked them into adversarial contests with rival politicians, and with rival sources of power in our society. We might want to tie one hand behind their backs in these contests. But if we understand the nature of our adversarial system, we cannot tie both hands. For this reason, as my colleague Kieran Healy pointed out in today’s seminar, we often gain a grudging respect for “successful” politicians who know how to win at the game we place them in — even when they are not “our sonuvabitch.”

In any case, if we are a bit confused or inconsistent in our evaluations or, or reactions to, political leaders lying — and this is what Amber’s preliminary data seem to be showing — it is at least in part because we are confused and inconsistent about how partisan or non-partisan we expect the game of politics to be.

Bob Gibson, War, and Sportsmanship

Bob Gibson‘s stare from the mound shouted what Jules’s wallet merely whispered in Pulp Fiction. His fastball was badder still. In 1968 he set a live-ball-era MLB record with an ERA of 1.12, and a playoff record with 17 strikeouts in a single game. He was as responsible as anyone for the lowering of the pitcher’s mound — to give the hitters back a fighting chance — from 15 to 10 inches in 1969. (That rule-change was not a minor tweak: with the possible exception of the introduction of a designated hitter in the American League, that is probably the most important revision of the rules of baseball since the debut of the more lively ball in 1920.)

He was a competitor through-and-through, as we see in a quote from the February issue of the US edition of GQ (this part of the issue doesn’t appear to be readily available on-line at this moment; I’ve blogged about it over at This Sporting Life), by fellow Hall-of-Famer Joe Torre:

There were guys who wouldn’t talk to the opposition — Drysdale was like that. But Bob wouldn’t talk to anybody who wasn’t on the Cardinals. Ever. [When I was a Brave] I caught the ’65 All-Star Game, and Bob closed the game out with a one-run lead. After the game, we were the last two in the shower, and I congratulated him. He didn’t acknowledge I was even in the neighborhood. When I came to St. Louis in 1969, Bob was the first to welcome me; we became friends. But baseball was war for him.

And Gibson was a sniper.

This is, of course, how many successful competitors in deliberately adversarial institutions feel, be they on Wall Street, K Street, or Pennsylvania Avenue. But not all. Hockey players famously have a long, drawn-out line of handshakes after a brutal playoff series. Some linebackers will help a quarterback up after sacking him. Julius Peppers and Aaron Rogers could be seen smiling and embracing each other after the Packers’ conference championship victory last week — a game in which Peppers landed a crushing and illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on Rogers that nearly knocked him out of the game. That is the “no-hard-feelings, it’s-just-business” (or just hunting) attitude to competition and to one’s adversaries. It is a sign of mutual respect, and a recognition of the purpose and context of the competition. The attempt to beat the opponent is not personal. It’s not hatred. It’s part of our fairly complex concept of what it is to be a “good sport.”

Even in war there is a long, if surely inconsistent, tradition of mutual respect among officers of opposing armies who hold no animus against one another, even when one is being held as a prisoner of war by the other.

That was not, evidently, how Bob Gibson rolled. Nobody is accusing him of cheating. But this is beyond “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” This is beyond war. It’s tribal.

Tribal, in small doses, can be cute in sports. But it’s surely unfortunate in most other competitive contexts.

Is Business (Like) War?

This Bnet blog entry by Margaret Heffernan is right up our alley: Debunking the Myth that Business is “War”

Much of what Heffernan says about the differences between business and war is true. But some of the disanalogies are more important than others. She notes, for example, that one important difference is that “It is possible for societies to flourish without war — but they won’t do so without business”. Others are weaker. She points out for example that “In business, your adversary will never be defeated.” That’s not always true (sometimes competitors are driven into bankruptcy). And sometimes adversaries are not defeated in war: sometimes one or both sides opts to limp off the field. Who won the Korean war in the 1950s or the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, for instance? Neither side was really “defeated”, though though both suffered serious losses.

There are significant similarities between war and business, and not just in the simplistic sense that is often appealed to as a way of justifying the most brutal of business behaviours.

Both war and business are, in the sense in which this blog is interested, structured competitions. In both cases, competitors seek to win, but they generally do so in a way that observes at least some rules. Focusing on the differences obscures the fact that both war and the market represent structured competitions with social benefits. Now, of course, the idea that war as an institution has benefits may be hard to swallow — at least until we make some qualifications.

First, I’m talking about the kind of limited war that we saw most frequently during the 20th century, wars fought by professional armies on battlefields, constrained (at least to some extent) by the laws of war, including most significantly the Geneva Conventions. Second, we need to think of the costs and benefits of that kind of war in comparison to other ways of doing things. To see the social benefit of that way of solving international disagreements, you only need to look at what the alternatives are: wars of population-against-population, wars fought using chemical and biological weapons, etc. So while war of a certain kind isn’t — unlike the market — a competition designed to produce a net benefit, it is a competition designed to produce less bad outcomes than might otherwise be obtained.