Thursday, April 13, 2006

Life Imitates Art

by Joe Miller

Interesting how sometimes real-life events catch up to abstract philosophical discussions. Just today, Mitch passed along this link to Flt Lt Malcolm Kendall-Smith, a RAF doctor (who as it happens has a diploma in philosophy). Kendall-Smith is currently awaiting a verdict from his court-martial. His crime? Refusing an order to deploy to Iraq, which he claims is an illegal war. Relevant sections from the Telegraph's account:

Flt Lt Malcolm Kendall-Smith, who faces five charges of failing to comply with a lawful order, called the coalition's occupation a "campaign of imperial military conquest" that "fell into the category of criminal acts".

After studying the Nuremberg Principles and other international laws on war, the doctor came to the conclusion in mid-2004 that it would have been a criminal act for an officer to deploy to Iraq and he had a "solemn obligation to refuse that order".

The officer told the court in Aldershot that he would have had "criminal responsibility vicariously" by going to the country.

Under cross-examination by David Perry, the prosecutor, Kendall-Smith, 37, said he had documentary evidence that "the Americans are on a par with Nazi Germany with their actions in the Persian Gulf".

A couple of points. First, why is it that everyone feels the need to compare things that they don't like with the Nazis? The comparisons are rarely valid, and they serve most of the time to make the speaker sound like a kook. For all I know, Kendall-Smith may well be a kook, but that's really beside the point. Let's restrict the Nazi comparisons to people who do things that Nazis actually did--you know, genocide, massive war crimes, torture and killing on a huge scale. Stalin can be usefully compared to Hitler. So can Pol Pot. But George Bush. Sorry, not even close. American soldiers in Iraq like the SS? No way.

Perhaps a better analogy for Kendall-Smith to have used would be, say, the British in India. Or the British in Afghanistan. Or the British in Sudan. Or...well, you get the idea. The U.S. is engaged in empire-building, and is covering that empire-building with liberal internationalist rhetoric. One can disagree with liberal internationalism. One might also object that invading Iraq isn't justified on liberal internationalist principles. One can also object that the rhetoric bears little connection to the actual policies on the ground. All are legitimate concerns. But none of those objections rises to the level of Nazism.

I will be interested to see how this all plays out. I've no real idea what British courts are likely to say, though I strongly suspect that few courts-martial would be all that impressed by Kendall-Smith's Nazi analogy. I don't know enough about British law to be able to say to what extent the U.N. Charter gets incorporated into domestic law. I don't think that treaty provisions are automatically part of British law but instead require an act of Parliament to be incorporated. That would make the British case substantially different from an American case. I would also suspect that a court-martial will be pretty unlikely to spend all that much time debating the finer points of international law. I suppose that we'll have to wait and see what ends up happening.


Blogger Thomas said...


You say: "The U.S. is engaged in empire-building . . ." I didn't realize that. I thought the U.S. government was engaged in the defense of Americans' interests -- which are served by a stable Middle East. The U.S. government may not be executing that strategy perfectly, but that's a different issue.

An empire, as I understand it, is a "political unit having an extensive territory or comprising a number of territories or nations and ruled by a single supreme authority" (source: Where has the United States become an imperial power, except temporarily in Iraq?


2:59 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

P.S. I forgot to mention Afghanistan. Do you think Afghanistan and Iraq are likely to be permanent protectorates? Do you think other countries are on the list to become permanent protectorates -- as opposed to temporary protectorates in the advancement of U.S. security?


3:04 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

You're right. I spoke too quickly. I would probably be inclined to argue that what the U.S. is doing really is empire building, but it's empire building of a distinctly different sort than, say, the Romans or the British engaged in. That position would, however, require considerable more argument than I've offered here. I suppose that's rather obvious, though, since I haven't offered any argument for the claim here.

Perhaps a safer claim would be: "The U.S. is engaged in extending its cultural, economic and political hegemony..." That's probably more accurate and more defensible. It's also a lot less sexy, and I think, at the end of the day, that it may amount to the same thing.

Incidentally, I'm not entirely convinced that empire-building is automatically wrong. For all that the British Empire did wrong, there are parts of the world that they may well have improved. There is at least some case to be made that India, say, is better off for having been part of the Empire. Whether that claim really holds up is open to debate (and how one would test such a counterfactual is beyond me), but it's not unreasonable, it seems to me, to hold that empire-building (short-term and with the goal of improving and then withdrawing from the territory in question) might be justified in some limited circumstances.

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Just a few words that I'm sure will make most squirm...

It was Strauss in Natural Right and History that coined the phrase "Hitler Fallacy" although Mike Godwin lays claim to it.


7:25 AM  

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