Disgraceful

In an op-ed column in today's New York Times, David Brooks offers a preemptive defense of American resolve in the face of atrocities yet to be committed by Americans.

Brooks argues that such atrocities will be a necessary and vital component of America winning the war in Iraq, which is also, he says, "the Battle of Midway in our war on terror."

The president will have to remind us that we live in a fallen world, that we have to take morally hazardous action if we are to defeat the killers who confront us. It is our reponsibility to not walk away. it is our responsibility to recognize the dark realities of human nature …

The primary obstacle to winning the war in Iraq, Brooks argues, is a lack of resolve. And the primary threat to that resolve, he says, is our sentimental, mushy attachment to morality, the Geneva Conventions, International Humanitarian Law, concepts like honor and humanity, a precious concern for the moral and mental health of our own troops, and the contricting principles of the just in bello standards of the ancient just war tradition.

This is moral cowardice masquerading as bravado. Brooks, while attempting unconvincingly to adopt an air of macho, "hard-headed realism," is clearly terrified and desperate. He is so wide-eyed with terror that he has soiled himself — ethically if not literally.

"Hope is not a plan," the saying goes. But Brooks does not counsel hope, he counsels despair. Well, despair is not a plan either.

Brooks tries, and fails, to couch his argument in the terms of pragmatism and realism. He seems to imagine himself as Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, bellowing "You can't handle the truth!" But for all his posturing, he says nothing more, and nothing more sophisticated, than what Sen. Trent Lott recently said:

Honestly, it's a little tougher than I thought it was going to be. If we have to, we just mow the whole place down, see what happens. You're dealing with insane suicide bombers who are killing our people, and we need to be very aggressive in taking them out.

Lott is more honest than Brooks. His call for indiscriminate slaughter makes clear the premise for his conclusion that atrocities are acceptable: "It's a little tougher than I thought it was going to be."

For the sake of argument, bracket all consideration of the rule of law, all thoughts of honor, justice and humanity. Bracket all concern for the young people Brooks would ask to commit unforgettable acts of horror and all concern for the civilians who would suffer those acts. Pretend there is no such thing as international law, or natural law, or any law, and simply consider Brooks' argument according to its own alleged pragmatism where the only standard relevant is whether or not something works. Would this work? Does the path Brooks wants us to follow lead to anywhere near a safe, free and prosperous future for Iraq? Would it increase America's national security and reduce the threat of international terrorism?

No, no and no.

Consider the words of Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the highest-ranking military officer in Israel: "In our tactical decisions, we are operating contrary to our strategic interests," he said.

"It increases the hatred of Israel and strengthens the terror organizations," he said.

In other words, Ariel Sharon's cowardly Brooksian dismissal of the rule of law does not work.

This article on the misgivings expressed by many of Israel's top military officers provides a much-needed slap-down of Brooks' armchair bravado. Soldiers — real soldiers — do not suggest what Brooks suggests. They do not accept what he accepts or defend what he defends.

Explaining Yaalon's remarks, one "senior military official" said: "He felt it was his public duty to say that if we don't do something about this, then it will explode in our face. … The war against terror is taking place on the backs of civilians."

There's a twofold argument in that statement: Soldiers do not harm civilians because it is unwise and counterproductive; and soldiers do not harm civilians because that is what it means to be a soldier.

Yaalon's remarks, echoed by equally vociferous criticism from other military officers interviewed Thursday, revealed a schism between military and political leaders over the government's handling of a conflict that many officers and soldiers say they believe is not winnable through military force, incites more terrorism than it prevents and mistreats innocent Palestinians. Almost 900 Israeli citizens or foreign residents of Israel have been killed in attacks by Palestinians, and Israeli military forces have killed about 2,500 Palestinians.

"We're in a more serious situation that the U.S. was in Vietnam," said reserve Brig. Gen. Yiftah Spector, one of the most decorated fighter pilots in Israeli military history. Spector was grounded as a flight instructor last month after signing a letter, along with 26 other reserve pilots, calling the military's targeted killings of militants in crowded civilian neighborhoods "illegal and immoral."

Israel's military policies in the Palestinian territories, Spector said, are "opposing everything I was raised on" during his career in the air force.

Spector is expressing the frustration of a soldier who wants to fight for victory with honor, but who has been told — by petty little men like David Brooks — that he must instead follow a dishonorable path to defeat.

  • John

    Very well put. See if the Times has the guts to print it as a guest column.

  • emjaybee

    I read that story, and am overcome with horror. I mean, what does “What will happen to the national mood when the news programs start broadcasting images of the brutal measures our own troops will have to adopt? Inevitably, there will be atrocities that will cause many good-hearted people to defect from the cause.” mean?
    Inevitably? There is no other way than “atrocities” to defend ourselves??? This is such a Goering-worthy argument it gives me cold chills. “Brutal measures?”
    And in the end, he writes “The murderers of Um Haydar cannot be permitted to beat the United States of America.” Why not, if there’s no longer any difference between us? If we are going to commit “brutal” “atrocities” (I am still in shock over his word choice) what has become of us? My God. I feel sick.

  • yam

    in other news, people in scotland have been seeing large flights of american bombers flying off to the east. i don’t remember if i read that in a blog or in the comments of a blog, but this may be a warning for what’s to come.
    if bush is really one of those premedicated suspenderless guys like in left behind, he may want to bring on the “end times” himself with a butt load of bombers…

  • Chris

    It’s appalling that anyone in this day and age still thinks that atrocities are a military solution. Deliberate targeting of civilians is never effective. Nor is torture. It didn’t save Hitler, nor was it significant to Stalin’s victory (which was more about shovelling troops at the problem). It didn’t help Japan. Bombing the crap out of Germany, Japan, or Vietnam didn’t bring victory; only troops on the ground did that (or didn’t as the case may be). If terrorizing the population were the answer, Ireland would be British and the Soviet Union would be intact.
    Soldiers know this. So do military historians (Caleb Carr has a great book on this subject). Only armchair “realists” think otherwise.
    Resolve in Iraq means actually rebuilding the country and getting the Iraqis to take care of the wackos themselves. Not slaughtering Arabs or lining Haliburton’s pockets. Brooks clearly ignores that the Kurds are doing a good job of policing the north because they are Iraqis and they are POLICING, not slaughtering the population. They may not always be nice to the Arabs and they aren’t following the Bill of Rights, but they are checking for bombs, keeping their ears to the ground, and making a better life for the civilians. If the Americans don’t want a quagmire they’ll find some Sunnis and Shiites to do the same. And they’ll stop listening to chest-thumping columnists.

  • tate

    Chris: I like the phrase “armchair realist.” It perfectly encapsulates Brooks here.
    Military planning often operates in a void of morals, but as it turns out, that doesn’t mean morality is always at odds with practicality. It depends on what the goals are. If your goal is to demoralize people, exacerbate their hatred of you, and make them your enemy, then Brooks’ advocated methods are perfect.

  • Chris

    This is excellent. I have not read a piece of writing anywhere, in any form that is any cleaner,
    any more well-developed, and logically grounded than this.

  • BudMan

    Beautiful. I gotta ask, do the editors of the Times do anything for their money? You should absolutely try to get this printed.

  • oh

    Slacktivist wrote: “Brooks argues that such atrocities will be a necessary and vital component of America winning the war in Iraq.”
    Slactivist’s essay would be far more compelling if this sentence was true.
    Brooks actual sentence regarding atrocities is: “Inevitably, there will be atrocities that will cause many good-hearted people to defect from the cause.” As such Brooks is acknowledging the obvious – tragic mistakes will occur as troops seek to quell the terrorists – he never suggests such atrocities “will be a necessary and vital component” of this conflict.
    There are, I believe, good reasons to raise questions about Brooks actual rhetoric but arguments which rely on distortion of his intent and pander to readers who will not read Brooks actual essay do a disservice to their cause and, I believe, to the cause of civic discourse.
    Given the distortion of Brooks words I will grant that Slactivist proves he is a masterful dervish.

  • Leah A

    Seriously, you ought to submit this to the Times. At least as a letter to the editor. I read the Brooks piece this morning and became so angry I knew I shouldn’t try and write anything. Thanks for having the discipline to do what was necessary, to use a Brookian trope.

  • karl

    oh,
    Thou dost protest too much. In quoting Brooks, you crop out the end of the previous sentence, which refers to “the brutal measures our troop will have to adopt.” Sounds like slacktivist can justify “inevitable” on that basis.
    And what about “vital”? Brooks writes that “we live in a fallen world, that we have to take morally hazardous action if we are to defeat the killers who confront us.” It’s a reasonable read to say that “morally hazardous action” is pretty close to atrocities. If we can’t defeat the killers without taking “morally hazardous action” (nice phrase their, word guy), then those actions are “vital.”
    Point, set, match, slacktivist.

  • Leah A

    In response to oh
    Let’s put the sentence you quote back into the paragraph in which it appears.
    “It’s not that we can’t accept casualties. History shows that Americans are willing to make sacrifices. The real doubts come when we see ourselves inflicting them. What will happen to the national mood when the news programs start broadcasting images of the brutal measures our own troops will have to adopt? Inevitably, there will be atrocities that will cause many good-hearted people to defect from the cause. They will be tempted to have us retreat into the paradise of our own innocence.”
    Looks a lot more like Fred’s description in context.
    I’ll grant that Brooks’ rhetoric is so grandiose and abstract that it’s difficult to pin down exactly what he’s saying. But the framing device of the horrifying incident with which he begins is certainly a clue. What remains unclear because not directly addressed in Brooks’ piece is how we are to separate out “the terrorists” from ordinary Iraqis, and how long the occasional atrocity will be tolerated by the Iraqis themselves, before we find that we’ve created a populatiion of allies for “the terrorists.”

  • Helga Fremlin

    Slacktivist,
    excellent piece! Thoughtful, moving and insightful, yet scathing – just what this incredible Brooks screed deserves. Congratulations!

  • eastiswest

    Grand Strategy Dr. Chet Richards
    Editor, Defense and the National Interest
    Military —that is, destructive —activities have the potential to provoke a backlash in public opinion (on both sides) and among allies and the uncommitted.  Nightly newscasts of civilian casualties in Vietnam, for example, helped fuel public demands to end the war, as did reports of carnage along the “Highway of Death” out of Kuwait during the last days of the First Gulf War.  In this modern age of instant worldwide communications, the potential for such adverse consequences, and even for their manipulation, has obviously increased.  With the growth of satellite television and the Internet, censorship is not a realistic option.
    One solution is a “grand strategy” that guides military actions not only to minimize these effects but to produce positive benefits on morale and public/world opinion. Such a grand strategy would also shape our alliance structure and form a key element in isolating adversaries from physical, mental, and moral support.
    The late American strategist, John R. Boyd, suggested four functions of a “sensible” grand strategy:
    1 Support our national goal, which at the highest level involves improving our fitness, as an organic whole, to shape and cope with an ever-changing environment.
    2 Pump-up our resolve, drain-away our adversary’s resolve, and attract the uncommitted.
    3 End the conflict on favorable terms.
    4 Ensure that the conflict and peace terms do not provide seeds for (unfavorable) future conflict……
    http://www.defense-and-society.org/fcs/boyd_grand_strategy.htm
    So begins an informative essay by Dr. Richards explaining Col. Boyd’s Grand Stategy. I highly recommend the site http://www.d-n-i.net, built around Boyd’s research into 4th Generation warfare, war fighting and Pentagon reform. Not Rumsfeld’s reform. Unfortunately, the illustrious Mr. Brooks doesn’t realize the moral component in war. That is why points 3 & 4 are critical in the complete strategy. I have yet to see an equivalent strategy from any “pragmatist” policy advocate.

  • none

    exceptionally well written.

  • Bruce Garrett

    This was a good one Fred. When Brooks says that it’s not that we can’t accept casualties, but that the doubts will come when we see ourselves inflicting them, he means against civilians. He’s trying to slither his way into an argument for, if not outright condoning atrocities, at least looking the other way.
    That’s an outrage, and he knows it, which is why he prefaced it with a story of one of Saddam’s own atrocities. But which is more despicable, the deliberate killing of innocents in the name of a murdering tyrant, or the deliberate killing of innocents in the name of democracy, and liberty and justice for all?
    Brook’s comparison to the Battle of Midway is absolutely disgusting. We weren’t shooting cars carrying unarmed men women and children full of slugs at Midway. We weren’t shooting at children throwing stones at Midway.

  • musing graze

    Beautifully done. Kudos.

  • derek g

    More American principles sacrificed on the idol of neo-conservative hubris.
    It doesn’t matter who is elected in 2004. They will inherit a huge clusterf#*k

  • TR

    The Battle of Midway? That’s it! All we need to do is sink the Iraqi carrier fleet! Why didn’t we think of that before?
    Brooks has the same fundamentalist mentality that led the Spaniards and American colonists to massacre the Indians: we must not be afraid to slaughter people who don’t share our “moral” views. We must be willing to destroy Iraq in order to save it!

  • oh

    Karl and Leah,
    I believe that the use of armed force by the military or police regularly results in incidents that could be described as “brutal” and actions that are “morally hazardous.” It seems strange to me that Brooks does not seem to clearly acknowledge that war is always brutal and morally hazardous. Still there is quite a distinction between acknowledging this and claiming that, “atrocities will be a necessary and vital component of America winning the war in Iraq,” Slactivist claims Brooks said this – he didn’t – certainly not with anything like the clarity Slactivist suggests. Slactivist would do well to simply quote Brooks rather than create a fictional sentence and suggest that Brooks argued for it – unless he is seeking to write a fictional satire.
    I’m not trying to defend Brooks sober essay here. I’m simply expressing my discomfort with how Slactivist choose to center his essay upon an assertion that Brooks never made. Perhaps Slactivist has embraced the tactic attempted in the dropped CBS movie on Reagan, which was controversial in part because one scene depicts Reagan as making a comment about HIV that no one seems to claim he actually made.
    On either the right or the left this tactic is, of course, disgraceful.
    CBS released a statement acknowledging that, despite “impressive production values” their own film “does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience.” Slacktivist would do well to follow their example.

  • none

    What will happen to the national mood when the news programs start broadcasting images of the brutal measures our own troops will have to adopt? Inevitably, there will be atrocities that will cause many good-hearted people to defect from the cause.
    Oh, this is a direct quote from Brooks op-ed. How do you twist this to claim that Brooks isn’t saying “Our troops will have to adopt brutal measures” and, in case we missed what “brutal measures” mean, he spells it out: our troops will “commit atrocities”. Slactivist quoted Brooks accurately, and, it seems to me, interpreted his meaning accurately: Brooks is saying atrocities will be a necessary and vital component of America winning the war in Iraq.

  • Donald Johnson

    Oh,
    To be a bit more charitable than you are being to Slactivist, it’s your own ability to read that’s in question here. Once again, David Brooks says “brutal measures our troops will have to adopt.” He follows that phrase with “Inevitably, there will be atrocities…”
    He’s condoning “brutal measures” and says they are necessary (the troops will have to adopt them) and then says brutal measures will be accompanied by atrocities, which is of course the inference any logical person would draw. I suppose you could argue, and you probably would, that Brooks advocates brutal, but not atrocious behavior.
    I think Brooks is thinking of Vietnam and various brutal measures that led to atrocities, and he doesn’t want Americans to see this as a reason for withdrawal. One thinks of free strike zones and strategic hamlets and the emphasis on achieving a high body count and naturally atrocities are going to follow.
    Your reference to the Reagan docudrama was tangential, but since you brought it up, I don’t think they should depict Reagan making that statement about AIDS. But I gather Reagan did very little about AIDS and if that’s so, that should be part of the drama. And I haven’t read anything about the docudrama including something about the time Reagan came to the defense of the genocidal Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt after Amnesty International put out a report accusing him of killing thousands of Mayan Indians. (The report was understated). Reagan said he got a bum rap. The Reagan people also consistently whitewashed the massacres committed by its allies in El Salvador and they romanticized the murderous thug Jonas Savimbi in Angola–according to the NYT, at one point Reagan compared him to Abraham Lincoln. In his pre-Presidential days Reagan, the great communicator and man of ideas, also defended the military in Argentina as they were busy murdering thousands of their own citizens.
    A truly honest docudrama showing what Reagan actually did say would drive most conservatives into a lunatic frenzy. It will never happen, because the mainstream media is too cowardly to do it. And if the policy advice of Brooks is implemented on a large scale, we will probably have to get the real story from human rights organizations and the foreign press.

  • DonS

    Superb effort. The recent Israeli flap, and Sharon’s apparent tactical response, is clearly instructive.
    Brooks tries to dress up his boosterism in intellectual fuzz and has been coming out sounding like a preppy trying to be one of the guys. And its all low life stuff.

  • Feed

    The simple fact is that we can look at say, the last 25 conflicts of this nature in World history. EVERY SINGLE TIME more harsh methods are enacted on foreign soil by troops outside their country, when the local population is not decimated, they lose the war. Every time. Ask the Israelis, the Russians, the Americans, the Indians, and everyone else. It simply doesn’t work.
    And every time, in all of those cases, idiots like Brooks stand up and say that it’s all a matter of ‘resolve’ and ‘getting the job done’. Unfortunately what they mean by that is more death and destruction, which in fact is the opposite of ‘getting the job done’.

  • Patann

    Slacktivist wrote: “Brooks argues that such atrocities will be a necessary and vital component of America winning the war in Iraq.”
    ….
    Brooks actual sentence regarding atrocities is: “Inevitably, there will be atrocities that will cause many good-hearted people to defect from the cause.”
    The dictionary defines “Inevitable” as: Impossible to avoid or prevent. See Synonyms at certain.
    Doesn’t seem like a stretch to me. What bothers me is the process Brooks describes from the inevitable atrocities to the ‘good-hearted people’ who defect … he’s saying it’s going to take a lot more killing is how I read it — that “morally hazardous action” — in spite of our ‘moral’ president who must hate that it’s necessary (except it’s been reported he doesn’t read the newspapers — depending on staff to tell him about events, so does he know what’s going on?). Besides, the likelihood of their letting us see pictures like he’s describing is probably slim. They’ve already sent the memo about only ‘good news’, haven’t they?
    And what does this mean? They will be tempted to have us retreat into the paradise of our own innocence. The paradise of our own innocence? Where does this guy live? I think he got started, then got distracted while trying to write this article.

  • thirdcousins

    Link here to source Regarding Reagan and AIDS
    or
    http://www.glaad.org/media/newspops_detail.php?id=3518&PHPSESSID=a56ee117705e16c2d09bc377d3dedb8d
    Though one line in The Reagans script that has received considerable attention (where Reagan says of AIDS victims, “They that live in sin shall die in sin”) is clearly fictionalized, the broader reality it attempts to convey is evident in the history of the federal government’s inadequate response to the AIDS crisis under the Reagan Administration.
    Reagan did not publicly utter the word “AIDS” during the first six years of his administration (his first public mention of the disease was made to the Third International AIDS Conference on May 31, 1987). The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Daily HIV/AIDS Report for June 7, 2001 (see ARTICLES & RESOURCES below) also notes that the San Diego Union Tribune quoted Reagan as telling the conference, “Final judgment is up to God.”
    In a 2001 speech at the Kaiser Family Foundation’s National Symposium on U.S. AIDS Policy, Dr. C. Everett Koop, Reagan’s surgeon general, said that due to “intradepartmental politics” he was cut out of all AIDS discussions for the first five years of the Reagan Administration — and that “because transmission of AIDS was understood primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs, the advisors to the President, [sic] took the stand, they are only getting what they justly deserve.”

  • http://bloggy.com/mt/archives/003721.html bloggy

    David Brooks: Mistakes will be made

    David Brooks has got to go. In yesterday’s New York Times, he wrote that Americans need to be prepared for…

  • http://www.dashes.com/links/archives/20031102.php#007646 anil dash’s daily links
  • thomas

    I echo the thanks of others here for your well written, well thought out essay on Brooks’s wrong-headed op-ed piece. We all need to be thinking about what these power-mad greedheads are up to, both in Iraq and elsewhere in the world. Somehow, they must be stopped before they repeat history.
    Thomas

  • http://www.slyfelinos.com/slyblog/archived/000375.html Slyblog

    War crimes, okay. Terrorism, no way

    Brooks: “it is our responsibility to recognize the dark realities of human nature….” and embrace them. I’m a couple days behind on this, but by way of Bad Attitudes, I found Slacktivist’s comment on Brooks — and it’s the best…

  • eyelessgame

    There is supposedly a Russian proverb, dating from Stalin’s time, that Brooks needs to hear.
    Once there was a town with one hundred dissidents.
    Then the police came to town.
    They lined the one hundred dissidents up against the wall
    and shot them all.
    Now there is a town with one thousand dissidents.


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