Military precision

Military precision January 6, 2009

With all due respect to India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and with sympathy for the tragic loss of life his country recently suffered in the murderous attacks in Mumbai, it’s still necessary to point out that his statement earlier today grievously — and destructively — mischaracterizes those attacks.

Here is what the prime minister said:

“There is enough evidence to show that, given the sophistication and military precision of the attack, it must have had the support of some official agencies in Pakistan.”

“Sophistication and military precision”? No, no, a thousand times no. The attacks in Mumbai were anything but “sophisticated” and they were ruthlessly, brutally imprecise. We cannot describe indiscriminate mass-murder as having “military precision.” This was not the act of soldiers, but of criminal sociopaths. This was not the act of men, but of monsters.

Let’s remember what these attacks involved. Heavily armed gunmen entered a cafe and opened fire on the patrons. Men pulled out automatic weapons and began shooting whoever happened to be standing in a train station. Armed men attacked hospitals.

Nothing about any of that suggests the work of a brilliant, “precise” or “sophisticated” tactician. These people did not study the theories and tactics of Clausewitz and Napoleon, they followed the brutal example of Harris and Klebold — the two disturbed teenagers who killed 12 other students and a teacher at Columbine High School. The Mumbai attackers were more “sophisticated” than the trenchcoat mafiosi only to the extent that they were more heavily armed.

By “military precision” the prime minister seems to be referring to the killers’ ruthless efficiency, implying that it indicates a level of training and discipline. But these murderers were less lethally efficient than deranged student Seung-Hui Cho was in perpetrating the massacre at Virginia Tech, and I have never heard anyone suggest that his act of meaningless madness was notable for its “sophistication and military precision.”

The prime minister’s use of that phrase, “military precision,” is particularly wrong and particularly offensive. The goal and the consequence of the attacks in Mumbai was the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, of noncombatants, and the deliberate targeting and killing of noncombatants is the absolute opposite of military precision.

The deliberate targeting of noncombatants is both immoral and impractical. It is a violation of the laws of war — a war crime. You’re not allowed to kill civilians. But even when accidental or incidental, the killing of civilians and noncombatants is always — always — detrimental and counterproductive. The U.S. and NATO are losing ground and just plain losing in Afghanistan because our air strikes there have resulted in so many civilian deaths. The short-term military success of Israel’s current offensive in the Gaza Strip will be incapable of producing any long-term success because that offensive has brought about — and is bringing about — the deaths of so many noncombatant civilians. These civilian deaths, whether in Gaza or Afghanistan, are the hallmarks of a lack of sophistication and an appalling failure of military precision. The standard is the same in Mumbai.

Prime Minister Singh is today repeating an error committed by President George W. Bush following the attacks of 9/11. Singh wants to legitimize a military response to the attacks in Mumbai and thus he frames those attacks in the rhetoric of a military assault. The result of such rhetoric is that he begins to legitimize those attacks by describing them as warfare — the act of soldiers behaving with “sophistication and military precision.” They were nothing of the kind. The attacks in Mumbai were not the work of soldiers, but of madmen and sociopaths, of brutal, thuggish murderers.

Opening fire on the unarmed patrons of a cafe or on the commuters at a train station is simply a crime — the sort of brainless, meaningless crime that offers no benefit for the criminal. It does not require sophistication or military precision, but rather an utter lack of sophistication and the opposite of military precision. All it requires is a gun, a bunch of bullets, and a perverse imbecile stupid enough to pull the trigger.


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  • Dana

    Oh, oh, I’ve got another one. The way “anti-Semitism” has come to mean ONLY “anti-Jew.” Hello? Arabs are Semitic people too.

  • Caravelle

    Dana : The way “anti-Semitism” has come to mean ONLY “anti-Jew.” Hello? Arabs are Semitic people too.
    When has it ever meant something different ? Sure, etymologically it seems it should include all semitic people, but I’ve never heard of it being used for anything other than being anti-Jew. Do you have examples ?

  • MercuryBlue

    The word was coined to mean ‘anti-Jew’ in a manner that doesn’t sound anti-Jew. Rebranding. It’s never to my knowledge been used to mean anything else.

  • The whole Gaza thing is probably easier to understand once you realise that the people living in Gaza have no rights and so can’t form any kind of military without being automatically terrorists. Some people claim that “rights” are universal but this is clearly and self-evidently bunk. Rights are given by the rich and powerful. Israel has the money, the guns, and the USA on its side. Ergo, it gets to decide when the people of Gaza can eat and when they can militarily respond to injustice. Simple really. Whether it’s moral or not is beside the point – it’s warfare, of course it’s not moral.
    Which brings us back to Fred’s original post, which seems to suffer from a confusion between “ought” and “is”. Which is to say, indiscriminate shooting of civilians is something military forces ought not to do according to the many gossamer threads of law we use to try and ameliorate the damage done by what is, after all, the use of violent and lethal force as a blunt instrument of diplomacy. Nonetheless, I think it’s counter to our knowledge of history to assume that this means military actors under the direct control of government agencies would never do such a thing.
    I think it’s very silly to suggest such a thing in this specific instance, but that’s because of particular facts relating to the geopolitics of the region rather than inviolable rules about what military forces do or do not do.

  • Anonymous

    And they lost that land in the 6-Day War. By all national agreements, that land **should** belong to Israel. But if Israel wins a war, it has to act as if it lost.
    …except for the part where gaining land by conquest is pretty plainly illegitimate under international law. In any case other than Israel, enforcing a starvation blockade on a civilian population as an act of collective punishment wouldn’t be considered defensible or legitimate — let alone characterized as non-occupation.

  • M Groesbeck

    Oops — that last comment was mine.
    Back to the original post here, though, and the Mumbai attacks:
    This was not the act of men, but of monsters.
    I haven’t seen any comments about this part yet — but I find it horrifying. This sort of statement, when made seriously, leads to behavior like Guantanamo. Branding anyone as beyond understanding serves the function (often quite deliberately) of letting the “good guys” suspend any moral or ethical consideration of their targets and behave brutally with a clear conscience. After all, it’s not really torture/murder/a crime if you’re doing it to monsters — and if they’re monsters, you have no obligation to try to understand their motives.

  • V.Gron

    First of all, note this. It is a known fact, that when one side plays dirty, the other has no choice but to follow suit to some extent – or lose. Thus if we have, say, two sides A and B and A has 8 on some dirtiness scale, while B has 12, we should understand that those 8 dirty point on A’s side are an inevitable response to dirty ways of B, and treat the conflict as if A were absolutely clean. Thus it doesn’t matter whether Israel fights according to conventions – nobody really does. The only guilty party is the one fighting more dirty, and that’s the Arabs – just compare the percentage of killed civilians.
    Second, HRW has long become an anti-west organization, intent on making all democratic countries go bad while ignoring dictators. Any reports it produces regarding Gaza should be treated as anti-Israel propaganda.