Remembrance Day: What exactly do we remember?

This is a lazy post, in fact a year-old repost from before I started this blog, that I thought readers might find interesting. It’s explictly a moralistic sort of piece, not a political analysis (no war but the class war! etc).

To listen to most endorsements of remembrance day, and to most poppy-related appeals for money, one would be forgiven for thinking that the job of a soldier was to die. It is not: the job of a soldier is to kill people. Those people fall into approximately two categories: firstly, civilians, and secondly, other soldiers. The number of dictators, politicians, generals, etc. who are killed by soldiers is negligible.

It’s true that courage was not uncommon among the armed forces, and that many (though probably well under half) of the last century’s fallen soldiers were fighting for something better than what they were fighting against; it’s also true that most responsibility the blame for the horrors of war lies with high-level decision-makers – and the average soldier is usually in a situation of very limited freedom. But people are always free and people who kill are responsible for deaths, even if others bear equal or greater responsibility. Consequently it seems ridiculous to look on soldiers with an attitude only of praise, and not utter a word of blame or condemnation. That condemnation should be limited by the very limited perspective, the limited power, the limited opportunities, of average soldiers – but it cannot be simply dropped altogether.

Of course there is huge variation among individual soldiers, ranging from the truly discriminate soldier who shoots only those shooting them, and fights only for good causes, down to those who participate in irregular massacres – to deny this variation would remove the whole point of speaking of freedom. What is wrong is to ignore the whole issue, for this imputes to them a uniform purity.

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How Should Anarchists Fight a War?

A few thoughts on ‘anarchist warfare’ and ‘statist warfare’.

In normal wars (though to varying degrees), the contest is between two or more territory-controlling forces. The activity of ‘controlling’ territory is distinct from the activity of living there; the contending forces are thus distinct from the populations inhabiting the areas fought over (again, to varying degrees). Consequently, the inhabiting population tends to appear as a passive ‘background’, as what is ‘fought over’.

As long as this pattern is in place, I would call the conflict ‘statist’ regardless of whether it’s one ‘official’ state against another, one ‘rebel’ group against another, an established government against rebels, etc. The point is, insofar as the dynamic of the war divides the population in general from the contending forces, and makes one passive and the other active, the essential dynamics of statehood are in play.

So what would an anarchist war look like? The ideal (however closely it is or isn’t acheived) is that this division between warring force and local population not exist. That is, the ideal would be that the activity of ‘controlling’ territory be simply an aspect of living there; that local populations at each point be actively organised to maintain something like a ‘monopoly of violence’ in that area.

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Mao, the Japanese, and the Imperialists: which bastards to back

Who was fighting in the 2nd World War? And which side was the right one, and which wrong? In this post I want to explore these questions (not entirely conclusively) with focus on China/East Asia, and in light of the reflections I reflected a couple of days ago.

The second world war is often presented as being between two sides – the Axis and the Allies (perhaps with the latter split into the Western and Soviet camps). But I think it makes more sense to see it as a three-way conflict, because in many, perhaps most, of the countries invaded by the Axis powers’ expansion, those who fought against them were just as opposed to, and opposed by, the Allies.

The most obvious and prominent example is the Chinese Communist Party, who were the main resistance to the Japanese in China but had to also fight against the Nationalists who were supported by the Allies. Similar things occurred to a lesser extent in many other countries, such as the Philippines, Greece, France and Yugoslavia. But let’s take China as an example. Mao fights the Allies and the Japanese, the Japanese fight Mao and the Allies, the Allies fight Mao and the Japanese.

If we tried to evaluate any of these three forces according to elementary standards of human decency, they would all fail. The Japanese demonstrated this best in their treatment of captive and conquered populations during the war itself; the ‘popular’ forces under the CCP demonstrated this best when they conquered China after the war and established a brutal tyranny and history’s largest famine; and the Allies demonstrated it best a couple of decades later when they flattened Vietnam and Cambodia in order to retain the imperial control that the French had been unable to hang onto. But in no case was this a surprise, if we look attentively at their methods before and after.

(Looking back I see how long this post has gotten, so those after the short summary should scroll down to the bottom, starting from where I repeat the word ‘so’ three times…)

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How to Work out who the Goodies and Baddies are

As my last post might have suggested, I’ve been reading about the 2nd World War a bit recently. It’s been quite confusing, not so much to understand as to evaluate – who, I feel myself asking, should I ‘support’? Should I accept the very mainstream view that this was the best example of a just war, or should I treat it as a nationalistic and imperialistic enterprise similar to other wars?

The problem is quite tangled because there’s three layers of confusion. The first is just factual – there’s a lot of details, and each account will emphasise some and leave others out, so it’s hard to feel in command of all the relevant data. The second is counter-factual – that is, it’s very hard to say what would have happened if things had gone differently (e.g. if Hitler had ‘won’ in Europe, how long would Nazi rule have lasted?).

But the third difficulty is more properly philosophical. I’m not really sure how to approach the facts, how to make these decisions. What sort of claims would I be making if I said ‘yeah I support Mussolini’, and what sort of justification would they demand? What, in short, should be my criteria of evaluation? This is what I want to approach here.

Note that I think a lot of this is also relevant to other ‘contests’, like an election campaign or the war in Afghanistan.

There are, I think, three competing requirements at work here, or alternatively three things to avoid.

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Reasonable Irrationality: War Without Casualties

In the UK’s war/occupation in Afghanistan, 142 military personnel have been killed. That’s tiny. There have been plenty of wars when that many soldiers died in a week or a day. For the British army, it’s been a remarkably harmless war.

Yet each casualty seems to garner more publicity than any other cause of death – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard on the news, in a very serious tone, ‘2 UK soldiers were killed in Afghanistan’. 2? Really? Of the 150,000 people who died today, of the hundreds who died violently, these two are a news story? Did they die in a strange or unexpected way? Is their death so improbable that we can be pleasantly surprised at such an unlikely occurence? No, they died fighting a war.

So there seems to be a phenomenon of greatly increased public sensitivity to military deaths, even as the actual number thereof falls. Although I may mock this slightly, I think it’s actually a very good thing.

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Fighting Clean and Fighting Dirty, Part 2: How to Handle Being Fallible

My last post set up the problem of justifying a ‘shared framework’, within which people can disagree profoundly (so that, for instance, pro- and anti-abortion groups can ‘fight clean’ by handing out leaflets, instead of ‘fighting dirty’ by shooting each other). It ended on a rather unsatisfied note: the task seems impossible, because what people disagree on will include issues more important than the values aimed at by the shared framework.

And this post isn’t going to be enormously more optimistic than that. I do think the task is, in a sense, impossible, though it’s also unavoidable. This is part of the messiness of reality. That said, I think it is certainly possible to seek greater clarity and offer practical reasoning for how to operate in this area.

(I should clarify this is meant to be a situation of ‘peace’ – if the fight has started, the barricades are up, and you can hear the people sing a song of angry men, then matters change considerably)

The clue I want to take as my (fairly obvious) first point is this: the problem would not arise if we were Gods. If we were infinitely rational beings, morally perfect and immune to error, then this problem would not exist. This should point us towards epistemic issues, issues about knowledge, as the origin of the problem.

The basic fact is that all people are finite intelligences, and are prone to get things wrong. They are wrong both about grand questions of ‘what is the correct theory of gravity’ and ‘why does this water fall on my head’, and also about petty questions of ‘what is behind that rock’ and ‘where should I go for dinner tonight’. They are wrong, and profoundly wrong, even about things that they think they are most sure of.

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Fighting Clean and Fighting Dirty: How to Handle Disagreement

One of the issues that comes out from a lot of the articles and discussions following the murder of George Tiller is that of ‘fighting clean’, by which I mean: obviously people disagree over many things, but while we might have begrudged our opponents the right to organise or agitate, them killing someone ‘breaks the rules’, ‘goes too far’, or is in some related way unacceptable. The idea at issue is that even passionate disagreements should happen within a shared framework of what is and is not an appropriate way to deal with those disagreements.

(Similar issues came up a while back on this blog over Che Guevara T-shirts: given that was willing to have people shot for the defense of his revolution, including potentially your conservative hack friends, is wearing his face just an expression of an opinion, or does it ‘go too far’? What about a conservative wearing Pinochet’s face?)

This parallels the issue of ‘rules of war’: even when disagreement progresses to the level of outright violent conflict (whether a national war, or a punch-up in the street), there are still ‘rules’, still a difference between ‘fighting clean’ and ‘fighting dirty’. Even if you’re punching someone, you don’t also punch their child; even when you’re shooting at people, you don’t mutilate their corpses. Or whatever.

Now this idea is one that is both very desirable and useful, but also very difficult. It’s desirable for at least three reasons:

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