“Necessary” for the “Greater Good”

How We Learned To Kill, by Timothy Kudo, The New York Times, Feb. 27, 2015

This article by Timothy Kudo is one of the more honest accounts of the way killing works in war. It would be a great article if not for the punt at the end, which sails right over all of the deep and serious questions he manages to raise. He ties everything up at the end with a cheap bow, offering us predictable and banal justifications: “It’s all necessary for the greater good” and “We live in a state of nature.”

This is a larger pattern I’ve noticed in the mainstream media, the willingness to publish pieces that at first seem critical of the War on Terror, but inevitably swing back around to a position of confidence and assurance that what we are doing is if not good then at least necessary, and thus right, or a shrug like, “What else can we possibly do?” These essays give the appearance of a free press, the cursory impression of a questioning mind, and the illusion of an earnest public debate. These articles are usually written by military folk who, at the risk of sounding harsh, often seem lacking in moral imagination; after all, they have been trained to prevent their moral qualms  from leading them to undesirable conclusions. Your job is to act. Leave the thinking to someone else. And if what you are doing is wrong, it’s not your fault; you’re just taking orders.

Whether this pattern is a sign of censorship (mainstream media outlets are too afraid of the government to publish anything that seems to oppose our foreign policy) or just proof that the military does a very good job at demolishing the capacity for critical thinking on the part of their subjects, or whether it is just a sign that a person tends to cling to rationalizations for their own choices and actions in order to avoid cognitive dissonance, I don’t really know. Maybe a combination of all of the above.

The insinuation at the end that nobody is responsible for the state of affairs in this country because everyone is “just taking orders” –even the President– is downright scary, reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Who is the Commander-in-Chief taking orders from? Oh, right: us. This bizarre accusation holds up only if you still believe what the United States government taught you in the fourth grade: that the United States government is a government of, by, and for the people.

He is essentially saying, “This is what the people want, otherwise it wouldn’t be happening. So it’s your fault.” This echoes a theme from an article he wrote for The Washington Post in 2013 in which he seemed to imply that our country goes to war because every day citizens don’t understand how awful it is, and if the citizens of this country had any idea, then there wouldn’t be so many wars. And of course there is some truth in that but it strikes me as an attempt to abdicate responsibility.

The Times would not have run the article without the punt in the last two paragraphs. If you want to be able to say you’ve been published  in The New York Times, so you can have one more impressive credential on your LinkedIn page, or more followers on your Twitter account, and if you want to write about a current American war, you can be as honest as you want as long as you include some kind of “but in the end it’s worth it” message. You can be as honest and truthful as you want about the ugliness of war as long as you don’t go so far as to imply that it stop.  We wouldn’t want to piss off the government now would we. I simply don’t believe this article would have been published if the author’s wrestling with moral issues led him to file for conscientious objector status or to some decisive turn against the war.

Kudo seems to have a bit of a chicken-egg problem when he writes: “If this era of war ever ends, and we emerge from the slumber of automated killing to the daylight of moral questioning…” The assumption here is that the war would have to end before we can begin to morally question the war. What comes first, the end of a war or the moral questioning that puts pressure on political leaders to end a war? Let’s not forget: If that public process seems too tedious, the soldier can always choose to cut out the middle men, the “people” and the politicians and the electoral process, and simply say “I quit.”

How We Learned To Kill, by Timothy Kudo, The New York Times, Feb. 27, 2015

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