Sunday, July 1, 2012

The curious case of the penitent president. II

Obama's other little signal to the beleaguered but believing left came in an earlier, and more famous Times article, this one by Scott Shane and Jo Becker, portraying the president as he agonizes over his "nominations" to the Kill List of people to be drone-bombed in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Because he doesn't just kill people, we learned*; he has a very thorough and responsible procedure for making sure he only kills the right people. It's not quite due process the way we studied it in middle school, where they never mentioned this extrajudicial type of due process, but it's extremely due, so to speak. He studies their portraits and biographies, flanked by
"I'll be judge, I'll be jury," said cunning old Fury...
his counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, who is variously compared by colleagues to a dogged police detective, tracking terrorists from his cavelike office in the White House basement, or a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama, echoing the president’s attempt to apply the “just war” theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern conflict. [jump]
 *It's the CIA in Pakistan that does that, not to mention going after those who try to rescue the victims, or march in their funerals. Whatever you say about the president, he clearly does a better job in his three countries than they do in their one.

I especially like the picture of the two of them being conscious of the wisdom of Augustine and Aquinas as they make their Tough Decisions; it's not ROFLMAO funny like the image of Kissinger and drunk Nixon kneeling together in prayer,** but has something in common with it, and it's not just funny but—I don't know, winsome, because I think he's sincerely trying, by these outlandish means, to do the right thing.

And it's that that I'm talking about when I say he is sending a signal to us disgruntled would-be supporters, and I'm not entirely kidding. When we started hearing, ten or eleven years ago, about unlawful combatants, and how the president was responsible for deciding whether they were guilty or not, and the president was George W. Bush, we were not encouraged, and with good reason, since in the first place he was not going to look at anybody's file anyhow—too much reading—and in the second place he wouldn't know if anybody else had looked at it either, which they hadn't, and so Bagram and Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib got largely filled with the victims of bounty hunters and quarrelsome in-laws. Whereas with Obama, as we are reminded, you can expect him at least to take the job seriously.

So, is he doing the right thing?

**"There ensued a bizarre incident that tied together the sentimentality and principle of Nixon, the comradeliness and vanity of Kissinger and the unbearable strain of the occasion [the night before Nixon's resignation]. As Nixon walked with Kissinger past the Lincoln Bedroom, he revealed that every night, he uttered a silent prayer, kneeling, in that room. He realized that they were of different religions and that neither of them was ostentatiously religious, but he thought that they were both, in their ways, believers, and asked Kissinger to join him in a silent prayer. The secretary of state did so, but was unable to recall in his memoirs whether he 'actually knelt.'" 
—From The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon*** by Conrad Black, 2007.
***—Hey, when is a quest invincible?
—I don't know, when?
—In mountain cwimbing—like, Quap, we'll never get aquoss this quest.
Pope Nixon the One. From Attaturk.

Undoubtedly Obama is responsible for killing people without due judicial process, but that's what they call war, and à la guerre comme à la guerre, you know. And maybe not actually a war, because the Global War on Terror has apparently been given a new though unlovely name by the Obama administration, the Overseas Contingency Operation, but nevertheless a situation where your armed forces do go around killing people, and the judiciary is never involved (the judiciary is involved, and the Geneva Conventions apply, when you capture them instead), and he is serving as the Commander in Chief of the US forces. Maybe we should call it OsCO, but Obama doesn't need to get a warrant for somebody to get killed. Indeed he doesn't have to play any part in the killing at all if he doesn't want to.

What is intuitively repulsive is the designation of the specific, named individual to be killed, at a time of the killer's choosing, from hundreds or thousands of miles away, with an instrument like a video game console.
The ROVER tactical hand-held receiver transmits information from the drone to soldiers in the field, to "improve their own situational awareness and reduce the risk of collateral damage or friendly fire". Photo (and text) by David Cenciotti for TechNews Daily.
Controlling a Predator A+ in Afghanistan from a station at Amendola AFB in Puglia, Italy. It takes five, and you wonder if it's something like a bunraku puppet. Photo by David Cenciotti.
War as it has been fought for the last 10,000 years or so is not meant to be like that. Indeed, that is why we tolerate war at all, because of the common understanding that the soldier's job isn't actually to kill anyone, merely to protect himself and his buddies from getting killed, to kill only as a tactic in accomplishing that main task. "I'm just doing a job," as our guys always say, alienated as much as possible from the brutal facts.

And for a few centuries now, the armies have been large enough that he hardly has an opportunity to know who he's killing. If some good or wicked angel could have whispered into our fathers' and grandfathers' ears, "That Jerry is named Fritz Peitsch, he's a mechanical engineer, he likes Schubert, his girlfriend is pregnant," they never would have been able to pull the trigger.

But that's all a lie, you know. Everybody that gets killed really is Fritz or somebody enough like him. The people doing the bad things that bring the war about aren't particularly on the battlefield: they're in the back signing papers and shouting orders; the most active are far from your guns, off in the shtetl slaughtering Jews.

St. Augustine and St. Thomas laid down some rules for how to determine whether or not a war is "just", but I don't believe they ever discussed how to make a "good" war. Maybe that's because there isn't such a thing: there are times when we have to go to war, but it's always bad.

And maybe Obama the pragmatist, impatient as he is with some of the clichés of the modern age, like the distinction between Left and Right, has grasped this, and maybe that's why he's chosen this route to ending our OsCO, by killing the smallest number of people that would be effective—because a pragmatist is really just a utilitarian with a slightly Greek pedigree—targeted assassinations to limit the deaths on their side, and the Predators to limit them on ours.

I've never really thought of this before—I always thought of targeted assassinations as an Israeli strategy for appeasing the voters and enraging but at the same time terrifying the enemy, thus generally perpetuating the war at low cost—but it could be a way of ending a war as well. Imagine you have a choice: kill a hundred thousand Wehrmacht kids or kill Hitler; easy decision!****

And I don't really suppose Obama has thought it through in these terms either, but that's effectively what he's doing with these murders—and he's owning them too, when he looks at those pictures, with the theology of it in the background, consciously taking that karma on board, which is a pretty brave thing for a Christian to do, in its own way.

****Of course the CIA is not allowed to assassinate Hitler now, and with pretty good reason. But it's not by law, it's by the directive of President Ford, and it only applies to "leaders".
Bunraku, from the website of the Jica Alumni Association of Jordan. Uncredited picture.
By the way, I haven't asked the usual question of what happens when President Romney (or whoever) gets hold of this new power, and do you think he'll handle it so thoughtfully? St. Augustine and all?

That's by virtue of this unconventional analysis: I don't have to think of it as a power, but as a new responsibility, with a cumbersome routine attached to it that reminds you every time that you're killing somebody, but without getting any of the pleasure traditionally attached thereto. I don't think there's going to be a President Romney, but if there were he'd stay the hell away from this.

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