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Old softie

Compare and contrast:

“Are we going too soft in Iraq? Some people think so. It seems that way to me, too, though I’m reluctant to make a judgment at this distance. But in my lifetime, at least, the United States has generally erred by not being violent enough, rather than by being too brutal.”

That’s Glenn Reynolds, April 30th, 2004.

“It was American soldiers serving as military police at Abu Ghraib who took these pictures. The investigation started when one soldier got them from a friend, and gave them to his commanders. 60 Minutes II has a dozen of these pictures, and there are many more – pictures that show Americans, men and women in military uniforms, posing with naked Iraqi prisoners.

“There are shots of the prisoners stacked in a pyramid, one with a slur written on his skin in English.

“In some, the male prisoners are positioned to simulate sex with each other. And in most of the pictures, the Americans are laughing, posing, pointing, or giving the camera a thumbs-up.”

That’s CBS News, April 29th, 2004.

Good timing, Glenn.


  1. t. rev t. rev

    The second report doesn’t rebut the first report in the way you seem to think it does. In fact, it illustrates why the first one may be true.

  2. I disagree. The assumption that brutality is equivalent to effectiveness is the flaw in Reynolds’ thinking; an unadorned call for more brutality is the sort of thinking that leads to, well, brutality.

    It seems to me symptomatic of Reynolds’ approach to war. He admires what he sees as people who can protect him. He makes the classic mistake of assuming that bullies are effective protectors.

    Once we decided to go into Iraq, we needed to present a strong face and maintain the utmost integrity. You cannot win over a hostile or semi-hostile populace without utter honesty and clear direction. Neither of those elements require brutality; the latter, in this case, certainly requires the willingness to apply force firmly if necessary.

    But people have to know what to expect; force must be consistently applied; and it must be fairly applied. “Brutality” does not encompass those requirements with any accuracy whatsoever.

  3. t. rev t. rev

    Not what I’m talking about. I’m thinking of statistics and observables.

    In a war, you have a large set of actors and a much larger set of actions taken by said actors. Some actions will be heroic, some will be atrocities, many will be just grim violence, and the vast majority will be mind-numbingly tedious.

    Some actions will be essentially unobserved (no one will survive them), most will be observed by a handful, and a tiny fraction will be observed and communicated on a wider scale.

    Each side in a war will have what you could call an ‘atrocity-averseness’ factor, which is going to be dependent on two things: the expected number of observers of a given atrocity, and the damage that a given perceived atrocity will cause to that side (in morale, diplomacy, etc.)

    I would argue that the US has an extremely high atrocity-averseness factor, for reasons that I think are obvious (or deserve a different essay, anyway).

    To manage this issue, the US can adopt two general approaches. They can try to cut down on the number of observers, or they can try to cut down on the number of atrocities. Cutting down the number of observers, however, is a losing battle in an era of camera-phones and the internet. On the other hand, if atrocities are statistical outliers in the set of actions (as I believe they are for the US), trying to reduce them further requires an enormous amount of effort (which I believe the US military exerts) for only a small additional payoff.

    Furthermore, extensive efforts to further reduce a small number of atrocities are going to have significant effects on the entire set of actions taken, again in ways that I think are obvious.

    It seems to me that Reynolds is asserting that the US has made more strategic mistakes, of greater total importance, out of reluctance to commit violence, than in committing atrocities. This is not quite the same thing as putting the two in diametrical opposition.

    The second report shows what happens when a small number of American actors commit an atrocity. (And there’s always a handful of scumbag idiots who’ll commit atrocities; zero tolerance may be a workable policy, but zero incidence is a fantasy of the mathematically ignorant.) This may illustrate why the US errs on the side of `not violent enough’ more often than the side of `too brutal’, but it does not rebut the claim.

  4. I agree with 90% of your supporting observations. It’s worth noting that the US appears to be doing the right things in response to the report, possibly even including the embargo of the news. We should not assume that any atrocity represents a total failure of policy.

    (At the same time, we should consider them failures, so as to avoid the creeping tolerance for atrocity problem.)

    But I read Reynolds as not only making the observation that he makes, but recommending that we change our policy. I can’t read his assertion that we’re being too soft any other way.

    The fact that we err more often by being not violent enough — he’s comparing flat numbers, rather than percentages. The real question is what percentage of “too brutal” actions result in errors vs. what percentage of “not violent enough” actions result in errors.

    Which is, of course, nigh-impossible to measure and inherently subjective. This comes back to the atrocity-averseness factor. The communications revolution is not raising that factor, but it’s ensuring that we’re aware of more of the brutal incidents that do happen. I’ve wondered if, over the long term, this isn’t going to effectively force the US into an isolationist policy.

  5. t. rev t. rev

    This comes back to the atrocity-averseness factor. The communications revolution is not raising that factor, but it’s ensuring that we’re aware of more of the brutal incidents that do happen. I’ve wondered if, over the long term, this isn’t going to effectively force the US into an isolationist policy.

    Well, I’d argue that it does raise the aversity factor, which is very roughly the ‘badness’ of perceived atrocities times the number of observers–the badness doesn’t change, but the number of potential observers does–but that’s not what I want to say here.

    What I really want to say is: it seems pretty clear to me that raising the A-A factor is one of the main strategies of the `antiwar’ movement, and pushing the US into isolationism is one of the main objectives. Strangely enough, this has been pretty consistently so since early in the Cold War.

  6. Ah, OK. I’d misread your algorithm, and I agree. (On both counts.)

    Looping back to my point, one of the photos (archived at The Memory Hole, third up on the right from the bottom) shows an Iraqi with the word “rapist” drawn on his skin. Maybe he was a rapist. But it also seems possible that the Americans responsible bought into the “Iraqis are subhuman” belief that certain parties have been spreading.

    I see “we have to be brutal, it’s all they understand” as a component of that belief system.

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