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Beyond good and evil (unfortunately)

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted April 27, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, a column by Michael Coren raised a lot of hackles by bringing up a semi-taboo subject. After expressing condolences for the death of Cpl. Karine Blais, a Canadian soldier killed by an IED in Afghanistan, he wonders if the Forces' policy on gender equality has gone beyond common sense. His argument is couched in pragmatic terms, but he's also making a moral argument: to ask women to serve on front lines is to ask too much of them, which says something shameful about us as a society. It could be called the male-protectiveness argument.

This argument is at heart a moral one, even though it appeals to standards that are clamped down upon in universities. The idea that the male has a duty to protect the female, despite its commonalities to life in the animal kingdom, is at heart a moral one. A good man assumes the risk and pain that's directed against a woman, unless she specifically asks him not to; a bad man is delinquent in this respect. There are variations on it, which tend to involve fighting, but this root encompasses all of them (as no male is invulnerable in all respects.) It might be the most basal of all deontic arguments in the moral encyclopedia.

As a strategic argument, though, it's iffy. According to most comments made by self-disclosed trained soldiers over at Small Dead Animals, there is no discernable drop-off in troop performance as a result of gender integration. Mr. Coren's practical points can be met with a laconic "we're still getting the job done."

It's an unfortunate fact of life that war is the typical means of going "beyond good and evil." That's why modern wars often turn into moral quagmires, if not strategic ones. This last century, bloodbaths have resulted with sufficient frequency to make one suspect that limited war in Christian cultures is a gift of the Church. Back in the days when wars were fought by men with official status superiority, it was relatively easy for a sly cleric to tie soft-gloving to honor. In fact, that's how the code of chivalry developed, with the rationale being the Peace and Truce of God. Bloodthirst, after all, is not exactly sanctioned by the Gospels.

Strategically, though, there may be good reasons to put women on the front lines in areas known for suicide bombings. As Robert Pape pointed out in Dying To Win, more than a few suicide bombers have been females. In a society where women are still shooed away from activities deemed manly, women suicide bombers have an extra propaganda value. "The enemy is so awful, even our women fight." If used skillfully, this slogan does aid in demonizing the opponent. People who are impressed by it are likely to be impressed by the sight of NATO women fighting too. This tit-for-tat, which Mr. Coren seemingly finds hypocritical, makes a kind of strategic sense on paper. If practicable, it would say that we think the enemy is awful too.

War, of course, is hard on ideals – all of them. Take "nation building," for instance. Counties that are not nations, have people in them whose primary loyalties lie elsewhere. Typically, these loyalties are reserved for a much smaller group within the country: extended family, clan, village, region. This pervasive localism actually helps keep pan-Islamic groups like al-Qaida ineffectual. Appeals to too-abstract notions tend to decode into "good talk" that's nice but ignorable – "great speech", but no "let's march!" Ordinary, localist-grounded common sense aids in making such recruiting efforts nugatory. A localist villager, with feet on the ground, is likely to respond to invocations of Mecca with: "why is the [Saudi] King not avenging it? Why is he not here asking us? What, then, could his matter have to do with us? Why are you [really] here?" As long as an entire religion is not tied to specific political authority, religious quarrels tend to be met with sentiment and encouragement but not direct aggressive action. Again, common sense aids: "It is admirable what you have done for the faith, but many others in many different regions are admirable too. We cannot help them all ourselves, and all of them are believers like you." Dr. Pape points out that the success of suicide bombing depends crucially on suicide bombers being seen as heroes and martyrs: no organization of that sort would dare appear users. When localism prevails, along with its associated common sense, getting people to be seriously pan-anything is too onerous. For this reason, we may have to be satisfied with President Karzai being cast as the 'mayor of Kabul', if his lack of sway goes along with localism as a buffer against al-Qaida's kind of crusade. Afghanistan was never more unified than it was under the Taliban.    

Of course, I'm no credentialed expert; I could very well be stuck in the past. If I point out that (say) the current brouhaha over 'domestic terrorism' brings to mind the false assumption that the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing was done by domestic ruffians, I could be accused of being stuck in yesterday. If I use terms like modus operandi, it could be pointed out to me that I have no law enforcement experience and thus could be talking through my hat. Being a mere pundit has its limitations, and the likes of me have to be content with the lot accorded to people of words. In such matters, I have to crook the back to those with the relevant expertise.

I realize that I've slid around the moral factor, but the age of mass war makes conscience a casualty too. In war, thanks to what's been called 'progress', we've largely gone beyond good and evil…unfortunately. Hence the moralists' continual appeals to fear when war comes up. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is an irregular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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