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Posts Tagged ‘war’

Shades of Grey

September 6, 2017 Leave a comment

When I decided to title this blog post “Shades of Grey” I first Googled the phrase to make sure I had the meaning correct. Of course, about 99% of the hits were about the movie “50 Shades of Grey” which I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised about given the power of pop culture. But, of course, I’m using it in the traditional way: to mean that many things cannot be simply seen as good or bad, or black or white, because there are always shades of grey.

So after the disappointment of discovering that I am not discussing the movie the natural question the reader might ask is: exactly what am I on about this time?

Just that too many people like to categorise every person, every organisation, every belief system as either good or bad, when they really should be assigning a shade of grey instead. So instead of calling a political movement (for example) evil, they should say something like mostly bad but with a few good characteristics too. I really believe there is nothing in this world that is wholly evil or entirely good.

But there is a corollary to this idea which is perhaps even more important. That is that two things which might seem to occupy the “darker” end of the spectrum cannot be classified as equally bad. To use the colour metaphor: they’re not both black, one might be really dark grey and the other mid-grey.

At this point I should be more specific. The one I want to use, because I have been guilty of falling into this trap myself, is to equate two sides in a conflict as being equally bad because they both have done bad things.

For example, I have heard some people say that the US was as bad as Iraq under Saddam Hussein, because of the many deaths from US air strikes in the Iraq War. Or similarly, that the US is as bad as the Taliban because they both have been guilty of causing the death of civilians in Afghanistan. Or to take it even further, that the Allies were as bad as the Nazis in World War II because of some of the more controversial actions like the bombing of Dresden.

Many people might look at these examples and scoff, saying that they see no equivalence there. That is good, but I would make two points. First, many people (especially those on the politically correct left) do see an equivalence; and second, these particular examples might not have suited your concept of morally equivalent actions but almost everyone will have something which does.

Just to make the shades of grey concept totally clear, I am not saying that the Allies were totally blameless in World War II. Many people have said that various actions (the bombing of Dresden being the most well known) might have been classified as war crimes. But while those actions were certainly far from sparkling white, they were far ahead of some Nazi’s conduct, such as the Holocaust, which were surely amongst the blackest of modern times.

An interesting contributing factor to this debate is the motivation for action. When the US is involved in a conflict it isn’t there to force people to adopt a religion, or to take over territory, or to even acquire resources. I will concede that there is an element of economic benefit in some cases, and in others getting involved in a conflict would be uncharitably seen as a political distraction, but these are lesser evils than the motivation of ISIS or most other opposing groups.

So saying that the US is as bad as ISIS because sometimes US drone strikes kill innocent civilians just like ISIS suicide bombers do, is missing the point. If the US could perform strikes against military targets with no collateral damage I think most people would say they would do that. But ISIS makes a deliberate effort to kill civilians as part of its military strategy.

Sure, either way innocent people are dead, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the two actions are equivalent. Killing innocent people accidentally from a drone strike is bad, but killing them deliberately using suicide bombers is worse according to any reasonable moral code.

If you have got this far and are still saying “well, duh” because everything I have said so far is obvious then that’s good, but I can tell you I meet a lot of people who would not accept any of the above.

Here’s a few more examples of people, or groups, or actions which tend to be seen by some groups as obviously black and white (good and bad) or as equally bad when there is one which is genuinely worse than the other…

The Israeli security forces versus groups such as Hamas in the Palestinian conflict. In this case the Israelis are far from innocent but at least there tactics are more moral than those used by the opposing forces.

Donald Trump versus Barack Obama. I cannot justify Trump’s aversion to dealing with facts, but I also find the constant demonisation of him to be tiresome. I’m sure there are some things he has done that the PC left would approve of. Maybe closing down the TPP would be a good example.

Poor people who commit welfare benefit fraud versus rich individuals and corporations who engage in tax evasion and avoidance. I don’t give either side a free pass although I think it is more morally justifiable to commit fraud to feed your family than it is to avoid paying a fair amount of tax just so that rich shareholders and directors can get even richer.

It’s just too easy to assign a good or bad, pass or fail, black or white to everything, usually based on existing political preferences, or in-group habits, rather than a genuine analysis of what is really happening. I think from now on people should assign a score instead. This will encourage a more nuanced view of the situation being evaluated.

So Allies versus Nazis: 90:10, George Bush versus Saddam Hussein 60:40. the US versus ISIS 80:20, etc. Those numbers are just first guesses and I could be persuaded to change them by a good argument. But the point is that it’s a lot easier to adjust some numbers than to change from a good versus bad situation.

So yes, it’s all about shades of grey, and there are at least 50 of them.

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ANZAC Protests

April 26, 2017 Leave a comment

About 2 years ago I commented on an incident where an Australian sports commentator was fired for making some tweets critical of Australia’s record in past wars. The tweets were made on ANZAC Day which is a day observed in Australia and here in New Zealand to commemorate the sacrifice of our military personnel in past wars, especially the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

The general conclusion I reached then was that the tweets were (probably deliberately) provocative and somewhat insulting, and in most cases not particularly accurate, but also did raise some valid issues related to that country’s participation in war.

On ANZAC Day this year in New Zealand we have had a controversy which was also related to criticisms of our past war record. This time, we had a group protesting the lack of a serious investigation into allegations of the possible involvement of New Zealand troops with war crimes in Afghanistan.

They held a sign protesting civilian war deaths (which read “Lest We Remember: No NZ support for war”) and attempted to place a wreath on a war memorial to remember the civilians allegedly killed by a botched raid lead by New Zealand military personnel in Afghanistan in 2010.

At that point they were verbally attacked, especially by a minor political official of New Zealand’s populist party, New Zealand First, and his particularly loud and obnoxious 12 year old son. Up until then any protest had been minimal and the solemnity of the occasion had hardly been disturbed.

They approached the protesters and shouted that they should not be there. The boy then said “Do it tomorrow, do it the day before, do it any day – but today it is wrong, wrong, wrong” and “You are so inappropriate, I just cannot believe this.”

Note that word “inappropriate”, which I have commented on before. This word is used (and I must admit to being guilty of this occasionally myself) as a way to say that you don’t like something but want to make it seem like your dislike is based on something more universal or objective.

So instead of saying “I don’t like that” a person will say “that is inappropriate”, because whether something is inappropriate or not is, in most cases, a matter of opinion. And it certainly is in this case.

In fact a poll run by NZ news organisation Newshub showed 67% of respondents supported protests on ANZAC day as being OK. I do need to emphasise this wasn’t a scientific poll and (at the time I voted) only had 2500 votes, but it did seem to correlate with the majority of comments I saw on the subject.

The protesers were peaceful and reasonable and the only time the subdued mood of the occasion was broken was when they were shouted at. Even then, they replied in a quiet and reasonable way.

I should also say that if someone is going to criticise another group, especially in a context like this, then they should expect to get criticised in return, and I do think it is good that people make their strongly held opinions known, but it is really a matter of how these things are done and the vigorous, loud, and seemingly tactless attack on the protesters was unacceptable (see how easy it is to use that word?)

Many people think New Zealand’s official national day, Waitangi Day, has been spoiled by protest (and I have blogged about his in the past) and it might be that another important day for this country is heading that way too.

I don’t think that is necessarily bad, but the protests have to be reasonable and they shouldn’t be over-done. That is bad for two reasons: first, too much protest spoils the event for others; and second, too much protest loses any meaning and just becomes background noise.

One of the claims made about our country’s past reasons for going to war was to protect our freedoms, such as the ability to speak out against injustice and to protest. It is sort of ironic now if those freedoms are being denied. And it is also ironic if a protest about a protest is more disruptive than the original protest!

If people would just settle down a bit, recognise that there are alternative views on every topic, including the way that our military personnel have acted, and just talk about these things reasonably instead of shouting mindlessly, then everyone would benefit. Will that ever happen? Probably not.

Minutes to Midnight

January 27, 2016 Leave a comment

The song “2 Minutes to Midnight” from heavy metal band Iron Maiden described the state of the world in 1953 when the “Doomsday Clock” was at its closest to midnight (indicating the likelihood of global catastrophe, in that case because of H bomb tests by both the USA and USSR).

Here’s a few lines from that jolly little ditty…

The body bags and little rags of children torn in two
And the jellied brains of those who remain to put the finger right on you.
As the madmen play on words and make us all dance to their song,
To the tune of starving millions to make a better kind of gun.

Two minutes to midnight
The hands that threaten doom…

Yeah, not very optimistic but probably quite appropriate even though the situation was considerably better by the time the song was written in 1984. And recently the Doomsday Clock (a symbolic clock face representing a countdown to possible global catastrophe, maintained by the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) has been at 5 minutes to midnight.

But this year it has been moved forward again to 3 minutes to midnight – maybe not bad enough to write a rather lugubrious metal song about but still pretty bad!

The reasons for moving the clock forward include “rising tension between Russia and the US, North Korea’s recent nuclear test, and a lack of aggressive steps to address climate change”. There is also concern about the potential of modern, compact nuclear weapons and how those might fall into the hands of groups who might be less responsible than the major nations.

So I would have to agree that things do look fairly grim and I thought there might be an interesting link with another article I read regarding intelligent life on other planets. I have mentioned the Fermi Paradox (which basically asks why we have never found any signs of advanced civilisations anywhere in the universe) in this blog before and have never been able to find a good explanation.

The article suggested there is a critical point in the early stages of life on a planet where evolution must lead to forms of life capable of modifying the environment. At this point life is in a race against potential destruction by physical forces. Life has to evolve quickly and regulate concentrations of water and carbon dioxide to keep the temperatures stable and be able to survive.

If this doesn’t happen then advanced life will never evolve and even simple life forms might die out completely. So it might be that life is much less common than we suspect just because progress past this stage so rarely happens.

Or it could be another factor in the Drake Equation (an equation describing how often life should arise) which is responsible for our failure to discover intelligent extraterrestrial life. That is the point where the expected lifetime of an intelligent civilisation is considered.

Maybe all intelligent life quickly and inevitably gets to the point where its “Doomsday Clock” is close to midnight and for most of them maybe it reaches that ominous time instead of just hovering close to it like it has for us (so far).

For a civilisation to become successful maybe it needs to be aggressive and/or reckless. It’s easy to see how those two attributes which can lead to success can also often lead to failure.

Maybe somewhere in the universe a metal band created a song “one minute to midnight” and maybe that was the last song ever heard on that planet…

Keeping it Simple

December 9, 2015 Leave a comment

Donald Trump thinks the US should stop Muslims from entering the country until leaders can “figure out what is going on”. This seems to be a reaction to the latest mass shooting (at least it was the the latest when I wrote this post because there could be another one any day – they happen with such regularity in the States) which was carried out by a militant Muslim couple.

I have always said that religion (and particularly Islam at the current time) should accept a lot of the blame for the atrocities happening in the world today. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who believes the same religion as the extremists bears the same blame. But they should accept some because they promote the same belief system which is the source of the murderous rampages in all parts of the world.

And yes, I know the apologists argument that terrorism is also a result of political and social forces has some truth. But that can’t hide the fact that it is primarily religious.

Look at this report on Tashfeen Malik, the woman who carried out the shooting with her husband: “She started dressing more conservatively, wearing a scarf that covered nearly all her face, and became more devout in her Muslim faith…”. Does that sound like religion played a significant part in her actions? It certainly does to me.

I admit I haven’t read the whole Koran and I certainly haven’t studied it, but from the parts of it I know it certainly seems to contain a lot of violence, misogyny, and intolerance, as well as being very, very boring. If this is the holy book at the center of the Muslim religion then I think there actually is a case to be made to be suspicious of all Muslims.

But I don’t think entry into a country should be decided based on anything as unrefined as which religion the person thinks themselves as belonging to. After all, labelling yourself as a Muslim, Christian, or anything else can indicate a huge range of beliefs depending on which particular sect of the religion you belong to, how seriously you take it, and what part of your total personality it comprises.

So a Muslim who takes the whole Koran (and Hadith and other sources of belief) literally, including all the apparent approval of violence, is a totally different threat to someone who is a more “modern” or “liberal” Muslim who participates in the traditions but either ignores or finds convoluted explanations for all the bad parts of their religion.

I have often said that I don’t have a dislike any group of people. So I have very little resentment towards Muslims, Christians, or anyone else. But I do oppose irrational, primitive, and violent beliefs. I don’t like religions because they’re just plain wrong, and if you start off with a belief which isn’t true then things often go down hill from there.

So Trump should be stopping people with extreme, irrational beliefs from entering the country, not just people with one particular religion. After all, there are plenty of violent actions carried out by Christians too. But I admit that idea is technically more difficult, and perhaps more importantly, it isn’t quite so effective as political rhetoric.

When things get bad people want simple answers. They want to be able to identify who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. But life isn’t a Hollywood Western and things aren’t quite as simple as that. Unfortunately in politics a simple answer is usually far more widely accepted than an accurate one, a principle Trump understands very well.

Paris Attacks

November 16, 2015 2 comments

My regular readers will be very aware that I like to discuss politics and religion in this blog. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, and events following those, it is to be expected that I would comment on them, right? Well, actually, I don’t want to do that right now because I am somewhat conflicted.

Obviously I totally abhor the mindless violence perpetrated by ISIS in Paris – no sane person would support anything so totally profoundly immoral. But the real question is what to do about it. I have seen opinions ranging from “kill all Muslims” to “let’s talk about it and see what they want”. I personally think both of these extremes are utterly idiotic but what is the correct response?

Is it to send in the military, as France has done, to bomb ISIS targets and inevitably also kill innocent civilians and thereby most likely create even more resentment against the West? Is it to do nothing, as some have suggested? Is it to start a land war in the Middle East? Is it to block all Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers from entering Western countries?

Well maybe some of these ideas have merit but I’m just not sure yet. I think I will give it a few more days and catch up on more news and commentary on this subject before commenting. And that is probably what everyone should have done instead of coming out with some of the comments I have seen.

There is also the big debate over how much blame Islam in general should take for its radical extremist elements. There is no doubt that religious belief is a significant factor in the motivation for these attacks, but is it the main factor? Does that mean the Islam itself is the enemy? And can we ever trust Muslims as a result?

Finally, if we are so outraged by this violence how should we treat the military violence of the Western powers? There is no doubt that the US and its allies have killed many times more innocent people than Islamic extremists have, but those deaths have been primarily collateral damage rather than deliberate murder. But does that make it OK?

So the situation is both simple and complex. It’s simple that anyone willing to perform such atrocities deserves little sympathy and if they encounter a violent death themselves I don’t think many people would be too concerned. But what is the answer to the bigger problem? Military raids might be the answer but they might also be the source of the problem in the first place.

So surprisingly, I don’t have a quick answer to the biggest problem facing the world today. But give me a few days and wait for a new post where, no doubt, my opinion will be a lot clearer!

Dealing with Refugees

September 8, 2015 Leave a comment

The big news this week is the Syrian refugee crisis. The New Zealand government has been under intense pressure to accept more refugees and has finally relented and will allow 750 into the country. Most of the opinions I have heard seem to think this is a good idea, but how good is it really?

Before I go any further, for those of you with short attention spans, here is the short version…

The Syrian refugee crisis is a difficult problem to solve and ideally it would be best to somehow end the war which is causing people to leave. But that can’t be done easily so maybe the best interim action is to allow those who are in immediate danger to settle in peaceful countries like New Zealand. But this will displace resources which could be used for New Zealanders who live in poverty, don’t have jobs, etc.

And refugees who have settled here in the past have not necessarily fitted in well and less than half have jobs after 5 years. Some have difficulty adopting to a different culture and interact mainly with other immigrants, possibly leading to slums and social unrest.

Helping refugees doesn’t necessarily mean less for New Zealanders because it’s possible to help both refugees and New Zealanders if the government really wanted to. We also need to be seen to be fulfilling our international responsibilities and New Zealand’s main ally (the US) is partly responsible for many of the problems in the Middle East today.

So… it’s complicated, but the best solution is probably to take a moderate approach by taking a fair number of refugees while working towards a solution for ending the war.

Here’s the long version…

The idea of taking more refugees has broad political support but I’m not sure it is quite so popular amongst the wider population of the country. Many people are deeply suspicious of other cultures, especially those from the Middle East, and the usual arguments about refugees not fitting in, taking jobs, and costing a lot of money to process abound. And quite rightly so, because all those arguments are valid.

But there are counter-arguments against the negatives. For example, greater diversity is usually a good thing because it encourages new ideas and different ways of looking at problems (and just makes life more interesting). Also, the population of New Zealand is often seen as low and increasing that through this process can make a small difference. And we do have responsibilities as a member of the international community to help with settling refugees and this helps improve our reputation.

But maybe most importantly, helping other people is just the right thing to do. Of course this idea does need to be balanced with some common sense, otherwise the positive effects of the help will be outweighed by the negatives of the side-effects (there’s an answer straight from utilitarianism!)

So what is the best solution here?

Well, I have heard three broad approaches to solving the problem. First, accept as many people escaping from wars as possible and re-settle them in peaceful areas of the world; second, try to fix the problem which is causing the crisis in the first place; and third, just nuke any areas of the world which are causing problems (the “final solution” espoused – I hope not seriously – by some people).

I’ll look at these in reverse order…

The idea of nuking any country which is involved in a conflict which the West finds inconvenient is crazy, obviously. As I said, I don’t think anyone is really serious about this (sadly, I’m sure there is a certain type of right-wing crazy who is) so I will just ignore it and move on.

What about fixing the problem which is causing the refugee crisis in the first place? Well, of course this is what we should be aiming for but it’s not quite as easy as that. The American approach to solving the Middle East’s problems has been spectacularly unsuccessful. Of course, many people would say that the US is more interested in solving their own problems of securing access to oil, more than anything else, but that still doesn’t help with a solution.

So while solving the problems causing the crisis is clearly the best long-term solution it isn’t much help here and now. Until the war is ended there should be alternative action taken just to solve the immediate problems.

Can we just accept as many people as possible and allow them to settle here? Well that means what is meant by “as many as possible”. There are so many refugees (16 million by some counts) from this one conflict alone (and remember there are other areas of the world where similar problems exist) that is seems almost impossible to make a big difference. So maybe we have to settle for making a small difference. At least that is better than nothing, and even the modest increase announced by the PM will cost us over $50 million.

Finally, let’s have a look at some comments the people are making about this topic and see how I would respond to them…

First there is this: “their country, their war, their problem”. That is partly true, but only partly. If people were really prepared to stand up against ISIS they could probably be defeated from within. But for various reasons that doesn’t happen. Also, a lot of the problems in the Middle East today have been caused, or at least made worse, by meddling by Western powers, especially the US. But all Western nations need to take some responsibility, so it isn’t just “their problem”. It is ours too.

Here’s another: “we should do more for the people of NZ who struggle first” and many others with similar sentiments. Even the biggest struggle for a New Zealander is less than what people in Syria are facing. How many people in NZ daily face the possibility of being brutally murdered by a band of religious fanatics? Not many. Also, New Zealand can do both. There is enough money to help both the poor in New Zealand and Syrian refugees. All that is missing is the political will to do something about it.

What about this: “Keep strong Mr Key. There are 52 Middle Eastern countries for Moslems to go to that are not at war”. I guess this was made before the PM changed direction and allowed for a greater quota of refugees. It’s a good point though because many of the issue in the Middle East are caused by religion. Can’t countries with that same religion help to clean up the mess it causes?

Here’s the final solution espoused by someone: “Send in the clowns. Or 500,000 ground troops. Or several low yield bombs… make that several dozen!” It’s hard to say if this is serious or not, but military interventions just seems to make things worse anyway.

Then there are the emotional pleas for help, like this: “Just imagine the strain these poor people are feeling! Compassion not hate!” Agreed, but we need to be practical about just how much compassion we can offer.

Finally there is this. Maybe the most powerful statment there: “Thanks… from a Syrian in New Zealand”.

What Did They Fight For?

April 29, 2015 Leave a comment

One of the basic reasons for engaging in war is often stated to be protection for freedom of speech. If that is true then we should find it very ironic and perhaps hypocritical when people want to deny the right to that freedom when our engagement in wars is involved. I am of course referring to the recent case in Australia where sports reporter Scott McIntyre was fired after making some rather critical tweets regarding Australia’s war efforts on the 100 year anniversary of the World War 1 actions commemorated by ANZAC day.

Before I go any further I should comment on the actual content of the tweets…

First he said that he found the “cultification” (which I’m not sure is really a word but clearly means turning something into a cult) of the “imperialist invasion” of a foreign nation (Turkey) that Australia had no quarrel with is contrary to our moral standards.

Well he has a point there, although the action was against an ally of a much worse aggressor (Germany) so it is debatable whether Australia had a fair reason to invade or not. Also calling the commemorations on ANZAC day a cult is a bit of an exaggeration. There are some elements there (repetition of key phrases such as “lest we forget”, formal ceremonies, failure to accept criticism) but there are a lot of elements of cults missing too.

Next he wondered if the “poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered.”

This is deliberately insulting obviously, but let’s move on to the key point about consideration of the bigger picture of suffering on all sides. In my experience that does happen. The Turks have been portrayed by many not so much as an enemy but more as fellow victims and several quite touching stories of friendship have emerged. Also the horror of war in general is a common theme but there is also an element glorifying some of the events. So the tweet is probably poorly considered but it is still a fair question.

The next tweet caused the most consternation, and rightly so: “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan.”

I believe there were some atrocities committed by Australian troops in World War I and those should not be ignored, but this tweet is a gross exaggeration and simplification of the truth. It’s also rather confused historically speaking. So the point could be made but I think it could have been made in a more accurate, rational way (although he was restricted by the limitations of Twitter, of course).

Finally there were two tweets relating to the nuclear attacks on Japan: “Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima & Nagasaki” and “Innocent children, on the way to school, murdered. Their shadows seared into the concrete of Hiroshima.”

Those attacks were carried out by America and as far as I am aware Australia had very little to do with them, so this is getting a bit off topic. There is a very good case to be made that the nuclear bombing of Japan was the greatest war crime ever, but an equally good case could be made to say that they shortened the war and saved many lives too. Either way they didn’t have a lot to do with the ANZACs although in the greater theme of war in general they are relevant.

So those are the tweets which causes the controversy. In summary I would say that they all make some reasonable points which should be discussed but that they are undoubtedly exaggerated, not necessarily completely factually accurate, and poorly worded.

But assuming we disagree with him what is the appropriate response? Well the worst possible response is what we got: a grossly inflated sense of insult, an insistence for the discussion to be shut down, and a demand for the person to be fired even though the tweets had no relevance to his job. All that does is make me feel like he might be right and people are trying to hide the facts.

Would a more sensible approach not be to point out where he is wrong (assuming he is), to offer a more balanced perspective, or maybe to say “these are all points we can discuss but now is not the time” (I don’t necessarily agree that this is not the time but a case could be made that it is).

And finally the fact that his employer fired him as a result of this public and political pressure is a very poor precedent to set. If I was him I would be taking legal action against my employer because forcing their own political opinions, or worse – taking action just to avoid unreasonable criticism – is just morally reprehensible. Of course, that is standard behaviour for many employers – don’t get me started on the BBC and Jeremy Clarkson again!

As far as I know the comments were made in his own time and on his own Twitter account (if I am wrong about this it weakens my point but I still think firing him was wrong) so what right does his employer have for censoring him like that? Absolutely none! As I said at the beginning of this post, that is the sort of behaviour our brave soldiers were defending. If this deliberate suppression of fair debate is where we are at now you have to wonder this: what did they fight for?