That Elusive Mark By Which To Distinguish Good People From Bad

In Journey to the End of the NightCéline‘s central character, Ferdinand Bardamu is confronted with uncontrovertible evidence of moral goodness in Sergeant Alcide–who is nobly working away in a remote colonial outpost to financially support a niece who is little more than a perfect stranger to him. That night, as Bardamu gazes at the sleeping Alcide, now once again, in inactivity, utterly unremarkable and undistinguishable from others who serve like him, he thinks to himself:

There ought to be some mark by which to distinguish good people from bad.

There isn’t, of course. But that hasn’t stopped mankind from continuing to hold on to this forlorn hope in the face of the stubborn difficulty of making moral judgements and evaluations about our fellow humans. Sometimes we seek to evaluate fellow humans on the basis of simple tests of conformance to a pre-established, clearly specified, moral code or decision procedure; sometimes we drop all pretence of sophisticated ethical analysis and take refuge in literal external marks.

These external marks and identifiers have varied through and across space and time and cultures. Sometimes shadings of skin pigmentations have been established as the distinguishing marker of goodness; sometimes it is the shape of the skull that has been taken to be the desired marker; sometimes national or ethnic origin; sometimes religious affiliation. (If that religious affiliation is visible by means of an external marker–like a turban for instance–then so much the better. West Pakistani troops conducting genocide in East Pakistan in 1971 were fond of asking Bengali civilians to drop their pants and expose their genitals;¹ the uncircumcised ones were led off to be shot; their bodies had revealed them to be of the wrong religion, and that was all that mattered as the West Pakistani Army sought to cleanse East Pakistan of those subversive elements that threatened the Pakistani polity.)

Confronted with this history of failure to find the distinguishing external mark of goodness, perhaps emblazoned on our foreheads by the cosmic branding authority, hope has turned elsewhere, inwards. Perhaps the distinguishing mark is not placed outside on our bodies but will be found inside us–in some innard or other. Perhaps there is ‘bad blood’ in some among us, or even worse, some might have ‘bad brains.’ Unsurprisingly, we have turned to neuroscience to help us with moral decisions: here is a brain state found in mass murderers and criminals; innocents do not seem to have it; our penal and moral decisions have received invaluable assistance. But as a growing litany of problems with neuroscientific inference suggest, these identifications of brain states and their correlations with particular behavior and the explanations that result rest on shaky foundations.

In the face of this determination to seek simple markers for moral judgement my ‘There isn’t, of course’ seems rather glib; it fails to acknowledge the endless frustration and difficulty of decision-making in the moral domain–and the temptation to seek refuge in the clearly visible.

Note: R. J Rummel, Death by Government, page 323

Nixon, Kissinger, And The 1971 Genocide In Bangladesh

This evening, Jagan Pillarisetti and will be speaking at the New York Military Affairs Symposium on ‘Indian Air Force Operations in the 1971 Liberation War.’ Our talk will be based on our book Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War (Harper Collins, 2013). Here is the jacket description:

In December 1971 Bangladesh was born. Its birthing was painful: it had suffered a brutal genocide conducted by its former countrymen from West Pakistan, and a war between the indigenous Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) and the Indian Armed Forces on one side, and the West Pakistani Armed Forces on the other. War broke out on the Western and Eastern fronts in December 1971 and ended quickly; the West Pakistani Army surrendered in Dacca two weeks later. A significant factor in facilitating the Indian Army’s progress to Dacca was the IAF, which neutralized the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), and provided deadly, timely and accurate firepower to support the Indian Army. The IAF flew a variety of missions: counter-air raids on airfields, steep glide dive-bombing attacks on runways, aircombat with PAF Sabres, helicopter borne operations, paradropping, and shipping attacks. Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War, provides a day by day recounting of the IAF’s activities, commencing with raids on Dacca on the first day of the war, and moving on to the final coup de grace delivered on the Governor’s House, all the while bolstered by first-person descriptions from IAF pilots. [links added]

I’ve been warming up for the talk by reading Gary BassThe Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide and I’m reminded, yet again, of what total and utter shits and moral reprobates those two were. There is little I can say to lengthen the already existent and damning charge sheets against Henry Kissinger (the approval of whom by Hillary Clinton was one of the many reasons why I could not bring myself to vote for her.) Let me instead, quote the always eloquent and erudite Patrick S. O’Donnell on the subject:

Henry Kissinger, a moral monster who exemplified the dark arts of immoral and amoral Realpolitik while at the pinnacle of political power in the United States, is a living reminder of why we established (several ad hoc and hybrid, as well as one permanent) international criminal tribunals and need universal jurisdiction in the quest for international criminal justice. If you’re not well acquainted with the precise reasons why Kissinger is rightly referred to in some quarters as a “war criminal” (although one could plausibly argue he is also guilty of crimes against humanity and complicity in genocide, among other crimes), see the first and still best summary of the particulars of this searing public indictment in Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Twelve, 2012; first edition, Verso, 2001, 2002 with new preface).

Bass’ book notes that despite a series of anguished reports emanating from US diplomatic staff in Dacca–headed by Archer Blood–who bore witness to the Pakistani Army genocide in Bangladesh, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger not only ignored these pleas to publicly condemn these atrocities, they refused to bring any pressure to bear on the Pakistani military administration–including but not limited to, not allowing American arms to be used in the massacres. Worse, they remained actively hostile to the Indian government, which was then dealing with an influx of ten million refugees fleeing the killings in East Pakistan. As Bass notes:

Nixon and Kissinger bear responsibility for a significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis. This overlooked episode deserves to be a defining part of their historical reputations. But although Nixon and Kissinger have hardly been neglected by history, this major incident has largely been whitewashed out of their legacy—and not by accident. Kissinger began telling demonstrable falsehoods about the administration’s record just two weeks into the crisis, and has not stopped distorting since.

My father fought in the 1971 war as a pilot in the Indian Air Force; I’m glad he did.

‘Westworld’ And The American West As Locale For Self-Reconfiguration

It is perhaps unsurprising that Westworld is Westworld; if American mythology is to be staged anywhere, the West is a natural locale. In the original Westworld, the West meant a zone in which certain kinds of adventures were facilitated: gun battles mostly, but also sex with perfect strangers who cared little for who you were and only wanted your money. In the new Westworld, an implicit motif of the first becomes more explicit: Westworld is where you go to find yourself–whoever and whatever that may be. In this new Westworld, the landscape, only background scenery in the old, now becomes more prominent; we are reminded again and again of its beauty, wildness, and implacable hostility and indifference. If you want to make a show about self-discovery, reconfiguration, journeys into and across space and time, the American West–for many historical and cultural reasons–is a good call. The physical spaces are vast, mapping neatly on to the immense unexplored spaces of the mind; the beauty is enthralling, sparking vision after vision in us of possibility, and also, as Rilke reminded us, bringing us closer to terror: those cliffs, those bluffs, those steep walls, that burning sun, the rattlesnakes, the dangers of other humans. The deployment of the American West also taps into a deeper mythology that self-discovery takes place away from other humans–in the wild. If we are to traverse our mind, then Westworld–like many other recountings of human experience before it–suggests we need tremendous physical spaces too. We could not do this in a crowded city. Those endless horizons and canopies of the sheltering sky are necessary for the suggestion of infinite possibility.

And then, there is the violence. The American West’s land is soaked in blood, in memories of a people decimated, of massacres, starvation, and rape. If you want to stage a modern day genocide–and the continuing thirty-five year old slaughter of ‘hosts’ is most definitely a genocide, even if an eternally recurring one–then, again, the West is the correct locale. It is significant that in this version of the American West, there are very few Native Americans; there are some ‘greasers‘–cannon fodder, obviously–but very few ‘redskins.’ The makers of the show seem to have wisely decided that it was best to mostly write Native Americans out of the show rather than risk getting their depiction and usage wrong, which they almost certainly would have. (The one episode in which Native Americans make an appearance, they are the stuff of nightmare, much as they must have been for the ‘pioneers,’ their imaginations inflamed by stories of how they had to keep their women safe from the depredations of the savages on the prairies.) This American West is one which has already been cleansed of the Native American; an alternative rendering of Westworld, one whose dark satire would have cut too close to the bone, would be one in which park visitors would get to shoot all the whoopin’ n’ hollerin’ Injuns they wanted.

MedievalWorld, SamuraiWorld would also allow for the exploration of themes pertaining to the possible sentience of robots, but their locales might not, at least for American audiences, suggest the possibilities of our own reconfiguration quite so well.

Visions Of A Pogrom, One Act At A Time

Thirty two years ago this week, I climbed up to the roof of my home in New Delhi and looked out and over at my city’s skyline; once again, I saw plumes of smoke rising into the sky. A pogrom was underway; homes and businesses and people were aflame. The Sikhs of New Delhi were bearing the brunt of reprisal killings and riots following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister, by her Sikh bodyguards. She had been shot dead on October 31st, 1984; the riots began that evening, and continued for a week. My mother had told me on the night of the 31st that she had heard stories of Sikhs being pulled off buses and beaten; we both did not realize that lynchings were being carried out. The next morning, my brother, curious to see what was afoot, accompanied his friend’s uncle, a Delhi-based journalist for the Daily Telegraph (UK), on an investigative foray into some South Delhi neighborhoods. He returned with a chilling tale, one that nauseated me then and continues to do so today.

That morning, in a residential neighborhood not more than a couple of miles from where we lived, my brother had seen a mob attacking a Sikh family’s residence. They were attempting to swarm over the gates and break open the doors of the house; their advance was being held up, desperately and futilely, by two Sikh men–presumably brothers–on the roof. One was breaking off bricks from the roof with an iron rod and passing them on; the other was throwing the bricks into the rampaging crowd below. My brother did not finish the tale; he did not need to. In my mind’s eye, I knew what had happened. The ending was foretold; sooner or later, the mob would break through the iron gates and the wooden doors of the staircase; they would race upstairs and overpower those two men. Then they would beat them to death, perhaps with the same bricks and iron rods that had been used to hold them off in vain.  The most sickening and violent of deaths, that at the hands of a vengeful mob, would be those men’s fate.

Some thirty-two years on, I’ve not forgotten those images; the one I had to draw using the resources of my own imagination, and the ones that were clearly visible to me, hanging over New Delhi, signaling the utter and complete breakdown of the city’s moral sensibilities. I was not threatened by the violence personally, but fear was contagious; I did not venture out of my street for an entire week. It was the closest I’ve come to living in a war zone, and it’s not an experience I ever want to repeat; I cannot, to this day, understand how life can go on in those precincts; the fear felt by those in New Delhi whose lives were actually in danger that week seems inconceivable to me.

The 1984 pogroms remain one of modern India’s most shameful episodes, a shame exacerbated by the fact that more than three decades later, very few perpetrators have been brought to justice. They’ve not lost their capacity to induce nightmares in me; the numbers of the dead published in the newspapers chilled me, as did the photographs of wailing women and children. But most of all, I will never forget that story of a desperate family trying to hold off inevitable death, their last moments on this earth filled with terror and pain, the voices of hatred ringing in their ears.

Robert Caruso, Clinton Campaign Fellow, Advocates War Crimes (Before Denying He Did So)

Hillary Clinton’s reputation as a warmongering hawk is a well-established one. As the New York Times reported back in April in an essay titled “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk,” she could talk the hawk talk, and walk the hawk talk too:

Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence analyst who conducted Obama’s initial review on the Afghanistan war, says: “I think one of the surprises for Gates and the military was, here they come in expecting a very left-of-center administration, and they discover that they have a secretary of state who’s a little bit right of them on these issues — a little more eager than they are, to a certain extent.”

Other than the financial shenanigans of the Clinton Foundation and the in-bed relationship with Wall Street, no other issue has exercised progressives quite as much. A hawkish American foreign policy means never-ending war, and with it, interminable violations of human rights, moral hypocrisy, budget overruns, appeasement of the military industrial complex, secrecy and surveillance and violations of civil rights at home. A hawkish American foreign policy is a pernicious rot at the roots of the republic; it is, without exaggeration, a cancer that needs excising from the American body politic.

Progressive worries about the Clinton presidency that is looming will not be assuaged by reading a remarkable article by “a former official in Hillary Clinton’s State Department and an associate of the Hillary for America PAC,” Robert Caruso, which lays out a policy argument for a no-fly zone in Syria that included the following gem:

Russia intends to exert political pressure and create the illusion a `shooting war’ would erupt if a no-fly zone was constituted. This is unserious, and should be dismissed as the naked Kremlin talking points they are where ever encountered….It is Russia, not the United States, that should fear American intervention in Syria

But the luster of that jewel pares in comparison to the following:

By no means is the United States limited to overt military intervention in Syria…Henry Kissinger’s strategies in Laos and Chile are models of success that should be emulated, not criticized.

In case it is not perfectly clear: Caruso is recommending the US emulate the actions of a mass-murdering war criminal and engage in murderous, illegal actions like the ones that Kissinger organized.

Caruso’s cheerleading for genocide did not go unnoticed; Huffington Post took down the passage from which the above lines had been excerpted and the online version of the post now no longer carries them. Quite naturally, Huffington Post has not added any editorial notes explaining their excision of this material.

But the entertainment does not end there. When Caruso was pointed to these lines on Twitter, he immediately replied with the following Trumpish denial:

Never said that, and from now on anyone repeating what you say about me is working for Russia.

Well, I’m clearly working for Russia, because I’m repeating it here; I read the article yesterday which had the full paragraph–now immortalized in a screenshot taken by Wikileaks:

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Perhaps the only reassurance afforded here that Caruso does not have the integrity to stand by his words, knowing quite well they are calls to criminal action. Small mercies indeed.

Addendum: The LinkedIn page for Robert Caruso seems to indicate he might not be a Clinton ‘insider’ at all. So his rantings above are certainly not indicative–in any definitive sense–of the contours of a future Clinton foreign policy.

W. E. B DuBois On The Exportation Of Domestic Pathology

In ‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington And Others’ (from The Souls of Black Folk, Bedford St. Martins, 1997, pp. 68) W. E. B. DuBois writes:

This triple paradox in Mr. Washington’s position is the object of criticism by two classes of colored Americans. One class is spiritually descended from Toussaint the Savior, through Gabriel, Vesey, and Turner, and they represent the attitude of revolt and revenge; they hate the white South blindly and distrust the white race generally, and so far as they agree on definite action, think that the Negro’s only hope lies in emigration beyond the borders of the United States. And yet, by the irony of fate, nothing has more effectually made this programme seem hopeless than the recent course of the United States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies, Hawaii, and the Philippines,—for where in the world may we go and be safe from lying and brute Force?

DuBois was, as might be expected from such a perspicuous thinker, onto something here. Just as wars fought overseas invariably come back home to roost, to corrupt and fester domestic realities by injecting into them the same militarism on display elsewhere–witness the policing on display in Ferguson and the awesome militarization soldiers in the War on Drugs are able to employ, so too, are domestic pathologies sooner or later exported overseas. Especially if the political power in question is capable of projecting itself to the furthest reaches of the world. It seeks and finds expression elsewhere; it has the means to do so; its motivating principles and ideologies lend it problematic form.

As DuBois notes, a nation capable of oppressing its own domestic ‘other,’ will have little compunction in translating that contempt into even more murderous form in its foreign policies. Especially if it sees that same ‘other’ present elsewhere. If indigenous people are exterminated at home, their extermination elsewhere will be of little consequence (it comes as little surprise that US foreign policy in Latin American has consistently propped up regimes who have enacted brutal programs of suppression of directed at their indigenous peoples); if people of color and women are denied rights at home, their enslavement elsewhere will matter little if required as a cornerstone of international relations (the long tolerance of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the propping up of dictatorships in the Middle East and elsewhere pay adequate testimony to this claim). Indeed, the increased ‘otherness’ of the peoples in distant lands may lend the foreign policy an especially brutal and indifferent edge.

It should be small wonder then that the rest of the world looks on with some nervousness at developments in seemingly domestic political matters in the American domain; an America more enlightened in its treatment of citizens at home has taken the first step–no matter how halting and tentative–in extending similar treatment to others who are the subjects of its policies elsewhere.

DuBois knew ‘colored Americans’ would not find respite elsewhere; sooner or later, they would have to fight a power that would soon find them in their new homes. Better to begin that battle now, here.

Satadru Sen on Eagles Over Bangladesh

Satadru Sen has written a very thoughtful and engaged review of Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War. His generally positive review also strikes some critical notes in it, and I’d like to respond to those. These critical points are all largely concerned with how well the book succeeds as (generally) military history and as (particularly) a history of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh, and about how the narrowness of our focus in the book detracts from that task.

A couple of preliminary remarks. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I self-consciously restricted ourselves to documenting the air operations in our book. We chose this narrow perspective for two reasons: a) to make our task manageable and b) to not obscure the treatment of the air operations. The definitive history of the Bangladesh Liberation War and especially the conflicts that preceded it might yet have to be written, but attempts have been made and we did not intend to try doing so ourselves. There has been no history attempted though of exclusively the air component of the war. (Incidentally, our book is only the first volume of an intended two-volume project; the second will cover air operations in the Western Sector; this should give you some indication of the magnitude of the task at hand.) We took our contribution to be toward filling the gap in the aviation history literature and not necessarily to contribute to the very interesting debates that surround the genesis of the Bangladesh war, its conduct, and so on.

Now, in general, air war histories and naval warfare histories are more specialized in their focus than the conventional war history. Books on the Battle of Britain, for instance, detail the air operations–the dogfights, the bombing etc–in far more detail than anything else; what they primarily focus on, which we do as well, is the operational context: the aircraft used, the decisions that led to the planning of air campaigns as they proceeded, the technical infrastructure, some detail on combat tactics and so on. We do not expect these kinds of histories to provide the kind of political histories or context that Sen finds missing. In large part, this is because, prior to the First Gulf War and the 1999 NATO Kosovo campaign air power, despite what its most enthusiastic proponents might say, has not been the primary weapon of choice in accomplishing tactical or strategic objectives; it has supported boots on the ground. Given this, it is only natural that histories of air campaigns are largely operational histories, with some strategic and planning detail provided to make sense of operations.

Now, on to Sen’s more specific critiques.

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