Sandor Clegane, The Hound, on the Hypocrisy of Knighthood

A Song of Ice and Fire‘s Sandor Clegane, the Hound, is a vile man, a murderous mercenary who knows no scruples. But his impassioned rants against the hypocrisy of the knights of the Seven Kingdoms–besides providing him with some wonderful lines–give him a little redemptive touch.

In A Storm of Swords, before his battle with Beric Dondarrion, as he is accused by the Brotherhood without Banners (AKA the Knights of the Hollow Hill or The Forgotten Fellowship) of atrocities committed by the Lannisters, the Hound fights back:

“You server the Lannisters of Casterly Rock,” said Thoros.

“Once. Me and thousands more. Is each of us guilty of the crimes of others?” Clegane spat. “Might be you are knights after all. You lie like knights, maybe you murder like knights.”

 Lem and Jack-Be-Lucky began to shout at him, but Dondarrion raised a hand for silence. “Say what you mean, Clegane.”

“A knight’s a sword with a horse. The rest, the vows and the sacred oils and the lady’s favors, they’re silk ribbons tied around the sword. Maybe the sword’s prettier with silk ribbons tied round the sword. Maybe the sword’s prettier with ribbons hanging off it, but it will kill you just the same. Well, bugger your ribbons, and shove your swords up your arses. I’m the same as you. The only difference is, I don’t lie about what I am. So kill me, but don’t call me a murderer while you stand there telling each other your shit don’t stink. You hear me?

After he has cheated a ferryman of his fare by falsely promising to pay him on his ‘knight’s honor’ and is accused of breaking his vow, the Hound says:

Knights have no bloody honor.

Later too, the Hound lets an innkeeper know he does not want to be thought of, or addressed as if he were, a knight:

“I don’t want no trouble, ser,” the innkeep said.

“Then don’t call me ser.”

The Hound is right, of course: there is little distinction, often, in the behavior of sellswords and knights (as Sansa Stark painfully finds out);  the vows of knighthood are all too easily broken.

In leveling these charges against the exalted figure of the knight, Clegane forces a confrontation with the uncomfortable truth that renders the distinction between mercenary and professional soldier a tenuous one: both are in the business of killing.  The mercenary’s acts are all too quickly prejudged as driven by little more than selfish considerations but the soldier may often be granted the privilege of elaborate ideological cover for his actions.

This fragility of the distinction between ‘the man who fights for cause and country’ and ‘the man who fights for purse alone’ suggests a greater moral responsibility on the former.  But as the Hound sagely–if crudely–points out, all too often soldiers (and their leaders) are content to merely dress up their actions with puffery and bombast and pompous proclamations of codes of conduct. It is the easiness with which those may be discarded that is the target of the Hound’s ire. And it should be ours too.

‘Prohibited’ and ‘Acceptable’ Weapons and Targets in War

In my last two posts on Syria on these pages–here and here–I’ve tried to express my discomfort at the threat made by the US to launch cruise missile strikes in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. In them, I was trying to make a distinction which I did not clearly articulate, one whose provenance goes back to the debates over nuclear deterrence at the time of the Cold War, or to be more precise, the 1950s, when the threat of mutually assured destruction was first made manifest:

[T]he crucial distinction in the theory and practice of war [is] not between prohibited and acceptable weapons but between prohibited and acceptable targets. [From: Michael WalzerJust and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illuminations, 3rd ed., Basic Books, New York, 2000, pp. 276]

Indeed, insofar as a ‘prohibited’ weapon is to be viewed as such, it is because its effects are likely to be–or have been–disproportionately borne by ‘prohibited’ targets i.e., non-combatants, civilians, innocents, bystanders, call them what you will.  The use of a tactical nuclear weapon, say in the Second World War, on a battlefield, perhaps against massed infantry or armored formations, or out at sea, against a massive fleet of warships, would have provoked considerably less angst than its actual use against the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did. (Despite Paul Fussell‘s–sometimes ad-hominem–dismissal of critics of the decision to use the bomb, there are good arguments to suggest it was a criminal act c.f the Walzer reference provided above, and especially the discussion on pages 263-268.)

This distinction, once established, now lets me make more explicit the incoherence in our attitudes toward war and weapons that I had suggested in my earlier posts on this topic. Drawing a so-called ‘red line’ around the use of chemical weapons seems arbitrary and hypocritical when those that have charged themselves with the enforcement of a supposed norm against such use are:

a) confused about the right norm to be observed;

b) guilty of violating the appropriate norm themselves.

A ‘limited’ US cruise missile attack on Syria–one committed to no other objectives other than the preservation of the ‘red line’–then, would have been problematic on both these counts. It would have flirted with the implicit claim that the slaughter of civilians is acceptable, or tolerated, so long as it is carried out by conventional weapons;  it would have established that the US, which is guilty of violating the norm against killing noncombatants in its drone strikes in Yemen and Afghanistan, was taking upon itself the responsibility to enforce its confused reading of it elsewhere.

In response to the cries of ‘What do you want us to do while civilians–prohibited targets–are being gassed?’, I’d suggest that in this case–this Syria, with its warring parties, at this point in time–all options short of armed retaliation be explored first, especially when such an action is likely to cause further loss of life, destabilize the region and perhaps invite retaliation by Assad, using conventional weapons this time, against the same non-combatants. (My post at The Washington Spectator alluded to some of these possibilities.)

Note: I realize that recent diplomatic maneuvers involving Russia have made a US attack less likely, but the threat has not completely receded, which suggests this discussion is still relevant.

A Norm-Preserving Bombing

War waged to prevent the gratuitous, deliberately caused, cruel, inhuman loss of innocent life; a moral intervention, a just war. War waged to preserve an international norm, a collective sensibility of outrage and revulsion at the use of a weapon of mass destruction: a similarly moral intervention, a similarly just war?

These questions, obviously, are up for the asking because of the arguments put on display in the current wrangling over Syria. It has become clear that there are few to no military reasons for intervening in its civil war: a US bombing will not bring Assad down; it will not help the rebels win; it will not tilt the military advantage in any of the warring parties’ favor; it will not end the killing of innocent citizens; it could still cause the conflict to escalate, provoking Saudi Arabia and Iran to intervene on behalf of their respective proxies; it could, in sum, cause greater human misery than it prevents.

But it will, according to those who argue for it, help preserve a worldwide moral and normative guideline, that the use of certain kinds of weapons, even as part of that moral atrocity, that zone of ethical catastrophe we term ‘war’, is to be placed beyond the pale. Tyrants of the present and future, take heed; this world can be pushed around and many of your deeds will go unpunished. But there are some lines you will not, we will not let you, cross. This is not a world in which anything goes. Unthinking and untrammeled anarchy in the pursuit of your heinous objectives will eventually run into the solid, immovable opposition of some bedrock moral certainties, over which the world can come to some agreement, despite our disagreement about everything else. When the smoke and confusion caused by the endless suggestions of relativism has cleared, we, as a global community, will find ourselves confronted by a zone of ethical and legal agreement.

That is what that upcoming shower of cruise missiles is supposed to achieve.

There are many oddities here, all worthy of wonderful inspection. Why are chemical weapons so cruel, so worthy of condemnation, that a (literally) explosive reaction is called for, one which will in all probability cause some loss of life itself? What is the foundation of a norm that may exact, for its preservation, such a notable price? In my previous post on this subject, I had tentatively made the same inquiry and wondered in much the same fashion: why is a chemical weapon crueller, more heinous than a conventional weapon?

Interestingly enough, a chemical weapon, such as nerve gas, because of problems with delivery systems, might not be as deadly or efficient as might be thought. There is a tactical, not strategic, reason that they have not been used as often; they don’t work as well as their deployers might hope. When they have been used in war, they have not secured any decisive or overwhelming advantage for their principals; much of the smoke fired into ‘enemy’ trenches during the First World War drifted back towards ‘friendly’ lines. They do cause horrible deaths to those afflicted by them, but it is not clear these are any worse than those caused by conventional weapons. (The New York Times article I link to below shows a dead woman and baby after the 1988 Halabja gassings; I assure you, a baby hit by a grenade looks equally gruesome, its death was just as painful.)

But chemical weapons are somehow more insidious: they sneak up on you, they asphyxiate, they bury you alive standing. They are wily, creepy, clammy; the first international agreement against their use–in 1675, ‘when France and the Holy Roman Empire agreed in Strasbourg not to use poisoned bullets’–found, in an era of the bow, axe, sword and cleaver, poison too reprehensible for its sensibilities.  Our global niceties in this regard have not always been observed; as Steven Erlanger notes in the New York Times, their use in the Iran-Iraq war, a case of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, caused no outrage, no condemnation. But, as I said in my last post, we are a ‘fastidious species’; we like to keep our hands clean, we like to remind ourselves of our ‘humanity’ even as we persistently traffic with the inhuman.

So, is this norm worth preserving, even at the cost that might be likely: the escalating conflict, and all of the rest? There has been rare near unanimous consent  to sign and observe treaties that affirm it; this sense of broad agreement over the non-use of a weapon might be felt to be reason enough by some. The very rare of  use chemical weapons in war, remains, for me, a less impressive datum; it is not too implausible to suggest that if chemical weapons were more useful battlefield weapons their use would have been far more common and our norms about them would be rather more flexible. Perhaps an argument could be made that the first reason is sufficient. Perhaps. I don’t see it as yet, largely because of my failure to understand what grounds the norm against chemical weapons in a world populated by a moral community that does not seem similarly concerned with other equally terrible weapons and acts.

Furthermore, actions like the ones proposed by the US do not take place in a vacuum all of their own. The identity of our putative moral instructor–in this case, the US, and some coalition cobbled together to convey the impression of international solidarity–provides some context. The historical background, the location, the identities of the warring parties–the Iraq war, the Middle East, Sunni and Shia forces, each with their own backers respectively–provide more. These dispel some the supposed clarity about the intended norm-preserving objectives of the strike; it cannot but have more effects, more ramifications than that original narrow one.

I do not have a clear conclusion to draw here; but I do know that try as I might, I cannot shake the dissonance caused by the employment of deadly force–by a party that might justly be accused of bad faith and a poor recent record of ill-directed violence–to preserve a moral convention that does not seem to rest on particularly principled foundations.