Defending of Crazy Talk

A controversial article arguing prominent war critics should be targeted as enemy combatants is worth discussing.

Obama-West-Point-2014

My latest for War on The Rocks,  ”In Defense of Crazy Talk: Why Bradford’s West Point Article is Worth Talking About,”  has posted. It’s a response to a controversy over a scholarly article that is 193 pages long and contains 774 footnotes and rather defies excerpting. But here’s the setup:

Bradford’s article argues that a handful of prominent American legal scholars are a “fifth column” lending support to the Islamist enemies of the United States and should therefore be targeted for death as combatants in the war on terrorism. The argument is absurd on both first glance and deeper reading. It is nonetheless a highly valuable contribution to the national security debate.

First, there’s great value in outrageous but well-argued polemic. By pushing an argument to its logical extreme, Bradford has invited a vigorous pushback from the scholarly community. Second, debating the article would be especially valuable for cadets and more senior officers alike, many of whom share some of Bradford’s premises, even if they might never come to his extreme conclusions. Third, Bradford’s argument presents an opportunity to examine some actual U.S. policies.

The conclusion:

Thankfully, most of us agree that killing thinkers for the crime of pointing out the legal and moral flaws in U.S. war policy goes way beyond the pale. But most also accept that the exigencies of war sometimes require changes to business as usual, including some restrictions on otherwise fundamental rights and exceptions to otherwise sacrosanct moral principles. Bradford, presumably unintentionally, points to the absurd extreme. Where the actual line between the two is drawn, however, is subject to continuous debate. Bradford’s essay can help drive it.

Another 2500 words or so at the link.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, National Security, Published Elsewhere
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    Kudos to you, James, for finding some value in an article I had dismissed with significant pointing-at-and-laughing.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But most also accept that the exigencies of war sometimes require changes to business as usual, including some restrictions on otherwise fundamental rights and exceptions to otherwise sacrosanct moral principles.

    Just one problem with this statement. We aren’t at war.

  3. Davebo says:

    But most also accept that the exigencies of war sometimes require changes to business as usual, including some restrictions on otherwise fundamental rights and exceptions to otherwise sacrosanct moral principles.

    You may be right James. But that’s a sad state of affairs.

  4. Barry says:

    “First, there’s great value in outrageous but well-argued polemic.”

    I’m sorry, but why are you changing the subject? We are talking about Bradford’s garbage, aren’t we?

  5. Modulo Myself says:

    I’m sorry but what evidence is there that America is fighting ISIS/Al Qaeda/Sunni extremists with one hand behind its back?

    I don’t see it. The American military either lost in Iraq or had no chance. It wasn’t the pictures of human pyramids in Abu Ghraib or scholars explaining that waterboarding is torture that did them in. They never had control. The occupation was a criminal fiasco. Nothing that happened outside of military and the White House in America had anything to do with the failure.

    So this is just scapegoating of the dumbest sort. One could make the argument that Vietnam was lost because of American democracy. Maybe we should have shot every hippie who empathized with the peasants who were being bombed by American planes and napalmed every newspaper office that gave news of this. Reasonable people may ask whether or not Walter Cronkite should have been tortured, after all, for declaring the war unwinnable on television. After all, if you think that the price one pays for democracy is some sort of relationship to the truth, you have to haggle over the price.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    Good article, thank you. I would be very curious as to whether views like Bradford’s would be widely viewed as beyond the pale in the Military or, perhaps in some less over the top version, held by any significant number of officers.

  7. J-Dub says:

    But most also accept that the exigencies of war sometimes require changes to business as usual, including some restrictions on otherwise fundamental rights and exceptions to otherwise sacrosanct moral principles

    President Bush told us all we should just go shopping, now they want to go all Pol Pot on us?

  8. Barry says:

    @Modulo Myself: “One could make the argument that Vietnam was lost because of American democracy. Maybe we should have shot every hippie who empathized with the peasants who were being bombed by American planes and napalmed every newspaper office that gave news of this. ”

    Actually, no. Public support for the Vietnam War declined as the casualties mounted up, quite similarly to the Korean War, which had massive censorship, and was conducted in the shadow of WWII.

    Basically, the American people got tired of their sons coming back dead or maimed.

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    I spent the late 60s opposing the war in Vietnam. I graduated from college in 1968 and was almost immediately drafted. I was lucky in that I never got close to SE Asia but instead spent my time in Germany working for the Defense Intelligence Agency. I continued to oppose the Vietnam war as did most of the people I worked with at the DIA. The Pentagon Papers book sold out with in minutes of being available. Many of the military officers I came in contact with who had served in Vietnam also opposed the war. They better than anyone knew it was a lost cause.

  10. Mikey says:

    @gVOR08: I’ve been retired from the military for a while, but based on my experience even post-9/11, I don’t believe there would be many who would seriously consider actually killing academics who criticized the war effort. Punching them in the nose, maybe, but not killing.

  11. Modulo Myself says:

    @Mikey:

    If what you’re saying is true, this is just a huge indictment of the military. No wonder the guy who wants to punch some legal scholar for pointing out that water-boarding is torture can’t fight an insurgency. He sucks. End of story.

    If we had an honest crazy talk industry, there would be an article asking whether it would not be too extreme to hold show trials of tortured Bush-era officials. Dick Cheney and Condi Rice and the highest echelon at the Pentagon could be waterboarded and then go in front of the country with makeup on their broken faces and say they were agents of Al Qaeda. Then executions and their families sent to the gulag.

    Stalin had the right idea! Crazy or just an honest argument about a difficult issue?

  12. Tillman says:

    So am I to understand Bradford, and those who share premises concerning laws of armed combat, would rather the military be capable of Genghis Khan tactics and stack pyramids of human skulls to deter future terrorists? ’cause I don’t doubt it will work, I just doubt how long it will work.

    Does he seriously argue we undermine our military efforts by submitting to higher standards? Because we reinforce our cultural commitment to laws of war by doing so, and as Middle Eastern regimes arm and prepare to wage war themselves, we’ll see how much the jihadi appreciates our restraint. It’s not like our strategy is entirely military, it’s very commercial as well.

  13. Scott says:

    Bradford here evokes the “stabbed in the back” mythos popularized by Colonel Harry Summers and other military apologists for the loss of the Vietnam War

    How many times is this “mythos” thrown out there? It was used by Hitler and his followers in the 1920s. The “Lost Cause” mythos is a variant of it. It is being used against this administration for leaving Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a common technique by those seeking power. We must always be wary of it.

    Second point: It should be pointed out that the Vietnam and Iraq wars were total mistakes. What is the role of those who believe that before, during, and after the fact. Bradford would label those people at traitorous also. Bradford may dress all this stuff up in legal finery but at the core, he is promoting fascism.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @Scott: I have no tolerance for Bradford or anyone else saying the public didn’t support the military in Vietnam. The public supported the military, and administrations from Eisenhower to Ford, to the tune of 58 thousand dead, 300 thousand wounded Americans and a trillion (2015) dollars. 2T with veterans benefits. And after 20 years the military had delivered nothing in return but the prospect of more of the same. The military and the government failed, not the public.

    We lost. And the consequence is that we now have another friendly SE Asian country to make cheap blue jeans for us. Why TF did we ever fight that war? Which is why Daniel Ellsburg went rogue and leaked the Pentagon Papers. He was tasked with researching the history to identify the reasons we were fighting – and he couldn’t find any.

    History shows that Richard Nixon knew the war could not be won, that his plan was always to bug out. We suffered four extra years of casualties, SE Asia suffered four extra years of devastation, only so Richard Nixon could get re-elected before he bugged out.

  15. grumpy realist says:

    The problem with being able to throw out laws simply because “well, we’re at WAR!” is that politicians will now look around for excuses to declare we’re on a war footing.

    Even more annoying, G.W.Bush used “WAR!” as an excuse to hide the cost of his (totally unnecessary) war by keeping it off the books. Heck, he couldn’t even attack the right COUNTRY!

    Feh.

  16. al-Ameda says:

    @gVOR08:

    @Scott: I have no tolerance for Bradford or anyone else saying the public didn’t support the military in Vietnam. The public supported the military, and administrations from Eisenhower to Ford, to the tune of 58 thousand dead, 300 thousand wounded Americans and a trillion (2015) dollars. 2T with veterans benefits. And after 20 years the military had delivered nothing in return but the prospect of more of the same. The military and the government failed, not the public.

    You and me both.
    The public supported the war until it began to appear that the War in Vietnam was going to be interminable, with no discernible end game.

    The public generally supports these wars until it looks like it’s going to be a long difficult task with no end in sight. Bush and Cheney promised a short video-game type of war in Iraq, and the public likes to be promised a short war with no messy casualty stuff.

  17. JohnMcC says:

    Very good of you, Dr Joyce, to bring up Jose Padilla’s case in the War on the Rocks article. Constitutional rights take it in the shorts in all wars — which is one excellent reason to avoid war! –and it is true they have been abridged less since 9/11 than in previous wars. But Mr Padilla’s rights were horribly abused. If I understand Mr Bradford’s argument correctly, the crime would have been reporting Mr Padilla’s situation not the denial of his rights.

  18. Mikey says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    If what you’re saying is true, this is just a huge indictment of the military.

    I was trying “tongue-in-cheek” but that doesn’t always come over on the ‘net.

    Most people I worked with weren’t happy with what they saw as an undercutting of the war effort, although they blamed the media more than legal academics. Still, I don’t recall any serious calls for ass-kickings. It’s seen as a First Amendment issue and therefore something they swore to defend, even if the news and opinions expressed were critical of the war effort.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    I think the comments up-stream support James’ core premise, that wild ideas are still worth debating.

    On the larger issue, the notion of targeting domestic or Western academics is of course insane. Blow up some imams out in the Pakistan hills? Sure. I’m all for it.

    And I’m probably considerably more open to Genghis Khan methods than some of you, because in some cases they save rather than cost lives. Our “good war,” WW2, involved what can only today be considered war crimes or crimes against humanity. We burned a lot of Japan to the ground with very little regard for whether the target was military or not. The alternatives were invasion or blockade. So to avoid high altitude bombing (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) we could have killed just as many Japanese “legitimately,” either by shooting them down house to house or starving them. Meanwhile Japanese troops in China and Korea could have kept up their slaughter, and in the end we’d probably have had to occupy a Japan full of guerrillas and in no way prepared to build Toyotas.

    If you don’t want to kill people and pile up the skulls, don’t go to war. We have no record of success at limited war. We win wars by massive mobilization, by the application of staggering resources and by repeated hammer blows. That’s how we won the Civil War, it’s how we won WW2, it’s how we made allied victory certain in WW1. It’s how we won Iraq 1. We won the Cold War in part by convincing our enemies we were sufficiently ruthless and perhaps insane that we would see the human race exterminated rather than give up an inch of West Germany. We are not a subtle people. We are good with sledge hammers, not so good with scalpels.

    We should think very, very carefully before we decide to go to war. But when we do we should make it as brutal and effective as we know how to do because that’s our winning move, and after a long string of military failures we really need at very least to stop losing all the time.

  20. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds: We can be good with scalpels, too. We just try to use them every time rather than pulling out the sledgehammer when it’s warranted.

    I don’t know if we’ll ever do “total war” again, because it would mean an escalation to nukes. It already has, we were just the only ones with them.

  21. SC_Birdflyte says:

    I think Bradford’s article probably read better in the original German.

  22. HankP says:

    The only value of crazy talk is in identifying the crazies.

    Also, supporting the troops and supporting horrible foreign policy are two different things.

  23. JohnMcC says:

    @michael reynolds: Just because I am addicted to things that don’t matter that much in the big picture, I have to point out that the certainty of the Red Army arriving in Manchuria and adjacent islands probably had as much to do with the Japanese surrender as anything else.

  24. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: We’ve been at war since the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force. The courts have, rightly, held that it was tantamount to a declaration of war. That it’s open ended against a loosely defined enemy that will never be completely defeated is highly problematic. But we’re at war.

    @Barry: I’ve laid out in depth in the piece why I think Bradford’s article, while crazy, is well-argued. “No it’s not” is not a useful response to that.

    @Modulo Myself: I don’t agree with Bradford’s premises. I merely note that many highly intelligent people—including many military officers and Congressional leaders—do.

    @gVOR08: The basic premise that the press, liberals, academia, etc. are helping the enemy is widely held. Bradford takes it to absurd conclusions but I think there’s value in sussing out WHY it’s absurd given the premises. See, cf, @Mikey.

    @Scott: The mythos is dangerous. I don’t share it. It is, however, widely held in some form or fashion.

    @JohnMcC: Right. I sympathize with the Bush Administration’s plight in those early days. But even then I thought the “enemy combatant” thing was outrageous.

    @michael reynolds: Right. The nature of war is that we’re going to do things that would otherwise be unthinkable. Mass killing is unconscionable under any other circumstance.

    @HankP: But, unless you simply oppose war or think that exactly the same constraints apply in war and peace, Bradford’s ideas are worth debating. It’s worth figuring out where the line is drawn, even if we all agree it’s pretty far from where Bradford draws it.

  25. michael reynolds says:

    @JohnMcC:

    It certainly contributed. But so did having all their cities turned into ashtrays. And we spared Japan a partial Soviet occupation.

  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: No James. One can be at war with Japan. One can be at war with Germany. One can not be at war with unidentified people forming an amorphous amalgamation of a stateless organization.

    Not sure what world these courts (or you) are living in, but it ain’t the same as mine.

  27. Barry says:

    James: “But most also accept that the exigencies of war sometimes require changes to business as usual, including some restrictions on otherwise fundamental rights and exceptions to otherwise sacrosanct moral principles. ”

    I agree. Neocons and others who are clearly an Israeli Fifth Column in this country should be tortured until they name their Mossad handlers, then executed.

    The nest of spies billing itself as ‘the Israeli Embassy’ should be shut down, and all spies in there tortured and executed.

    Any cadet of officer unwilling to hang a neocon or other Israeli spy should be hanged as a spy themselves.

    The USAF Academy should be shut down as a nest of neocon GOPgelicals.

    The other academies should be thoroughly purged; whomever hired this guy should hang first.

    Robert Murdoch, his children, grandchildren and top-level employees should be hanged from the NYC building; the WSJ editorial page writers should be hanged from their building.

  28. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “I don’t agree with Bradford’s premises. I merely note that many highly intelligent people—including many military officers and Congressional leaders—do.”

    That means nothing. Take Ted ‘Harvard Law School Grad’ Cruz. Undoubtedly smart, and batsh*t crazy.