Collective Punishment

I seem to recall that collective punishment is officially a war crime. We do, I think, occasionally hang enemies who wipe out a village because one of their soldiers got assasinated there.

Of course all war is collective punishment. Killing a few hundred thousand inhabitants of Tokyo because their countrymen killed a somewhat smaller number of Americans (and a rather larger number of Chinese) is a collective punishment. Trying to make rational and humane judgements about war has always been a nasty and slippery business.

We are currently engaged in yet another costly experiment in what is called "counter insurgency warfare." I am inclined to think that there is a fatal flaw the theory behind this kind of warfare. That theory seems to hold that country A is divided into good guys and bad guys and that if we just help the good guys a bit, everything will be dandy.

The contrast with reality in Afghanistan is stark. It would be closer to the truth to note that while most of the people just want to mind their own business and make a living, the country is terrorized by rival gangs of corrupt narco criminals, one of which is nominally allied with us.

This situation is another sorry consequence of George Bush's fathomless stupidity. When the allied powers conquered Germany and Japan, they clearly realized that creating functioning democracies in enemy dictatorships was a complex and demanding task - a task they spent years preparing for.

The first task is to utterly crush and subdue the enemy power. Next, new institutions friendly to democracy needed to be built almost from scratch. In Japan, the occupying power decided everything from how the constitution would be worded to what children would be taught in school.

George "half-assed" Bush decided to skip all these pesky little nation building steps. He announced "mission accomplished" to the Iraqis and told them to go have a nice democracy. The crucial steps were all ignored - the enemy was not crushed or subdued, only scattered. Instead of crafting sensible institutions to build a stable nation he loosed a bunch of crooks to do a bit of looting while pretending to assemble a simulacrum of democracy.

It's too late for a redo. Iraq will be what it will be.

Afghanistan is probably in worse shape. Even if we had a plan for nation building, how could it succeed with an endless supply of more enemy fighters just across the border in Pakistan? Pakistan is the thorniest problem of all. Even if there are "good guys" there, all our attempts to help or bully them only further alienate them from much of their own population.

There are ancient methods that can force a win of sorts - the kind of war of terror and extermination we used against Japan and many others before - the way Sherman conquered the Confederacy. Burn the crops, kill the cattle, lay waste to all in your path. The enemy surrenders or dies. It's a nasty, filthy business, and certain to be costly for all.

Compared to what, of course. For the targets of our wrath is that really much worse than the grinding terrible cost of endless war and death from the skies? What our current tactics have spared has come with costs, most notably a significant failure to prevent further attacks.

What do we legitimately want from the Islamic world? Stop trying to blow us up or kill us. Sometimes the most humane tactics in the long run are the most brutal in the short run. The ancient Chinese reputedly had a form of punishment to "the ninth degree." The modern version goes like this: go ahead, blow yourself up in the street. You are dead. So are your brothers, sisters, children, parents, cousins, second cousins, everybody in your village (or on your block), everybody in your mosque, and so on. That kind of collective punishment is a war crime but it also is a deterent, and probably more effective than the legal kind where you randomly bomb a city and kill a few hundred or thousand people most of whom are only remotely related to the perp.

The cruel irony is that killing a few hundred scattered people with terror bombings or death from the skies angers people a lot more than it intimidates them. Even the prospect of certain death doesn't seem to deter many. Is there any prospect that does?


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