Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Dying in Vain

Gravel seems to be the only presidential candidate willing to admit the obvious truth that it's possible for American soldiers to die in vain: "There's only one thing worse than a soldier dying in vain; it's more soldiers dying in vain." Obama, disappointingly, parrots the silly dogma demanded of him by the American public: "I never think that troops... who do their mission for their country, are dying in vain."

What does that mean, exactly? The nationalist dogma seems to imply that it's always worthwhile for your soldiers to die. But why would anyone want their politicians to believe that? Gravel's position seems to show deeper support for the troops, as he recognizes the moral duty of a commander in chief to not throw their lives away. The other politicians, by contrast, all piously profess that it's impossible to throw away the lives of soldiers; whatever the commander tells them to do is ipso facto glorious and worthwhile. (Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.) They thus trivialize the moral burden of leadership. It's easy to see why a failed leader might want to do this; but why in the world would the broader public fall for it -- and all in the name of "supporting the troops", no less!?

The problem seems to stem from the sort of insecure patriotism that's so unwilling to admit mistakes that it forsakes any opportunity for genuine improvement. (Such self-idolizing "patriots" are arguably the biggest obstacle to true American greatness.)

It may also be an unfortunate encroachment of non-cognitive discourse. That is, the public don't care about the literal truth of whether troops are dying in vain. It's just a tribal signal. Bad, anti-American people claim that the troops are dying in vain. So, whether it's true or not, public figures must deny the claim merely to distance themselves from the bad tribe. (Cf. their public professions of religious "faith". Only evil communists are atheists, after all!)

Now, to create a society where politics was rational and truth-oriented... that would be worth dying for.


  1. maybe, to be charitable, the point is more like how if I was to roll a 6 sided dice with a 40% chance of doubling my money then even though I might not win on a number of throws I would still not think of them as being 'in vain'. That is just part of what you do in order to make money in that game.

    Similarly a soldier is expected to follow the instructions of his commander (with the idea that if they stay together and act together when the heat comes on less of them will die and they will achieve objectives whilst killing less people) so to him he is rolling a dice regarding how he will be used. But he takes it to be odds on that he will be used in a good way (maybe a good assumption, maybe not but to say not is to say something fairly deep about the USA in this context).

    The hero is then created by his effort towards the goal regardless of whether it is good or bad since he could by chance have found himself in either situation.

    Having said that I don’t think that is incompatible with the concept of a soldier dying for no good reason. It is surely irrefutable that that could be the case in a more specific context, for example discussing if a commander made a good decision to attack a hill or whatever, clearly a commander could made a decision that fundamentally undermined his own position - for example to attack a stronger and well fortified enemy.

    That might be considered to be appropriate when discussing the moral status of the commander as oppsoed to the status of the soilder in that world view. The army might even still be considered competent/moral if the commander was what amounted to a statistical risk.

    I presume the average person has difficulty dealing with that sort of subtle point when they are only devoting a small amount of their brain power to it - and it’s the sum of those people that vastly outweighs the sum of smart people who are really thinking about it. (And those with vested interests know that).

  2. Genius - yes, one can interpret "dying in vain" in different ways. An even simpler way is this: the very fact of offering your life for your country makes your death... Not in vain. But the thing is, is that what Gravel and Don meant? It seems like by "dying in vain" they meant dying for the empty ideals of that particular war. What the other candidates did was exactly to shift that interpretation to the other one, by which any soldier who goes to war is thereby exempt from vain death, regardless of the kind of war s/he's fighting for. This is stretching the meaning of "dying in vain" as was posed in the original question, it seems to me.

  3. I guess thats the art of politics in the modern world.
    it probably says somthing to us about how to interpret the answers of politicians.

  4. In some ways, it's an unfortunate question, precisely because of this sort of (albeit stretched) equivocation. It's not crystal clear what's being asked -- so it's easy for tribalism to trump substantive debate.

    Perhaps the best answer would be something like: "The question is ambiguous. I have great respect for the troops, and the sacrifices they make through military service. It's a noble calling, and we are all indebted to the heroes who answer this call. But a commander who takes this sacrifice seriously will recognize that he has a duty to make sure it works, and not to throw soldiers' lives away to no good end. Unfortunately, this despoilment of the ultimate sacrifice is precisely what we've seen from the Bush Administration in Iraq..." (etc.)

    That basically captures the substance of Gravel's claim, without giving rank partisans anything they can too easily distort. (Probably too "nuanced" for the American public, though!)

  5. Actually, a number of the Republican candidates have echoed the repeated claim of the Bush Administration that leaving Iraq now would mean many American deaths in Iraq would therefore be in vain. So it isn't true that Gravel is the only candidate saying this sort of thing. He may be the only Democrat saying it, though I'm a bit surprised Kucinich isn't saying it as well. He may be the only candidate insisting that it's already true that the deaths are in fact in vain. But he's certainly not the only one accepting the possibility that deaths can be in vain.

  6. I'm not convinced that most politicians actually believe that American soldiers can't die in vain. But explaining to grieving families that their loved ones' death is meaningless seems fraught for obvious reasons.

    One thing I wonder about is whether to die "in vain" depends on having won or lost. If America had won the Vietnam War, and Saigon had prospered as Seoul has, would we still say that those who had died had done so unjustifiably?

    I ask this because sometimes the aims of fighting, and not simply the consequences, seem relevant. Fighting in defense of one's family or country, for instance, is regarded as valiant even when one cannot hope to win.


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