Should we intervene when chemical weapons are used, if we don’t when guns and bombs are used?

At one point, listening to Tim Minchin’s address to a University ceremony reminded me of – among many things, as he is a thoughtful comedian –   an argument I observed continuing on the web.

That reminder leads me to write about the train of thought which followed my observations.

The point Tim Minchin made was that extremist positions lead to false dichotomies, and that good decision-making is difficult if we forget that reality is complex.  It was enhanced by his advice to learn as much as you can about everything, not be limited to a goal-driven life.

 The argument is about the “correct” response to the use of chemical weapons.  If we don’t intervene if a government is shooting or bombing its citizens, why should we suddenly do so if chemical weapons are used?

The train of thought which followed my observation of the argument follows:

The responses I observed seemed limited by the limited vision of most of those taking part: they seemed to see any death or injury as equivalent to any other,  they seemed to think that the question could be considered without considering the opinions of those who had experienced both sorts of weapons, and they had little knowledge of history.

The situation  reminded me of the distinction scientists make between different ways of being wrong: for example,  considering only one of a number of equally valid theories to explain a result; “experimental error” – we are not perfect, and random elements are inevitable; “not even wrong” in the sense of a theory being not a testable hypothesis; “totally wrong“, in the sense of having an appalling flaw in reasoning; and “bad science” in the sense that someone is lying about what the figures show, taking some belief system as being correct even when measurements contradict it, or ignoring agreed basic measurements which have repeatedly been found to be accurate without strong proof that the measurements are affected by a confounding factor.  Scientists see the last one as a distinctly different and morally reprehensible type of error.   The crunch is that  followers of science assert that assuming that all wrong theories are equally wrong is “wronger than wrong.”  

Similarly, I feel that those who discuss interventions by equating conventional  and chemical  weapons  are “wronger than wrong.”

Just as scientists are the ones to consult about different ways of being wrong in science, soldiers and the health workers dealing with the injuries resulting from war are the ones to consult about different forms of warfare.  In World Wars I and II the soldiers knew what it was to be shelled, hit by machine gun fire, cross barbed wire, be taken prisoner … and they saw the opposing forces have the same experiences.  They knew what the horrors of modern warfare could bring, and hated them while believing that they sometimes had to be faced.

However, soldiers saw a difference in type between classes of weapons of war, just as they saw a difference in type between “proper” prisoner-of-war camps and  Andersonville  (American history – Confederates imprisoning Union soldiers)  , Stalag III-C  etc. (German history – Soviet soldiers and other non-influential people),  and the Thai-Burma railway labour camps (Japanese history – Allied soldiers).  For example, I have heard old men who served in WW II speak of enemy flamethrower-operators in the same way as they speak of the people who authorised napalm bombings – with plain disgust, and quite unlike the respect with which they spoke of the other soldiers.

Similarly, in WW I the experience of chemical weapons proved profoundly different from the experience of the other horrors experienced – so different that it was felt to be of a significantly different type, and so deeply horrible that the deployment of such weapons was felt to be morally reprehensible.  After WW I it was the horror experienced by soldiers and medical workers which led to the push to have certain weapons outlawed, and for their first use to be stated, internationally, to be a war crime.  (You know before you use them that you will be in deep trouble… except for the slimy exceptional cases which the diplomats put into the treaty, so that the major powers keep developing the weapons…)  Despite the disgust at flamethrowers, they were not hated with the deep passion which led to the continuing and developing agreement to stop the use of chemical weapons.

(Me, I’m draconic, and the parent of twins.  From this background I would say that I don’t care who did it, as soon as chemical weapons are used “the rest of the world” should arrive in force and disarm both sides.  Completely.  No guns or tanks or warplanes left, just household implements.  Maybe get the Chinese army to sweep step-by-step across the whole country.  And then all go and leave them to it.)

So, from this thought, and remembering the Rwandan and Bosnian Genocides,   I found myself wanting to start a different discussion:

How do we get our peoples to discuss these questions outside of the context of a specific instance of  oppression:

  • What sorts of oppressions should warrant intervention in another country – ethnic, religious, gender, political…?
  • Does it matter whether it is oppression by a government or an influential group?  (The government denies all responsibility…)
  • Does a democracy have the right to elect a tyrant – and if they do, are they allowed to complain about and resist tyranny?
  • If we object to other religions trying to make us follow their laws, but they get democratically elected to govern another country, do we have the right to stop them using their religious laws to oppress their citizens who are of their religion? Of other religions? To oppress travellers?  What do we do if they call for their co-religious to force other countries to accept their rules?  How is that different from us calling for intervention in their country?
  • When does resistance against oppression become terrorism?
  • How oppressive must the treatment be before other countries intervene?
  • How should they intervene?  What effective interventions are available?
  • If we intervene, how do we arrange to leave the country if the divisions are profound and the culture favours violent retribution?

Only after we have thought about these seriously can we start on the next batch – for example:

  • If a major power unreasonably blocks United Nations approval, under what circumstances should our country intervene without it?
  • What penalties should there be for unjustified (by whose standards?) intervention in the internal affairs of another country?

So, that was my train of thought.

However, it wasn’t my discussion – I was kibbitzing on someone else’s interests – so I said nothing and put it aside until the thoughtful entertainer made me think.  And that thought was  that I should make some effort to raise the questions, recognising the complexity of the problem.

So, if you’ve read this far, how about talking about those questions with your friends?

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2 Responses to “Should we intervene when chemical weapons are used, if we don’t when guns and bombs are used?”

  1. 5travellers Says:

    what do you think about this? http://sisterhoodofthetravellingbloggers.wordpress.com/

    • erasmid Says:

      I think these are difficult questions which deserve much more than the brief responses which dodge “TLDNR” – for example, would disarmament really help, given the damage machetes did in Rwanda? The idea is to have people think about them without the baggage of particular countries or minorities, so that the same ethical approach is used for groups whether their moral frameworks are like or unlike ours.

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