Monday, April 9, 2012

Of Arms and the Man

Aretae asks a question that makes me think.  He answers it in a way that I disagree.  Now when you find yourself on the opposite side of an argument with someone as smart as him, you need to think twice, or thrice.  Having taken the weekend to think, I still disagree with him.

As a starting point, here's his thesis:
What is the virtue difference (in WWII) between a Nazi volunteer soldier, a Soviet volunteer soldier, and a American volunteer soldier?

I would assert that it's fairly obviously none.  All three are doing what they believe to be right, which is to defend (?!?) their country.
It's a thoughtful post, and you should read the whole thing in its entirety.  My point of disagreement comes from first premises: Aretae is focused on the individuals, and I'm focused on the societies.  He sums it up here:
As a universalist, I categorically reject the affiliationist argument (They're MY team, and right/wrong have nothing to do with it).  However, that's the only path I see to not celebrating Nazi soldiers equivalently to American ones.
I don't think that this is true.  While I am not really temperamentally suited to the rigorous logical proof that is Aretae's stock in trade, my argument really boils down to this: social organization matters.

Consider a society.  It consists not just of the individuals, but in their interactions.  How they interact is critically important to not just their own success and happiness, but to the long term success of the society in general.  This topic is toxic in Politically Correct circles like the Academy, but unless we deal with it head on, there are questions that simply cannot be answered.

For example, why was Western Europe the first to industrialize?  Nobody in 1000 AD would have predicted that Europe would come to dominate the globe; even in 1500 AD the smart money would still have bet on China or India.  By 1700, it was all over but the shouting, and by 1870 the sun never set on the British Empire.

Remember, in the 1400s while Prince Henry sent his tiny Caravels tentatively down the west coast of Africa, the Ming Dynasty sent huge treasure fleets all the way to Mogadishu.  Nobody with a brain would have picked Europe for world domination.  And yet then the Chinese fleets were gone, as if they had never been.  Why?

How come India - perhaps the wealthiest land on earth in the 1600s - why did they not send armies and fleets with advanced weapons to subject Europe, rather than the other way around?  Scholars claim that the sub continent was divided, but so was Europe.  So why did the tipping point arrive in Europe, and not India?

And why did the fledgling American Republic become the world's strongest power by 1900?  Starting from literally nothing in the 17th century, it came to dominate Europe by the early 20th.  Why?

Today's Academy is so caught up in feel-good multi-culturalism ("Everyone's a winner!") that not only can these questions not be answered, but they cannot even be asked except by old, tenured professors who are a hold over from the days when the lamp of learning burned brightly.

The answer is, of course, that social organization matters.  Societies that give more freedom to their members do better.  Europe did this better than China or India, and the results showed.  Northern Europe did this better than Southern, and the results showed.  Britain did it better than anyone, and that's where the Industrial Revolution started - not in London, the seat of the Realm, but in villages like Manchester and Birmingham and the Black Country of the west. Precocious young America did it better than Britain, and so leadership lept the Pond, taking firm root in the soil of the New World.

So what does this have to do with Aretae's question about Nazi vs. Soviet vs. GI soldiers?  On the surface, nothing.  All soldiers fight for their families, their homes, their society.  But that's not what the Nazi society did, or the Soviets after them.  Germany invaded most of Europe, acting as an Imperial power.  Subject nations were plundered - directly or indirectly (via trading relationships) to support the Reich.  After the Great Patriotic War, the Soviets established their own Empire in Eastern Europe, plundering the subject nations - more crudely than the Nazis, if that can be believed - to support International Socialism as directed from the Kremlin.

It's quite a long way from defending hearth and home to the SS in Sant' Anna or Guards Tank Divisions in the Prague Spring.  While the record of American military engagements is not unbesmirched, there's nothing that compares in the long history of our Armed Forces with what we saw in 1939-1945, or from 1945-1989.

And to my point regarding Aretae's question, this is no accident.  Social organization, the network of interactions and expectations of how those occur inform actions.  Even assuming that most Germans weren't Nazis (they weren't, at least in any meaningful way) and most Russians weren't Soviet Communists (ditto), the expectations of German and Russian soldiers were simply different from those of American soldiers.  The Intentional is Extensional.

And so, from a predictive perspective, "My team" does not explain or anticipate how different societies will engage in military adventures.  Smart Munitions are a uniquely American approach to warfare: the Soviets were happy to flatten Grozny, and while it's been a while since we've seen German military adventures, they were the ones that pioneered the blitz at Guernica. 

While America has been accused of being an empire, it's a ridiculous charge that has been pretty much demolished.  For the rest who are unconvinced - bitterly clinging to their anti-American ideology, we might say - let me just say that the last time I gassed up, I paid $3.81 a gallon.  If this was a war for oil, I want my oil.

I guess that this post puts my libertarian credentials at risk.  I do think that societies do better when they maximize the space for their individual citizens to do what they want.  I think that we do that decently well here, although not as well as we used to.  The alternatives that do better seem generally smaller and localized, and reliant on a more peaceful world order than history has shown in the past - in other words, they are flowers blooming in the Pax Americana.  The interesting question is whether they could continue to thrive if America withdrew from the world stage, as many libertarians would like.

Because then you'd see American soldiers replaced with those from other societies.  History suggests that it would be unlikely to be an upgrade.  That's a discussion for another day.


Dave H said...

The alternatives that do better seem generally smaller and localized

Examples? I'm drawing a blank.

Broken Andy said...

Great post. I love the Borepatch College of Liberal Arts.

Borepatch said...

Dave, the Heritage Foundation ranks Hong Kong and Singapore as the most free polities on Earth. You could certainly argue some of the particulars, but they show their work.

Broken Andy, it's all part of being a full service blog.

Old NFO said...

Good one BP, and to me it boils down to oppressor vs. liberator... Nazis were oppressing the Russians were defending, and we were liberating! Simplistic, but it IS true...

Borepatch said...

Old NFO, what I thought was interesting is WHY we were liberating (and why we stuck around afterwards). Sure it was in our own interest, but our approach was uniquely American.

Which isn't to say that we're (individually) nicer than other people elsewhere. But there is something about the society here that gives the military in particular a very different flavor than the militaries elsewhere.

Aretae said...

Well said. Well thought. Not tremendously far from me...and I think another round or two will draw out the distinctions. I think you trust USGs good intentions these days (lots) more than I do...and that's the crux. If the military and the TSA are basically the same....or are they basically different.

James Nelson said...

I agree with you on this point, but it undermines your blind spot about the CSA in the Civil War. Regardless of how it is dressed up by latter day apologists, the South seceded over slavery. Reading the writings of the time, there can be no question of the rational for secession. The makes Robert Lee the moral equivalent of Erwin Rommel.

Goober said...


As much as I hate to quibble with you, you are making a huge mistake here in saying that certain actions are okay or not okay if taken on by a society rather than a individual.

To me, it is a very common assertion that certain things can only be moral if they are done by a group of people. For instance, the claim that it is okay for society to take a person's possessions, whereas it is not okay for an individual to do the same. Adding more people to a situation changes nothing other than the number of people involved - if an action is immoral for an individual, then it is immoral for any group of individuals.

The opposite is also true.

When a young German man enlisted in the German army in 1938 amidst cries of protecting the fatherland against the unfair and horrible things done to it under the treaty of paris, he was no different in any way, whatsoever, from a young American man enlisting after 9/11 to almost exactly the same cries. The final goals of their societies meant nothing, unless those goals were likewise the goal of the young man, himself.

Say, for instance, the young american joined up to fight a war in retaliation for 9/11 - a noble cause. one which I likely would have joined into if health hadn't kept me from doing so. Later, he finds out that George Bush did, indeed invade Iraq for oil and nothing else.

Does that taint the young man?

I argue that it taints that young man no less than a young german soldier who joined up to fight for his country, only later to find out that his efforts were being used to different ends than he imagined. It is the itnent of the individual, not his society, that matters. it is all that matters.

Borepatch said...

James, I would argue that it was as much over abolition as over slavery. The words of Lincoln's second inaugural address capture this precisely: "until every drop of blood drawn by the lash is paid with one drawn by the sword" and all that. There were many, many countries that managed to abolish slavery without killing or wounding 10% of the male military age population, or re-writing their constitution.

This may be uniquely American as well.

Goober, I never said that it was good or right. Aretae said there was no distinction. I see one. I think that there's another post in your comment, though.

DirtCrashr said...

Sheesh, bunch of thick-skulled warfighters talking about their warhammers vs. dancing pacifists talking about their pacifiers.
Troy meet Helen.
Duh: Which one had the hot chicks? The Soviets? Bwaahahahah!
What did the German's paint on their planes? Occasionally pictures of animals, "My Little Kraut Pony" (sorry I've been watching re-runs of Combat! lately) or a shark-mouth. We built a whole damn airplane that resembled a shark, and we covered our planes in sexy, lusty, naked babes! The Soviets? *crickets*
Everyone knows German chicks were pretty damn hot, but they had a limited audience/exposure level, with only an occasional bombshell similar to the Me262 - there was really just Marlene on their side and she was half on ours! We had ALL the big double-barreled bombers: Jane Russell, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Lana Truner - hell even Lucielle Ball was a hottie!
Names we don't even know anymore today fought, from Linda Darnell to my dad's classmate Joan Fontaine, to Betty Grable and Barbara Stanwyck - we had ALL the heat. Nuclear my ass (or Betty Grabel's ass), we couldda just dropped Jane Russel on Japan and the war would have been over...
C'mon man, is WAR, is not moral - is killing. Nature is just sex and death.

Aretae said...

I think Goober said what I was coming to say. I woulda taken a lot longer, argued about lying our way into WWI (Arms on the Lusitania), trapping Japan into no opton but WWII, Clinton Bombing everyone and their cousin for election benefits, the Bush family's 20 year feud with Saddam, or the Invasion of Afghanistan because the 3 non-poverty stricken folks in the country wouldn't back down.

I do not wish to make an equivalence between America and Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. America has historically been better...we have not been totalitarian and centralized at the same level.

At the same time...pretending the actual motives that leaders have for going to war outside America (ALL our wars since 1812 & 1865) are all or mostly good is just nonsense.

LSP said...

What an enjoyable post; particularly like the "sun never sets" bits.

But what distinguishes Europe and its North American evolution? What singular force propelled that to success, as opposed to the Confucian Chinese, or the Islamic East -- once it had exhausted its captured Roman and Persian heritage?

I'll stop before I become entirely predictable... cheers.

The Scribbler said...

I think it also worth a look at where those fundamental differences in perspective come from. America was founded by people who were generally either fleeing persecution and authoritarianism, or budding capitalists seeking to better their existence, and the nation came to be through directly throwing off monarchical shackles, placing the emphasis squarely on the individual.
Germany meanwhile came into being through grand unification, such that the focus was on the glory of the nation, with a national identity superseding the individual.
China, India and Russia all share this deemphasis on the individual, for different reasons each.
I've heard an interesting argument that a lot of it is dependent on local climate. Places like Tahiti aren't difficult enough to provide motivation, while the arctic circle is too inhospitable to allow excess energy for innovation. According to this theory, England and moreso the United States fall at the perfect mix of adversity and opportunity to allow the individual the freedom to experiment and develop.

These cultures are deep seated and strongly tied to the landscape of their origin. So long as we disregard moral relativism in these judgments, as indeed we have to in order to condemn the other side at all, the individuals that make up a society can be held culpable alongside their society. Not every Nazi soldier was a jew-hating, oven running, aryan superman. They are all responsible though, as are the citizens who stood by. The political rulership in the end cannot exist without the will and consent of the governed.

Borepatch said...

Aretae, there's no question that politicians that bureaucracies (cf: Dept. of the Army) are wretched hives of scum and villainy. There's also no question whether all Americans are Angels.

But there's no question that society matters.

LSP, glad you liked it. I expect you'd like the book I link to.

Scribbler, no question that the New World attracted those who were willing to take risks.

Contemplationist said...


Nice post. However, the peasant cares not whether he is burned alive for democracy, liberty, communism or fascism. He is just as dead. In that sense, adding up the bodies from the nukes on Japanese civvies, German civvies, the treacherous and despicable abandonment of German and Soviet POWs, allowing the Red Army to rape Berlin, tipping the balance in WW1 to the Entente for fake reasons, acceding to the Versailles Treaty, treacherously sabotaging Chiang Kai Shek's campaign against Mao, etc.....there's a WHOLE LOT OF BODIES to count.

I'm sorry I don't buy the non-equivalence. Of course the USGOV has been better for AMERICANS, but since we are still using a Universalist framework in these discussions, I won't accede so quickly to notions of American moral superiority in matters of war and peace.

Broken Andy said...

"treacherously sabotaging Chiang Kai Shek's campaign against Mao"

and we nuked Germany, too! (cheap shot, I know)

Generally when I don't have two neurons to rub together in response to a post, I typically just say something like "Great post" and move on. You should try it.

Borepatch said...

Contemplationist, there is a predictive power in my comparison: If you have to lose a way, you want to lose it to Americans.

It's arguable whether your population wants to be on the receiving end of American firepower, although the record of the last 3 decades suggests pretty strongly that you should. Compare Grosny and Belgrade, for example.

Broken Andy said...

The freedom theory is a good explanation for prosperity, but there might be another for better soldiering. Americans have a pretty long history of distrusting our government, which might give our armed forces a better ability to compartmentalize between the civilian populace of an enemy state and the government of that state.

Take the bombing of Germany in WWII. It was the Brits that insisted on the carpet bombing of cities. The US initially objected to it in favor of strategic bombing.

(I found a third neuron under one of the couch cushions just now)

Matthew said...

Didn't read the article, it's late here so I beg indulgence if this was addressed, I do promise to go back and do so.

Is virtue ethics the right approach?

Does even actual ignorance of the motives involved in invading Czechoslovakia, Poland, and then Belgium and France, on the pretense of defense; or keeping your thumb on Eastern Europe after the defeat of Nazi Germany, constitute a justification for an individual participating in what is, or will become so, obviously treating the people of those countries as means to your end?

I have my issues with Kant but I find it hard to visualize a Categorical Imperative that justifies preemptive invasion and long-term subjugation as practiced by both Nazis and Soviets.

I find it a bit easier to come up with one that involves coming to the defense or liberation of others with no long-term political subjugation (except as perhaps temporarily necessary and lightly applied with a concrete end state to prevent the repeat of prior evil acts by the aggressors, which wouldn't apply to the Soviets in all but E. Germany and even then they did not allow meaningful independence until the last).

Borepatch said...

Matthew, thanks for the thought provoking comment. I don't actually see my post as being about ethics virtue, but this is well worth thinking on.

I also recommend Aretae's post, and hope he's doing a follow on. He's one right smart dude.

Matthew said...

Finally read the post.

I think more precise defining of terms would help clarify the point. "Soldierly virtue", how excellent a soldier one is, cannot, in my opinion, be separated morally from the army, and thus society, one is a soldier for, from a universalist perspective.

Not to Godwin or to overstate, but it is part of "soldierly virtue" to "immediately and competently execute orders given to you", full stop. By that standard the "soldierly virtue" of the Nazis or Soviets in WWII is unimpeachable.

But if we are going to be universalist, as opposed to relativist, then we can't equate "virtue" as used to describe the professional traits of "soldierlyness" with "virtue" as used in a moral sense. We have to add a universal moral component to the equation and thus simply being a "perfect (in the soldierly virtues/traits) soldier" no longer suffices to constitute being morally virtuous, as demonstrated at Nuremburg.

Human nature being what it is there will be disagreements on which framework of ethics to use, deontological or consequentialist, and what elements of national policy to give what weight in determining the moral soundness of a national action (and thus lawfulness of any given order by the army executing that national will), but I do think it is clear that the virtue of soldiers, as individuals or as a group, cannot be judged independently from their political or military structure.