Tuesday, 25 April 2017 GMT
[ journal | e-cards | reminders | surveys | about ]

What can we learn from ArsDigita?

The Iraq issue: arguments and statements

Information representation: Systasis comments, part 2

The Iraq issue, part 3

Your comments appear at once, but will be censored if they don't follow the usual etiquette guidelines. We do not require registration in order to encourage dialogue, so please don't abuse this courtesy. HTML tags allowed (in the message body only) are B, I and A, hence you should use &lt; instead of <, unless opening the specific tags.
The Iraq issue: arguments and statements
Monday, 14 April 2003 Symeon Charalabides (

[Part I] Global morality

The wider issues pertaining to the war that has been launched against Iraq have inaugurated what can be seen as a new system of values, that of global morality. One letter to the Economist, issue of March 29-April 4 2003 mentions: "A regime that systematically and brutally violates individual rights has no moral right to exist. Any legitimate government that protects individual rights is morally entitled to depose it." The name of the author is unimportant: we can safely assume that he expresses many. Others, in fact, have gone as far as to suggest "obliged" instead of "entitled". Lacking a generally agreed upon framework of assumptions or rules by which to analyse the above excerpt in the light of this global morality issue raised, we can only extract conclusions by making analogies.

This is what the relevant statement would be like, applied to a more familiar and established system of values, social morality: "A man that systematically and brutally abuses his wife and children has no moral right to his marriage. Any person participating in a happy marriage is morally entitled to enter any such house in their city, apprehend or kill the husband, and proclaim the marriage to be over." Needless to say, this is expressly forbidden by legislation worldwide. Apart from the legal issue, though, there is a moral counterpart to the fault of this statement: nosing in into other people's business, and especially marriage, is generally frowned upon. It is widely accepted that only the people involved in a relationship are both able and entitled to deal with its problems, and most (if not all) languages in the world have the proverbial equivalent of "What goes on behind closed doors is nobody's business."

Let's examine, again purely for comparative purposes, the corporate equivalent of this opinion: "A business that systematically records losses and offers its employees less than the standard package has no moral right to exist. Any board of a successful business is morally entitled to take over administration of the former, relieve the previous board of their duties, and run that business as they best see fit." Again, not only this would be a blatantly illegal act, but corporate law generally provides for diversity in business methods, essentially giving businesses the "benefit of the doubt", until they are found in breach of the law or willingly file for bankruptcy.

Continuing in this line of reduction, the next analogue to the above statement should be the physical one: "A man that systematically eats junk food, smokes and doesn't exercise has no moral right to exist. Any fit and healthy person is morally entitled to brainwash him into changing his behaviour." No comment there. Even the intellectual/behavioural equivalent sounds absurd: "A man who systematically reads tabloids and is rude to others has no moral right to exist. Any cultivated, polite person is morally entitled to educate him."

The above are only analogues, and cannot be said to prove or disprove the original statement. They can only provide evidence as to the wider context that statement is made in. Of course, there are vast differences between any one of those and the original, but when all of them (as any other equivalents likely to be attempted) are so fragrantly flawed, we should in the very least, be reserved concerning the content of the original statement. This is rendered all the more imperative when, by inaugurating this field, we are actively setting precedents that can (and likely will) be used in the future. Can we afford to allow individual countries dictate morality and can we tolerate any action on that strength? When the moral imperatives are vague and not firmly established, it is possible that, one day, we will be on the wrong end of their moral accusations. To construct a quick example: what if a country decides that euthanasia is immoral and moves to topple the Dutch government?

The same letter continues: "War kills innocents but they are victims of the tyranny, not of the country that removes it". Again, the statement expresses many in their wish to disassociate themselves with the inherent cruelty that escorts the war they support. The same people would probably feel deep indignation as they sympathize with the hero of the American movie, forced to surrender by the bad guy holding a gun to the beautiful girl. The only difference between the two scenarios is that in the case of this war, it is the perceived good guys (universally "us") holding the gun. Good and bad, however, are relative terms. Only by the objective observation of who it is that yields the weapon can we judge who is committing the moral crime. The party at moral fault is always the one that pulls the trigger, no matter what the circumstances, because with it rests the ultimate power not to pull it. If it claims the responsibility rests on a third party, then it adds extortion to injury as well.

Moral statements are easy to create, exactly because they are only statements: they don't have to be proved or supported. Everybody has a right to their own morals. In the wake of a world rapidly converging, though, we have to see global morality as a generalization of social morality: I wish to listen to Gary Numan at full blast all night, but should I be inflicting him on my neighbours? How dare the coalition forces drop depleted uranium bombs on a future travel destination of mine? Anyone who thinks globalisation is something to do with airplane speeds never got the point. Our actions and non-actions dissect each other's sphere of existence increasingly often and directly, and it is within this framework that we have to find, and consequently define, what our global morals should be.

[Part II] War on information

The editorial of the same issue of the Economist mentions: "If they face defeat, Mr Hussein may chose not to capitulate, but to deploy the poison gas he used to devastating effect against Iranian troops [...]". Not only is there the assumption that Saddam Hussein possesses such arsenal in a usable form, it is also presented as an underlying statement. This is a clear-cut form of propaganda that would be openly condemned by the same magazine in its content state were it not promoting its own side of the argument. The question of the existence of chemical weapons is not even raised, let alone discussed. The effect of such subtlety is that the reader automatically assumes it is true while reading, never even considering whether it is an established fact. That it isn't, however, and failure to acknowledge it is professionally contemptible.

The same editorial also mentions: "Germany's foreign minister has given a preposterous warning warning to his parliament to expect "a series" of similar American-launched wars". Why such a warning is "preposterous", however, we are never informed. Again, there is failure to discuss an issue the editor either honestly regards as a fact or merely subtly tries to pass as a fact. In reality, Mr. Fischer expresses the majority of the world in his warning. It may be crude, but the Germans have never advertised their mannerisms, and personally I find it refreshingly honest. Even almost half of the British people believe that the US is a bully and that George W. Bush poses as great a threat to world peace as Saddam Hussein did. So, by what criteria is that statement "preposterous"? More to the point, will the editor publish a retraction if the US does launch similar wars in the future?

In line with the Economist, Sky News, the proud "News channel of the year", has managed to turn the war into an amazing series of heroic images of brave soldiers liberating poor and hungry people, often repeated when no other news breaks up. The civilian casualties are merely mentioned once, in the form of a number and promptly forgotten. The extremely serious issues of who attacked the Russian convoy or the Baghdad market have been left open, presumably never to be returned to again. No anti-war marches have even been mentioned, except for those taking place in London. But there have been gripping discussions on such issues as how exactly the restaurant Saddam believed to be in was smart-bombed. No mention was made of the 3 occupied houses that were flattened in the process.

Even the BBC, customarily a source of generally impartial information, has adopted a biased view. They even seem to have been proud for their American-style broadcasts. It is quite understandable, though by no means excusable professionally: everybody loves a winner. The British tend to stick together in cases of national crisis, and they dutifully rose in support of their troops once the expedition was on the way, though even the Economist concedes that support for the war will again drop considerably once it is over. The media cannot afford to report the ugly truth, without prompting most if their audience to switch to another source of information with a brighter tone. They are moved by a dangerously misguided sense of patriotism that demands nothing bad about the country is mentioned, and, of course, the everlasting race for ratings. In addition, there have certainly been elements in the BBC administration that grabbed the opportunity to practice something they had missed for a long time, peddling Europhobia and hopes for the restoration of the Great British Empire to the public.

Behind this audio-visual diarrhoea lie the aspiring hopes of a nation that desperately seeks justification for a horrific and cowardly action undertaken by its administration. The Britons knew it before the war, know it still, and will remember it after all the faces of all the dead have been forgotten. Tony Blair laughed at US suggestions that Iraq would be their next target until about one year ago. He repeatedly said that England wouldn't participate in a war against Iraq without a second UN resolution until the end of February (I think). He defied the majority of the British, brought tumult into the House of Commons and embarked England in a war that clearly contravenes the UN charter. While he escapes legal action by removing the very regime with the power to indict him, the public image of the UK has plunged worldwide.

There also lay a desperate need to cover the collective eyes of the public to the embarrassing predicament the United Kingdom has found itself in, being the sole active ally, and providing the best claim to justification, to a US whose administration only harbours contempt towards it. Contempt in the impassive words of Donald Rumsfeld advertising UK expendability; contempt in the reckless actions of a military campaign that has seen more British troops killed by Americans than by Iraqis. Even after the Belfast meeting, Tony Blair still has on no occasion had a say on the coalition's policy. The "poodle" jokes, once rampant in the streets and on the internet, have given way to SM stories, and they get more graphic every day.

[Part III] Bare-handed politics

In established psychology, the cupping of one's ears to the voices trying to explain the error in one's judgement is called denial. In modern politics, it is called "conviction", "resolve", even "vision" and is awarded political points.The only requirement to make the politician grade is attitude, or nerve. Nothing else matters:

[a] accountability is becoming increasingly redundant within a system that guarantees politicians virtual immunity to any and all of their actions.

[b] ideology is immaterial - there are spin doctors to manouevre through the muddled waters of left and right, and they earn their salaries.

[c] recent examples prove beyond doubt that personality and intelligence are useless, if not frowned upon.

A politician must be able to state things conclusively. The more convincing he sounds, the less people are tempted to question the statement. Hence, to be a successful politician, one must either be dumb and honest, or have intelligence and nerve.

Events that unfolded during this war have indicated that the US administration has, in general, intelligence in abundance: Thomas Miller, the US ambassador to Greece, during a live interview on one of the most prominent radio stations of Athens, said that the Greek public should watch less of the Al-Jazeera broadcasts, and instead tune in to CNN and Fox! The US administration demanded that all Iraqi diplomats be expelled and the embassies closed. They even claimed that the tank fired against journalists at the Palestine hotel "in self-defence". Though it is conceivable their tanks have not been certified to provide adequate protection against pens hurled from above, when it comes to weighing the words of the single official spokesman for a military campaign desperate for the proper image against those of dozens of reporters from different countries with almost nothing in common, I cannot bring myself to hesitate before chosing a side.

On two separate occasions, the US denied their helicopter had been downed by Iraqis. On both occasions, they admitted it was true as soon as images to that effect were broadcast on TV. This would seem to suggest that either
a) they can't count or
b) they were lying.
Since it is certain that the number of US helicopters can't exhaust a 32-bit binary, and although the US military has been known to have used Windows to devastating effects (to their own ships), we are forced to discredit option a. The underlying policy has been made clear in plenty of occasions: deny in the face of evidence to the contrary, deny common sense or basic logic, carpet-deny everything.

Politicians have firmly established their target group: they are talking to idiots. There is no point conjecturing why somebody would believe what politicians say when it doesn't stand to critical thinking; anybody who doesn't question the information they receive, but accept it at face value is naive. But to practice this in the 21st century signifies a person wholly unable to perceive a pattern of systematic deceit by everyday experience - essentially an idiot. For the most part, politicians rely on that mass while at the same time try to widen it by taking funds away from education and culture and dumping it into defence and security. The side-effect is a fortunate coincidence: paranoid people stay at home more; they watch more TV; they absorb more propaganda.

The trade-off that politicians automatically concede to accepting with this preposterous policy is the scorn by the people who dare to question their judgement and, more and more frequently, are able to prove it wrong. It is a pathetic attitude of career politicians to be willing to lose their dignity for the cheers of the crowd they themselves condescend for believing in their lies. In addition, by insulting the intelligence of the rest, they manage to corner themselves, effectively being estranged with virtually everybody. Occasionally, though, they have been known to believe in their own lies. Doom bellows!

The planning behind this war would be a prime example of the latter: the coalition forces weren't welcomed as liberators automatically, so much so that they had to stop midway, rethink their strategy and, expectedly, intensify the bombardments before they could advance again. They kept clashing with each other and raised the self-inflicted casualties of the war to ridiculous levels, giving "alliance" a new definition along the way. They were only too keen to bring down Saddam's statue in the centre of Baghdad in a truly well-planned publicity stunt, but completely failed to police the chaos that ensued. Whether they didn't expect anarchy or were merely unprepared, the fact remains that no forethought had gone into this campaign, only "conviction", questionable moral propositions and a staggering amount of hair gel: at-ti-tude (dude).

[Conclusion] Arguments and statements

The three parts above have one thing in common: they signify that the parties supporting this war have relied on literature mainly consisting of statements. Dodgy statements of morality, subjective statements of success, arbitrary statements of righteousness. Is that a bad thing? Yes, because they have been using statements where they should have been using arguments. The difference may be thin on occasion, but never negligible. Moreover, proper argumentation shows that, and how, a thesis relies on an established logical process. When logic supports a theory, there are usually plenty of ways to test it, in contrast to a mere statement that only demands the blind faith of the receiving party. Contextual observations, however, can still be made and are all the more valuable.

For instance, let's take on the morality issue from a different angle. It is not feasible to disprove any moral stance on solid criteria. Morality, however, is based on principles, and a test that can readily be administered is to prove whether these principles hold true across the board, or are selectively applied. In other words, whether they are operated on double standards. A quick 'n' dirty way to test if double standards are applied on any issue, is to form theoretical scenarios in which the participants change places or are altogether different. Would the same reaction be applied? If not, selection is being practiced. To proceed with some examples:

[+] Tony Blair said the Iraq regime must be toppled because it was brutal. If an equally brutal regime emerged, say, in a Central American country, would he move on to annihilate it? What if it happened in a country with substantial military power like China or Russia?

[+] The US administration reserved its right to unilateraly and preemptively strike a suspected enemy without providing conclusive proof. If, say, Palestine (was able to and) invaded Israel on the strength of the same right, would the US administration recognise it? What if India claimed the same right against Pakistan?

[+] The World Trade Center attack was advertised as "an act of cowardice" because the US was not expecting it. Will the cluster bombing of unsuspecting civilians be hailed as such by the same people in the future?

[+] George W. Bush explicitly stated that "all war crimes will be prosecuted". Will the prosecutees include the pilot of the A-10A, the soldier who killed 7 unarmed civilians in their car, the commander of the tank that fired against the Palestine hotel, the troops who shot blindly into the crowds and all their commanding officers?

[+] The Nuremberg judges stated that "To initiate a war of aggression [...] is the supreme international crime [...]". Tony Blair was only too eager to see this precedent applied to Slobodan Milocevic. Will he now hand himself over to the judgement of the International Criminal Court for the same offence?

The stance of several media of information has shown how much power they have to shape our perception of reality. We must keep in mind that the journalists who followed this military operation were selected by the coalition in the first place, so we might expect them to be objective at best. In addition, their reports have been (at least expected to be) shaped by subjective policies, as Peter Arnett found out, limited to areas they were given access to by military personnel, and occasionally beutified by directors hired expressly for the task. It is no surprise that this war looked like a 3-week-long fireworks show as TV stations practiced their trademark art of flattering their audiences. The disturbing news were merely mentioned once and promptly forgotten, while stories of even minor successes were repeated, sometimes for days on end; photographs of limbless children were hastily retracted on the patronizing excuse of offending people's sensitivity; "experts" elaborated on "acceptable losses", reducing the lives and agony of their subjects to mere numbers.

The strength of the media as a means of propaganda lies in their selection of what to state, as well as what not to state. The Daily Express (I know it's a lame example, but that was lying on the barber's couch on Friday) accused Jacques Chirac of being a weasel and displayed a photograph of him having a glass of wine with Saddam Hussein. They didn't publish the photograph of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam Hussein's hand, though. As the motivation behind the war shifted from neutralising weapons of mass destruction to ridding Iraq of its regime, nobody asked what happened to the original plan and where all the early (and, as it turned out, false) "any minute now" excitement was coming from. By the time Saddam's statue was brought down, the friendly fire incidents had been forgotten. For most parties concerned, it was just a few weeks of extra entertainment, and, as Joseph Goebbels himself believed, the most successful form of propaganda is entertainment.

As for politicians, they have gone about their business of peddling assurance to the wider public, and forcing opinions and results. Tony Blair said that opinion polls are not reliable. He was right. What would have taken place in a truly democratic country is a referendum. Instead, he chose to blackmail the parliament by threatening to sink the country into an unprecedented crisis by resigning if his wish wasn't granted, like a spoiled child. On the issue of how much the official state expresses the will of the majority, which is the most fundamental criterion for a democracy, Turkey has scored way above the US, the UK and Spain.

Again, as is the trademark of politicians, there were statements gallore and little in the way of actual argumentation. We were told that the Iraqi regime owned weapons of mass destruction, but the evidence presented was easily falsifiable telephone exchanges and blurry satellite images that displayed... anything. We were told about links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, but were shown no proof. We have merely been expected to believe things at face value, presumably out of respect for the people making the claims. Nobody seems to have noticed that the vast majority of people is aware that politicians are inherently unreliable and their time of grace is over.

If they had not been so arrogant as to expect to be believed hands-down, and if they had taken the time to do some constructive research and come up with less unintelligent prose, we would not have had to face blatantly irrational statements such as:

[a] We must use every means possible in order to ensure peace. The means we have chosen is war.

[b] Saddam Hussein took over power by force, which is unacceptable. So, we'll bomb him out of it.

[c] We are ensuring that terrorists stop striking against the US by killing their families.

This is the best politicians could come up with, and the measure of logic of this war. These statements were only partly made in words - the second part was usually only practiced. This doesn't retract from the value of a statement. On the contrary, it adds to it.

Relying on stating a point in order to make it indicates either naivety or arrogance, or both. It sound reasonable to assume that politicians are more arrogant than they are naive, and on this premise we'll continue. This behaviour refers to the older form of authoritarian rule, where there is a rigid social classification and everybody knows their place. Consequently everybody knows whom to obey and hence order is maintained. To call this attitude elitism is an understatement. It seems to have evaded most mainly right-wing governments that societies are much more closely integrated today and there is no returning to the old ways. People do not need to be told what to do or how to think, they have the information and the education to make up their own minds; they do not require leadership, only administration. Making the presumption that they do constitutes hubris, and it is always followed by nemesis.

The deeper motive of stating something over arguing it is a fundamental inability to fully embrace reality. Proper argumentation relies on facts, i.e. manifestations of the objective world. The person who expects to be believed on the strength of his own say-so is expressing a contempt for arguments, hence a contempt for reality. In his mind lies the world not as it is, but as it should be, inseparable to the outside world, but nonetheless some distance away. He feels that by referring to his own version of reality, he is somehow managing to materialise it, and he insists on his vision, pumping more and more energy into bringing it into life, until the idea has so much surrounded him that it is indistinguishable to the objective world. That is, the line between perception and imagination has blurred to the desired extent. That is hubris, the departure. This euphoric state lasts until something in the outside world changes and that line is rendered clear again. That is nemesis, the fall.

There is one more point I wish to make regarding the whole issue.

The editorial of the Economist, issue 23-29 March 2003 poses the question whether the US should desist from invading Iraq on the strength that that action might encourage terrorist attacks, to which it replies: "But this is happening already"! First, a terrible incident though it was, it was only one and that was 1.5 years ago: "happening already" is exaggerating it. Second, the fact that it has happened, even that it is "happening already" does not mean that it can't get any worse. Unless we accept that a few victims is not a better situation that a lot of victims, as far as arguments go, it is a totally transparent attempt at justifying a war that happens for completely different reasons. Even CIA analysis showed that terrorism against the US will only intensify as a result of this war, yet the administration insisted that's what they were fighting against.

On the other hand, they claimed to be after weapons of mass destruction. Leaving aside the fact that it was the very same two countries that sold Saddam Hussein most of his chemical, biological and nuclear infrastructure in the first place, the claim that this war would send a strong message to other countries developing weapons of mass destruction was correct. The message, however, was the wrong one. The coalition is now widely perceived as a bully who only terrorizes the weak, and countries in their "to-do" list are rushing to develop a strong military deterrent. In all, on two out of the three main reasons stated for this war, failure was preordained before it even started.

Can all the people of all their administrations be that dumb? Are all their diplomats exclusively yes-men? Have all their political analysts gone out to lunch? With all the good will in the world, I can't bring myself to believe such a thing. Furthermore, according to Karl Jung, when a person offers two seemingly contradicting reasons for undertaking the same action, then the real reason is a third one that is verbally (and possibly conciously) not acknowledged. We have been repeatedly and blatantly patronized, lied to, ignored and insulted.

While it is relieving that the war department didn't boost their PR stint of "operation Iraqi freedom" with a mission statement ("to unilaterally satisfy US imperialist tendencies by bombing defenceless targets on vague premises"), nonetheless they did give dissent a politically incorrect status by stigmatising any sort of policy criticism as "unpatriotic", and lowered the subsequent frustration by inventing a series of common enemies. The latest one, I believe, was France. What they now have staring at their face is the scepticism of the unimpressed, the fury of the wrongfully persecuted and the amusingly ironic fact that it was France in the first place that inspired Thomas Jefferson to write "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism".

 Send this article
Printer-friendly form
Your e-mail: remember
Recipient's e-mail: remember
 Comments - [ write ]
  IP: OS:   Agent:     Overhead: 0.007 sec