I just happened across a news article documenting mass political killings carried out by South Koreans. Not only did the US know about the murders at the time they occurred, but the US helped to cover them up. The whole episode was classified Secret, and the US dismissed North Korean reports of the slaughter as lies. Over 100,000 people died without trial, and in many cases, without evidence or official charge.
And we claim to be the good guys.
I'm not going to go on an anti-US tear here. Despite its faults, I like my country. I am, however, frustrated at the official lack of sympathy for innocent bystanders killed by our policies, and the public assumption that we are innocent of any wrongdoing, no matter the resultant death toll. I'm also frustrated that there's a commonly-voiced argument that the U.S. (and by extension, its allies), are defending themselves. Anyone who disputes this is assumed to be either crazy or evil, or both. Yet we should recognize that those who dislike the results of our policies have legitimate complaints. Time and again, we have characterized our enemies as barbaric and unprincipled. This dehumanization and fear can be used as justification for imprisonment and execution despite poor evidence.
Such views are not limited to America or modern times, of course.
So what do we do? There are extremists who wish to kill us, and who will willingly sacrifice themselves to do so. The usual response has been to recruit those who are willing to risk their lives in order to kill extremists. But if our soldiers kill too many innocents - or do not provide ample evidence that those killed are, in fact, guilty - it fuels resentment and fear among those who do not automatically assume our soldiers are good. Those people then see the U.S. as a nation of extremists, unwilling to compromise, unwilling to police itself. By recklessly entering an "us or them" mentality, we encourage our opponents to do the same. Extremism breeds extremism. A blanket dismissal (by either side) of openness, compromise & discussion restricts the opposing side's options to two: violence and passively waiting for violence.
How do we break the cycle? One option is to be more aggressive and better at violence than any conceivable opponent. Another is to surrender to the inevitable. Neither route is moral. How do we preserve our moral authority?
"False positives" in this context mean classifying someone as an enemy when they are in fact a friend or neutral. False positives undermine a war effort by generating internal fighting and making us seem barbaric and unprincipled to our enemies and neutral parties. This in turn leads to wasted resources and increased recruitment possibilities for our enemies.
"False negatives" here would mean classifying an enemy as a friend or neutral. Such errors lead to infiltration of our military or intelligence agencies, and to direct attacks upon our civilians and soldiers.
No policy is capable of eliminating all false positives or all false negatives. A given policy may be biased one way or the other, but in a wartime context, we will make mistakes resulting in innocents' deaths. Minimizing the noncombatant death toll requires several key policy elements:
Publicly acknowledge every person we've killed or imprisoned, the evidence we have against them, and the rationale for our actions.
Admit mistakes, apologize for them, and make reparations to their families and communities.
Publicly discipline those soldiers, generals, and politicians who have demonstrated recklessness, a bias toward either false negatives or false positives, or torture / imprisonment / execution of suspects in violation of official policy.
Understand what motivates our enemies, how they see us, and how they view themselves.
Understand the differences between various groups who hold a grudge toward us. The current situation in Iraq is complicated by three Shiite groups (Sadr, Maliki, and Iran), three branches of Islam (Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis), more than seven sovereign nations (Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Jordan), and at least one international terrorist organization (al-Qaida). Each group has its own agenda. None of them see the agenda simply as "destroy America" or "destroy Iraq". All of them have reasons to distrust America.
Negotiate where possible.
Publicly criticize our allies when they fall short on issues of human rights and justice.
Understand and exploit internal divisions within each group of opponents.
Use violence as a last resort... but keep it as an option.
Make each opponent see a benefit to working with us and a danger of working against us.
Be public, clear, and honest about our own objectives.
Hopefully we can fix this mess somehow.
Originally posted on gkaczns.vox.com