Sunday, August 9, 2009

Military Intelligence

According to this lead article at the NYT today, it looks like the Obama administration either instructed, or allowed, Defense Department officials to take climate change seriously as a strategic threat, and begin to make plans and alter existing ones.

Good. About time.

It might have been "allowed" since these folks are generally smarter than the average cucumber, and I know for a fact that large numbers of them "believed in" climate change through the dark anti-science days of Bush, when thinking about such things while on the job was definitely discouraged.

(A real scientist, of course, doesn't "believe in" anything. But that term, as in " you believe in all this climate change twaddle?" can be useful shorthand.)

A few years ago I had occasion to talk to a researcher at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA. This was a smart guy, and I had read and appreciated one of his papers, and called him up to talk about a point or two. He had time, and so we chatted for a while. Towards the end of the conversation I asked, "so, why aren't you teaching how climate change is foundational to many of these conflicts we are seeing."

Because of course it is. Climate change, together with lack of development and populations become too large for traditional forms of subsistence, is driving conflicts and tensions all over the Old World, particularly in a broad swath from Mali and Nigeria to western China. Even in Afghanistan, where we have "boots on the ground" as the Pentagon is fond of saying, we tend to forget that a twenty-year drought has severely affected farming. We shouldn't be surprised if the people in these places, especially the young men, resort to banditry and brigandage and, because it suits them religiously to think of themselves as jihadis, not thieves and drug runners, they dress it up as an Islamic insurgency.

If things were that difficult in western countries, more young men would become gangsters too.

This is not to excuse the Taliban and their ilk, just to help us see who they really are. If your average Ahmed Talibani could go to college and get a decent paying job and raise a nice middle-class Afghani family and go to mosque every Friday, do you really think he'd prefer to hide in holes in the desert and take pot shots at helicopters, with all the risk that entails?

Anyway, the professor agreed with me on the fact that climate change was a driver in these conflicts, but mumbled something non-committal in response when I asked the question again, finished the conversation, said goodbye, and hung up. I got the distinct impression that while he agreed with me, he was keeping his head down and wasn't willing to rock the boat or bring up the subject as long as Bush was President and Don Rumsfeld his boss.

I don't blame him too much, I guess, but so much for the superior courage of the military, huh?

I can say this out loud when others perhaps can't, because I served for many years, AND won an honorable discharge at tribunal in a protest case against my superiors' collective lack of intelligence and ability to see things as they really were. This was during the Thatcher administration, and the issues were Greenham Common and closing coal mines, and the then-class ridden, conservative RAF brass probably sided with Thatcher for the most part, but the principle remains the same. In an open democracy, the military cannot just always follow its orders. It has to think about them too, question them when they are stupid or wrong, and occasionally even refuse to follow them. Freedom and democracy is not well served by public servants who refuse to think for themselves and ask difficult questions.

We've known this ever since we opened those gates at Buchenwald in the spring of 1945.

We refined the system after William Calley ordered those illegal killings at My Lai.

There is, in fact, a whole system of understanding related to legal and illegal orders, and when you should follow them and when refuse. It seems however, that it broke down during the Bush administration.

This relative lack of officers who failed to stand up during the Bush years is particularly shameful, because the consequence of speaking out, for those who wanted to think strategically about climate change, or for those who opposed torture, was only, in the worst possible scenario, that they would lose their jobs or have to do a different one.

Big deal.

Now that the military is officially allowed to think again, we may wish to hand out a few extra medals for the one or two really bright and courageous servicemen and women who, during the Bush administration, did work that bit harder and take a few risks to keep climate change and other unpopular issues, such as a principled opposition to Cheney's and Rumsfeld's torture policy, on the Defense Department agenda.

It takes an extra bit of guts and courage to think the unpopular thought, and bit more then to stand up and say the unpopular thing. We should always encourage this, not discourage it.

Then we'll be freer and stronger, not the other way around.

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