Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Virtuous Battlefields

Who shall we send to Darfur?
To the inner city? To anywhere?

Mallard Fillmore has been flapping his duck bill about the "United Nations Sex for Food Program." This is a sarcastic reference to a real problem. Repeated reports suggest that soldiers detailed to United Nations peacekeeping operations either indulge in rape themselves, or condition receipt of food aid to starving refugees on young women providing sexual favors. Ditto for African Union forces detailed to Darfur.

Mallard Fillmore has some funny one liners, and plenty of boring monologues, but never really digs into, what shall we do about this? There is a growing list of things that most humane people agree or demand that "we" should do, or our nation should do, or our government should do, to alleviate obvious suffering in the world. Nobody who comes up with these admirable ideas seems to examine this vital question: Where will the people come from to carry out these noble purposes?

For example, the United Nations has no soldiers of its own. It has to borrow troops from member nations. It is doubtful that the United Nations, even if it had its own forces, could recruit and retain a force of gentle giants, capable of overcoming hardened military outfits with ease, while subsisting on a vegetarian diet, daily prayers, total abstinence from sex, and a rigorously virtuous attitude toward suffering civilians. Where are whole battalions of such people to be found in the world?

I'm not sure we would choose to send Taliban soldiers, or Islamic militants from Somalia – but these are military forces known for stamping out rampant rape and looting, maintaining strict discipline among their own soldiers. If we find the right people, will they volunteer for service in the Sahara Desert? So military operations in Darfur, or Congo, or anywhere, have to rely on the real soldiers and real armies that are available to be deployed.

In most armies in the world, soldiers tend to be young, single, male, and more or less profane in both language and off-duty habits. This statement cannot characterize every soldier, or any given individual soldier. Many soldiers throughout history have displayed a genuine concern for children, and respect for civilians. But when a large number of soldiers are sent into action, every commander and politican who sends them can, or should, count on a good deal of promiscuity to occur in some manner. During World War II, military police had to be detailed to maintain order in the long lines of soldiers waiting for service from available prostitutes. On the other hand, rape of civilians was one of the more common reasons for execution of American soldiers in Europe.

Soldiers, by the nature of their training, are violent. They are trained to kill, maim, destroy -- sometimes with the most virtuous and patriotic of motives, but that is what war is about. Many will come home to lead productive, virtuous lives, loved and honored by their families, friends, neighbors and coworkers. Others will come home to a lifetime of flashbacks and mental demons. The janjaweed militia is not being suppressed by an army recruited from veterans of the annual sales of UNICEF greeting cards. There is a disconnect between the people who formulate the idea, and the people called upon to implement it on the ground.

This same disconnect exists in civilian life and government. It can be found in child protective services (and many other areas of social welfare) and in endless disputes about police brutality. It is a natural human reflex to say that a child should be removed from a dangerous and destructive family environment. We seldom stop to ask: are child welfare bureaucracies able to provide a consistently better life for the children they take charge of? Often, the only places they have available to put children are much worse. Social workers do not take their entire caseload home with them, giving each their own room in the social worker's own spacious house. And, how many card carrying members of the ACLU have applied for careers as police officers? Most of us stand on the sidelines, leaving the hard work to others. Which others? Whoever is motivated to seek the job.

Why would anyone choose to go into police work? Like most occupations, there are no doubt a wide range of motives. Some are dedicated to an ideal of public service. Some want to keep their own neighborhood safe, and by extension all the neighborhoods of their city. Some find detective work intellectually interesting. Some decide its as good a job as they are likely to get, and the pension will be helpful. Some like to wear a uniform, carry a gun, and tell other people what to do. In some times and places, the opportunity for graft has been a significant attraction: Chicago in the 1950s for example.

When we, the people, through "our" government, give anyone legal sanction to carry a gun and "enforce the law," we should impose strict controls on their use of that authority. It is delegated authority. It is not theirs to use however they wish, and to employ whatever prejudices they may carry. They are physical representatives of the majesty of The Law. But, they are flesh and blood representatives. They are putting their own lives on the line to keep the rest of us safe. We are not each taking our own turn to protect our own communities. We are paying them to do it for us. A professional, trained, police force is necessary in a complex modern urban society. But when we complain about how our hired guns do their job, we have to ask: who else is available to do the job? Would I step forward to do the job better? Why not?

Similar criticisms could be raised concerning a host of programs, motivated by the highest ideals, and implemented with large amounts of government money. Paratransit for example. When advocates for the disabled secured passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a door to door transit service for those who cannot use the local mass transit system was included. Very nice. Nobody thought about where the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, of drivers were going to come from. Mostly, of course, they are people who need the job and can't find a better one. (Better, defined as, offering more money, better benefits, and less demanding or more stimulating work.)

It's actually not a bad job. It is not paid very well, but it pays well over the legal minimum wage. Drivers get to know their passengers, and vice versa, and develop a good deal of empathy, in the highest sense of the word. There are also those who do as little as possible, refrain from doing parts of the job that seem personally inconvenient at the moment, endangering themselves and/or their passengers. There is high turnover, both from employees voluntarily leaving and being fired. One thing for sure: massive numbers of dedicated advocates for the cause of Americans with Disabilities did not rush to apply for paratransit driving jobs! They all had more comfortable situations to remain in. The prevailing sentiment seems to have been "offer money, someone will do the job." When that is the attitude, you get who you get.

Schools are another good example. We can talk forever about "the schools should do this" or "the schools should do that." We can even talk about how much money we are going to give to "the schools." Schools don't do anything for students. Teachers do. If people with the qualities to be good teachers don't enter the profession of teaching, "the schools" aren't going to do jack. It is also true that if highly qualified teachers don't have a reasonably secure environment to teach in, and equipment to give their students hands-on experience, not much will be accomplished. But it starts with the teacher(s).

There are times and places in the world where people step out to do a job in massive numbers because they fervently believe in what they are doing, or because their backs are against the wall and they have no choice but to fight for survival. The Israeli armed forces in 1948 and 1967 provide examples of both motivations. To some extent, American service men and women in World War II do also. It did require a draft to secure the numbers of troops needed. But millions literally stepped out of civilian life to serve their country, and their world, providing a whole different experience than the "professional soldier" can ever find. The experience shaped an entire generation's subsequent civilian life as well.

From that perspective, perhaps what the UN should be doing is arming and training those in the refugee camps to go out and kill the janjaweed, and to prevail against them by force of arms. After all, who else in the world is truly motivated to take any real risks for that purpose? But, then we would be taking sides in a civil war. Experience teaches that there is no other way to intervene in a civil war. The standard wisdom on intevening in a civil war is (1) Don't. (2) If you do, pick a side. (3) Make sure your side wins.

Anyone motivated to reach out to the brutalized refugees of Darfur should first ask, "Am I ready to go?" Most comfortable western voices are ready to send "them" or "someone" or "our troops" or to provide logistical back-up to some unspecified regional forces. If you are not prepared to respond "Here am I," then the job will be done, if it is done at all, by whoever can be scraped up to do it. We should also recognize that the only way to end a civil war is to overwhelm and smother every combatant force in the area. It cannot be done be putting a "thin blue line" of UN helmets on the ground between opposing armed forces.

The Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan began when they started hanging a few rapists. The recent success of Islamic militias in Mogadishu, Somalia, drew a good deal of support from Somali women, who were tired of being harrassed by what American government officials like to call "secular" forces. (They are "secular" in the same sense that American street gangs are "secular." Profane might have been a more accurate term. They are the same forces that brought down the marine helicopter immortalized in the movie "Black Hawk Down.") So it is true that if "we" leave a vacuum, others may step in to do the job – their own way. It is also true that if "we" step in, we may only make matters worse.

Maybe we should send Mallard Fillmore to do the job right. In the spirit of the "Kentucky colonels" and the old-style milita, Mallard could recruit, train, equip, pay for, and offer for service, a regiment to suppress the bad guys wherever in the world the UN has failed to do so. If they succeed, Mallard and the entire regiment will be heroes. If they fail, Doonesbury will never let them hear the end of it.

No comments: