Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 May 2011

Our Modern Ninjas and their Role in Human History


This week brought us important news beyond the death of Osama bin Laden, now confirmed by Al Qaeda. We learned what may have been our most closely guarded military secret since the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, which developed the first atomic bomb.

We have in our national service a large and highly trained team of assassins―modern ninjas, if you will. According to the PBS News Hour, there are four thousand of them, a whole regiment, working under our Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

Not only that. Our national assassins have been performing multiple killing missions for several years. They have killed Sunni resistance leaders in Iraq. And they’ve killed Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and no doubt Pakistan, too.

Assassination is what they do. For the last few years, they reportedly have run as many as two or three assassination missions per night. So what they did to bin Laden is for them just routine, another night’s work with a specially important target. No wonder they performed so flawlessly!

Until this week, virtually no one in the media, let alone the general public, had any idea that we had this unique force. We had all heard of “black ops,” of course. But that nickname for covert special operations could mean many things. It could mean rescuing our pilots downed in enemy territory. It could mean capturing and interrogating high-value enemy targets. It could mean running secret prisons and secret quasi-governmental operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Our ninjas’ training undoubtedly includes all this. But what they have actually been doing is assassinating designated bad guys routinely, regularly, every night.

In several respects, we can be immensely proud of our modern ninjas. Unlike most of us (especially lately) they are extremely good at what they do. Unlike most of us, they are good because they are obsessive about their education, their training, their single-minded dedication to task, their team cohesion, and their cooperation with “rivals” in other services. Unlike nearly all of us, they keep a low profile, don’t exaggerate their accomplishments, and seek no publicity at all, let alone more than they deserve.

Other nations undoubtedly have assassins, too. But they most likely are individuals and small teams within intelligence and counter-intelligence operations.

In contrast, we have a whole brigade of ninjas, within our regular military, drawn from every service, superbly trained and coordinated. And they are authorized and able to draw on all the best resources and highest technology of both the military forces and intelligence services of a nation of 307 million people, which happens to have by far the largest military and intelligence budgets in the world.

Yet until the bin Laden assassination, and despite rumors and suspicions, all this was about as secret as the atomic bomb was before its explosion over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Surely there is no precise counterpart anywhere in the world. And just as surely, this force is unique in human history. So it behooves us to consider what it may portend as history unfolds.

One issue is the nearly god-like power this force gives the US president over the lives of individuals. Nothing so far has tested the limits of that power. No sentient being could possibly mistake bin Laden’s role in the massacre of 9/11. He bragged about it and repeatedly promised more of the same (humbly adding “God willing”).

So there was no need to try bin Laden to determine his guilt or innocence. All we lacked was the execution. As for the multiple assassinations in Iraq, Afghanistan and probably Pakistan, they were done in theaters of war, as far as we know against combatants in active hostility to us or our allies. There was no lack of moral clarity there.

But a time will come when use of our ninjas will test our commitment to fair and complete legal procedure. What might happen, for example, if we know who and where a suspected terrorist is but have only 50% confidence that he was involved in an attack against us?

These questions are serious issues. But I leave them aside for now. They are also obvious ones. Lawyers and politicians will no doubt debate them endlessly, should closer cases arise. Instead, I’d like to discuss some potentially world-changing effects of our ninja army that may be less obvious to the casual observer.

Otherwise terrifying developments in military capability can have unforeseen beneficial effects. Take nuclear weapons, for example. They could lead to species extinction in all-out nuclear war. In October 1962, they almost did.

But in fact their most notable effect has been something quite different, something surprising. As I’ve demonstrated in another essay with a nearly exhaustive list, no nuclear power except India (and possibly Israel) has suffered invasion by a conventional army since the first atomic bomb fell in anger in 1945. Instead, virtually all conflicts have been fought by or in non-nuclear powers, with major powers participating, if at all, directly or by proxy. No major power has suffered significant casualties as a result of invasion by another in the nuclear age.

That’s an extraordinary record. What it means is that nuclear weapons don’t start wars; they prevent them. (For a more succinct and recent demonstration of this point, click here.)

Used wisely, as nuclear weapons so far have been (for deterrence only), our ninja force may also have beneficial effects. I see several.

The first is removing most civilians from the field of battle. That’s been a goal of military codes of honor and justice for centuries. In ancient times, victors took the surviving vanquished as slaves, burned whole cities to the ground and sowed their fields with salt. The Romans did that in destroying Carthage.

No longer is that abuse of civilians part of human culture. Customs and the laws of war make civilian immunity a desideratum and occasionally a reality.

But modern weapons deal death wholesale, not retail. And often they require far less skill and discretion to use than the swords and spears of yore. So they have made civilian immunity a more and more elusive goal. Prime examples were the Nazis’ random V-2 attacks on London, the fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and the incineration of large parts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in nuclear fire. In all of these attacks, the vast majority of victims were civilians.

The Cold War was the reductio ad absurdum. There the entire populations of the United States and Soviet Union were hostage to nuclear annihilation, as indeed was the entire world. If that war had become a hot one, with an unrestrained nuclear exchange, it is highly likely that our human species would be extinct, both civilian and military.

But what if we had the means to pinpoint the bad guys? What if we could kill the men (they nearly always have been men) who starve and oppress their people and mislead them into military adventures that ordinary people never would support but for desperation and oppression caused by the very tyrants who egg them on? What if we could knock off people like Kim Jong Il or Robert Mugabe, harming less than a handful of civilians and leaving the entire culture and infrastructure of the country intact? Wouldn’t that be far better than letting big civilian populations pay in blood for the sins of one or a few?

That capability is just what JSOC offers.

The second potentially world-changing effect of our ninjas is to make “asymmetrical war” symmetrical again. As 9/11 showed, it’s not hard to kill civilians, especially when you have surprise on your side. And protecting civilians as such is an expensive proposition. A recent study (see PBS “Need to Know,” May 6, 2011; video or transcript not yet available) asserts that we have spent one trillion dollars on homeland security since 9/11.

Ninjas level the playing field in three ways. They pit trained operatives of cults like the Taliban and Al Qaeda against skilled military personnel with even more training and, in most cases, far better equipment, logistics and support. They thus raise the fear-and-caution factor among terrorists.

It’s one thing to play cat-and-mouse games with counter-terrorism and counterintelligence professionals when your ultimate target is a “soft” one, namely, unarmed, untrained and unprepared civilians going about their innocent daily business. It’s quite another when the most elite military force in human history is coming after you personally. That is precisely how JSOC cut its teeth: going after the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, ninjas shift the initiative. Since 9/11, the US and its allies have mostly waited for terrorists to plan an attack and then tried to thwart it. Now, with ninjas, we can go after terrorists where they live. We can take the fight to them, without the massive bombing campaigns or drone strikes that inevitably cause civilian casualties of their own. Only one arguably innocent person, a female, was injured in bin Laden's killing.

In ancient times, battles took place on battlefields. They were extremely bloody places, but civilians, by and large, were spared. Civilians suffered only among the “camp followers,” when the battle got too hot, or when generals for political reasons decided to sack an enemy city. As modern warfare with modern weapons moved toward “total war” and then toward nuclear confrontation, civilians moved in greater numbers closer and closer to the bull’s eye. Ninjas promise to move them away again.

There are, of course, many issues to be resolved. As a legal matter, it is easy for ninjas to target leaders of non-state actors like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But the customs and laws of diplomatic and sovereign immunity prohibit assassinating leaders of recognized states.

When, if ever, is it legitimate to assassinate someone like Kim Jong Il, Robert Mugabe or Moammar Qaddafi? What if reliable intelligence suggests that Kim is about to attack Seoul, with nuclear weapons or otherwise? What if Robert Mugabe’s people begin to resist his sociopathic rule and he treats them as has Colonel Qaddafi his own?

It’s never a good idea to assassinate foreign leaders for mere differences of policy, if only because doing so would invite retaliation and lead to a law of the jungle in international relations. That, after all, is the original justification―and a good one!―for diplomatic and sovereign immunity. But are there extreme circumstances that would justify a breach of immunity, just as the vast majority of Americans believe that bin Laden deserved no trial, merely the execution he received?

For now, we need not answer those hard questions. It is enough to know that our ninjas are a bit like nuclear weapons. In their numbers, training and technological capability, they are something new under the sun. Just as nuclear weapons have made large-scale war between major powers virtually obsolete (and our vestigial conventional “big battle” Cold-War weaponry an obscene waste of money, time and talent), our ninjas may some day make terrorism obsolete, or at least self-evidently unprofitable.

As for less extreme justification for their use, we’ll just have to wait and see. Over the centuries, much of humanity’s self-imposed anguish has been due to charismatic tyrants, religious and otherwise, who mislead their people with dreams of glory and end up bringing them only misery. Various factions of the Wehrmacht tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler several times; the plot depicted in the hit movie “Valkyrie” was only the last and most spectacular. What if the Germans or we had had our ninjas then and the will to use them?

We don’t have to answer those questions today. We might have to some time soon.

In the meantime, we can be grateful that this superb military force, which is qualitatively new in size and power, is ours. And we can all think about how we can use it wisely and judiciously for the benefit of our way or life, the well-being of our fellow humans, and the step-by-step advance of civilization.

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