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

30 April 2017

Killing the Brutes, not Millions of Innocents


[For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
Long ago, on a dark and menacing day, three ape-men waited for the alpha brute. For years, he had made life in the clan miserable. Females he regularly beat, almost every day. “Unruly” cubs he maimed or killed. Every day was a trial by battery for all but the alpha male.

But on this day, three males cast out of the clan by brutality waited for the alpha brute quietly, behind a big tree. With whatever rude language then existed, they conspired. And when the brute rounded a corner, they jumped him.

Maybe they killed him. Maybe they just left him beaten and crippled, never to rise again. Maybe they cast him out permanently. But on that dark day, human biological evolution took a breather, and human social evolution began.

From that day forward, human social development proceeded in fits and starts, as is our species’ wont. The ancient Greeks had full-fledged democracy and strict majority rule. If a brute got too unruly, they ostracized him by majority vote.

Ancient Rome had a similar system, with its famous Senate and even more famous orators, like Cicero and Cato. But Rome eventually morphed into empire, with an alpha male supreme again. Biological evolution is hard to shake.

And so recorded history has gone. Human societies grew more populous and more complex—and human weapons more “efficient” and bloody. So the cost of jumping the brute rose dramatically.

The French Revolution killed thousands. At least for a time, it spawned a pathological society of treachery and revenge not unlike the Spanish Inquisition. The Russian Revolution was even more terrible, with its tens of thousands of deaths followed by Stalin’s multi-decade Terror and his gulags.

In human history’s greatest feat of jumping the brute, fifty million people went to premature deaths. That’s almost the entire population of present-day Britain. And if the nuclear age had come a little earlier, the carnage would have been infinitely worse. In the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, serious men estimated that nuclear war between the US and the USSR would have killed over half a billion people. In the worst case, it would have extinguished our human species.

Of course, history’s most terrible war involved two brutes, not just one. Hitler and Tojo were ultimately responsible for the unprovoked aggression that killed some fifty million human beings before their times.

The overwhelming majority of those fifty million people were innocent. Many were totally innocent civilians, going about their daily business while the Nazis’ V-2 bombs fell on London, Yankee fire bombs fell on Dresden and Tokyo, and Yankee nukes fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Other casualties were relatively innocent soldiers, conscripted into armies to do the brutes’ will, or to fight for their clans against the brutes. Even the US had universal conscription then.

But after that most horrible war, a marvelous thing happened. For the first time in human history, the brutes (at least those who had not already killed themselves) were tried in a court of law. After months’ worth of evidence of their brutality and countless atrocities emerged, they were convicted, condemned and executed.

As I have written before, the Nuremberg Trials that condemned the Nazis’ unrestrained and degenerate leaders were a millennial step in human social evolution. They put legal and moral responsibility for humanity’s greatest horror (so far) where it belonged: on the individual leaders who had started and fed it and led it to its agonizing end. The Trials thus imposed accountability in the only way that makes sense: on responsible individuals.

Four major allied powers—the US, USSR, Britain and France—set up the Trials so that all the world would know what the brutes had done. For months documents and testimony exposed their war crimes and raced around the world on then-new electronic media: radio and television. Our entire species came to know the atrocities and who was responsible for them.

Similar trials and executions occurred in Japan, under the US’ occupation authority. But the Japanese counterparts were much less open and less well publicized. Perhaps that’s one reason why modern Japan, unlike modern Germany, has never fully recognized its brutality, let alone taught its children its real and complete wartime history.

Immediately after the Trials, many Germans derided the Trials as nothing more than “victors’ justice.” But slowly and steadily, Germans themselves—and the rest of the world—have come to see the Nuremberg Trials as seminal events in human social evolution. They are vitally important to our species in three respects.

First, a key impetus for the trials was that the Nazis had been uncommon brutes. They had started the war in Europe with bald, open and unabashed aggression. Once they had started it, they had prosecuted it with uncommon brutality against civilians and soldiers alike. Indeed, they had used bombing, strafing and murdering civilians as conscious instruments of conquest and “administration” of conquered territory. They enslaved and murdered “enemies” with a zeal characteristic of ancient times, but with modern weapons and modern “efficiency.”

Second, none of this was an accident. During the First World War, an obscure dirigible captain named Peter Strasser had invented the notion of “total war.” In an industrial society, he “reasoned,” the civilian workers who make the armaments and tanks, and who mine the iron to make them—and even those who feed these workers and clean their toilets—are all part of the war effort. Consequently, virtually every civilian is a “soldier” of some kind and therefore subject to strategic destruction. In addition, terrorizing civilians impedes war morale and so hastens victory.

This sick “logic” of “total war” led directly to the dirigible attacks on innocent Londoners in World War I and to more destructive V-2 attacks in World War II. Copied thoughtlessly by the Allies, it moved them to perpetrate the massive fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the end it nearly led to the mutual destruction of the US and USSR in 1962—a global catastrophe that only the cool judgment of three men avoided.

The sick logic of “total war” also brought with it a kind of brutality not seen since ancient times. If all civilians are, in effect, guilty soldiers of the enemy, then why bother to reason with them, persuade them, try to co-opt them, or even treat them as human?

Fueled also by sick notions of “Aryan” racial superiority, the Nazis not only enslaved and murdered the people they conquered with their modern armament. They also, ipso facto, precluded any real chance of long-term conquest and peaceful administration of occupied territory. They thus ignored the much sager advice of another German, Von Clausewitz, who said that “war is just politics by other means.” It’s hard to accommodate a “politician” who promises to enslave, marginalize and ultimately exterminate you and then begins to do so.

As horrible as it was, the Holocaust was just one aspect of this extreme brutality. And although Jews were the primary target of Nazi propaganda, many others perished in the Holocaust, too. The Germans’ attitude toward subject people as little more than animals not only revived bestiality not seen in Europe since Rome’s annihilation of Carthage and the Mongol hordes’ invasions of the West. It also made it virtually impossible for Nazi Germany to hold and keep the territory it conquered in battle. And toward the end of the war, the Nazis’ decimation of even their slave labor force caused crippling labor shortages.

But all this only reiterates the historical basis for treating the Nazis as uncommon brutes. It’s the third unique aspect of the Nuremberg Trials that has by far the greatest importance for humanity’s future.

Until those Trials, leaders of modern nations had always had free passes, even in wartime. They could, of course, be killed in battle, and many were. But if they survived, they were rarely harmed. If captured, they were exchanged for other captured leaders, or for ransom. And their nations and societies often paid handsome ransom to get them back. Meanwhile, the common soldiers who fought and bled for them languished in dungeons, were hanged for crimes, or bled to death on the field of battle.

In other words, the leaders of clans in war were a privileged class, even the losers. One way or another, when the war was over they went back to their palaces and took over where they had left off, subject to whatever changes in boundaries and exchanges of cash the peace treaties that ended the wars required.

A minor proof of this point eventually emerged from the Nuremberg Trials themselves. During the Second World War in Europe, both sides kept high-ranking prisoners of war in confinement separate from enlisted men. Even in Nazi Germany, high-ranking prisoners lived under conditions different from those of the concentration camps that ordinary soldiers and civilians endured.

In England, captured high-ranking Nazi officers were confined in an airy castle on a hill, with special food, no forced labor, and special privileges. But the Brits used this custom of privileging high-ranking prisoners to their advantage. They salted every room in the castle, including bathrooms, with hidden microphones and recorded every word the prisoners said. They even hid a microphone high in the extensive gardens, in a tree under which the prisoners liked to talk.

In this way, the Brits obtained valuable secret information about the Nazis’ intentions and plans and, as the war went on, about Nazi morale. They also obtained evidence of Nazi brutality to use later in the Trials. But they wanted to keep their surveillance secret, for possible future use, so they used the direct “testimony” only indirectly, to elicit other evidence. It was only recently, over half a century after the fact, that the Brits revealed the recordings they had made.

As the Trials themselves later revealed, leaders and high-ranking military had been privileged characters since the modern monarchical era began. Under civilian rules of conduct and military rules of engagement, their lives were sacred, unless lost “accidentally” in battle. (No law or rule of engagement prevented troops in combat from aiming at them, and often leaders’ vehicles were camouflaged or decoyed to avoid notice.)

The key significance of the Nuremberg Trials was its break in this long tradition of privileging leaders. For the first time, the Trials held leaders and high-ranking officers personally and corporeally responsible for their own extraordinary brutality and war crimes. The common sense of the three ape-men jumping the alpha brute had taken most of recorded history to sink through the thick skulls of modern men.

Of course it took uncommon brutality to justify breaking leaders’ privilege and imposing personal responsibility on them. In fact, it took the greatest and most devastating brutality in human history. That’s why the Nuremberg Trials were a seminal event in human social evolution.

But these facts leave three burning questions. First, if we can hold leaders personally and individually responsible for the most horrible crimes in human history, why not for lesser crimes, too? Second, if we can move down the list to more common crimes, how far down can and should we go? And third (and most important), if we can hold leaders responsible for horrible crimes after the fact, can we kill them to prevent such crimes, at least when grave crimes seem inevitable otherwise?

Today these are no longer idle or hypothetical questions. The brutality of two national leaders brings them into full focus today: Bashar Al-Assad and Kim Jong Un.

Let’s take Assad first. Imagine, just for a moment, that the Russians had not agreed in 2013 to oversee the removal from Syria of the chemical weapons that Assad had used against his own people. Imagine further, that President Obama, enforcing his “red line” against the use chemical weapons, had ordered a massive surprise attack against Syria by air and missile, at a time when Russian involvement in Syria was still small. Finally, imagine that one of our US missiles, of the “bunker busting” variety, had found Assad in his bunker and killed him.

Of course this counterfactual history would hardly guarantee that Syria would emerge a functional nation, let alone a democracy. Look at Libya after the murder of Qaddafi.

Yes, Syria might still be a mess. But Assad was and is the alpha brute who, by trying relentlessly to hold Syria’s vast Sunni majority in thrall to his 13% Alawite-Shiite minority: (1) emptied Syria of innocent but battered civilians; (2) caused the refugee crisis in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan; (3) motivated the massive flow of refugees to Europe; (4) gave Russia’s own brute a foothold in the world’s most volatile region; (5) provoked the rise of IS; and (6) ultimately assisted the election of Trump as our Yankee president and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France.

Most of these things happened—or got a lot worse—during the roughly four years since Obama declared his “red line.” Without Assad as a “national” (Alawite) symbol and apparently unmovable alpha brute, serious political talks might have produced a settlement in Syria. Or Syria today might be partitioned, like the Balkans, and like the Balkans at peace. The refugee crisis might have been far less widespread and region-shaking, and the dissolution of Europe and the soaring careers of Trump and Le Pen might be just Vladimir Putin’s idle dreams.

Now consider Kim Jong Un. He has nuclear weapons right now. He has a four-million-man starving army that, even without nuclear weapons, could turn Seoul overnight from the Southeast-Asian wonder city that it is into something resembling Hiroshima or Nagasaki in September 1945. And if his tens of thousands of conventional rockets and artillery fail, he certainly has the means to deliver several crude nukes to Seoul, if only on aircraft.

So Kim’s capability to become the world’s greatest brute since Hitler, and to do so overnight, is not in doubt. A war on the Korean Peninsula would quickly eclipse Syria’s civil war as a scene of carnage and misery, and perhaps also in the resulting stream of refugees into China and the South. And I can think of no reason why, if such a war starts, Kim would not use the nuclear weapons he had so carefully assembled at such international political cost. His sole goal is survival of his tyranny at all costs.

As to Kim’s intentions, we know little about him but his constant threats to attack the South, by any and all means, to avert an invasion of the North that not the South, the West, nor anyone else has any intention of mounting. We do know that Kim is and can be murderous, even to family. His execution of his own uncle and recent nerve-agent poisoning of his half-brother in Malaysia tell us that. And now he appears to be accumulating innocent hostages (1 and 2), in the form of American citizens, to enhance his bargaining power.

So wouldn’t the world be a much better and less dangerous place without Kim? Should we wait until the worst happens and, if Kim survives, have a second Numemberg trial and execute him for war crimes after millions of innocents have suffered and died? after a stray long-range missile has nuked Honolulu, Seattle, San Franciso, or Los Angeles? Or should we impose personal responsibility on the alpha brute before he can cause further carnage, like the three ape-men in our preamble?

In essays on this blog (see 1 and 2), I’ve discussed the new vistas of politics and war—Von Clausewitz’ dyad—that accurate weapons make possible. Cruise missiles, drones and accurately targetable small nukes now make it possible to kill the bad guys with less “collateral damage” than ever in recent history.

Small nukes now make it possible, for example, to reach and kill Assad or Kim deep in his bunker: a five kiloton bomb exploding just above ground level to clear the way, and a second and third even smaller one to make the kill. With modern electronics and targeting, it is possible to put all three “right down the chute,” with little “collateral damage” to innocent civilians or even city structures. Of course, to be successful, any such attack would have to be an absolute surprise carried out in absolute secrecy and without any warning whatsoever.

Oddly enough, the chief impediments to such an attack are not military or practical, but customary and legal. The international laws and customs of diplomatic and sovereign immunity condemn the deliberate killing of foreign leaders even in wartime, except on the field of battle. The rationale is simple and practical: if we do it to “them,” they’ll do it to us, and then all warring clans might be decapitated.

We can’t have that, can we?

Of course not, under normal circumstances. Our differences with China, such as they are, are not nearly so serious as to justify such a move. And with China’s legendary patience on such matters as Taiwan, they are unlikely to become so. Even our much more acute differences with Vladimir Putin’s Russia are far from the level needed to justify such a move.

But for three reasons, Assad and Kim are in an entirely different class. First, one is, and the other can be and threatens to become, an alpha brute of the like of Hitler and Tojo. Second, both lack the technology and capability to do anything similar to us, so the practical issue of reciprocity simply doesn’t arise. Finally, if we just stall and let time pass, within a handful of years Kim may have the technology to do the same to us, or at least the ability to injure us with some of the insanity of “total war,” by nuking one or more of our cities. So time is not on our side.

Finally, there is the practical issue of human psychology. Assad and Kim are both smart psychopaths who seem to respect nothing but superior force. There is some chance that even a credible threat of a “kill the bad guys” surprise attack might change their behavior, perhaps even without actually carrying it out. The hangman’s noose does tend to focus the mind.

Events during and since the Second World War have thrust upon our species two painful truths. First, “total war” is a bit of patent insanity that, if taken to its “logical” conclusion, will lead inexorably to species self-extinction or to destruction of large parts of our home planet. Second, individual alpha brutes, not masses of innocent, clueless or deluded civilians, have been responsible for the worst atrocities in human history. So when mass atrocities raise their ugly heads, it would be best to kill the bad guys without exterminating the masses, and before mass extermination even appears to become necessary.

Besides the level of need, timing is of the essence. Killing Assad now, for example, might not help much. Syria is already destroyed, and the damage to neighboring Islamic states and to Europe is already done. At this point, the best result of a kill would be to hasten a political settlement and end what has become twenty-first century humanity’s most abject shame. But many of the problems caused by having waited too long already would remain.

Kim, however, is another matter. The longer we wait, the higher becomes the likelihood of deliverable nukes enhancing his brutal capabilities. If we wait until he has intercontinental delivery capability, for example, a surprise attack might have to blanket his nuclear facilities, plus known and suspected missile silos, with higher-powered nukes to protect ourselves. That would vastly increase the “collateral damage” (how I hate that euphemism!), i.e. the killing of innocents, as compared to a quick surprise kill of Kim and his inner circle now.

We have the technology to kill some alpha brutes and stop their atrocities without killing millions of innocent civilians. Nothing but custom, law and practical caution require that we refrain from using it. Maybe the law should change. Or maybe it should recognize exceptions in extreme circumstances, as most laws do.

But the best practical course of action is clear: the lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few, especially when the few are evil alpha brutes that social evolution must weed out if our species is to progress beyond medieval tribal conflict. If war begins on the Korean Peninsula, the death and suffering of millions will become inevitable. The longer Kim won’t or can’t agree to move his pathological medieval tyranny toward some semblance of normalcy, the more attractive a surprise first-strike becomes.

Footnote 1 In an earlier essay, I analyzed what might have happened had Nazi Germany not invaded Russia and had it treated its conquered peoples with basic humanity and political skill. My conclusion was that Greater Germany today, comprising most of Western and most of Eastern Europe, might be the world’s leading economy and dominant great power.

Footnote 2 Of course any such threat would forfeit the element of surprise in any actual attack. This fact ought to convince Kim and his advisors that the absence of an explicit threat does not reduce the probability of a surprise attack. The chief value of an explicit threat would be to make the point that its target would be Kim personally, and not North Korea generally or its mostly innocent people.

Endnote: For readers unversed in the arcana of nuclear weapons, a little numerical background maybe useful. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945 had an explosive yield equivalent to sixteen kilotons of TNT. So a five-kiloton “bunker-busting” bomb would have about one-third of the explosive force that destroyed much of a city. It would have approximately 454 times the force of the so-called “mother of all [conventional] bombs” (MOAB)—with 11 tons yield—that our forces recently used against IS in Afghanistan.

The Hiroshima bomb detonated well above ground; hence its widespread destructive effect by shock wave and fire. If a smaller bomb were denoted at ground level, at least half its force would be focused downward toward the brute’s bunker. The result would be like putting the bunker right near the epicenter of a massive earthquake. While reinforced concrete might avoid total collapse, holes in it from the first blast would expose the brute within it to the full force of the shock wave, searing heat, neutron radiation and X-rays from a second and third blast. At the same time, ground-level detonation would reduce collateral damage around the blasts, as compared to the Hiroshima explosion.

As I analyzed in an earlier essay, “small” nukes, of this size or smaller, have two important characteristics. First, they are far more useful in realistic combat than “doomsday” nukes of the megaton size and above. Second, for that reason, nations as diverse as the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan, and India almost certainly have them. Most, if not all, of North Korea’s nukes also appear to fall into this “small” category.

What the major powers now have that the North Koreans don’t have yet is the ability to deliver these small nukes accurately over large distances. But that could change with time unless Kim mends his errant ways or is removed from the picture.

While actually using “small” nukes would break the salubrious “nuclear taboo” that has kept the nuclear peace for 72 years now, it would avoid regional or continental destruction, let alone the species self-extinction that a general hot war between the US and USSR threatened in 1962. For that very reason, small nukes have the disadvantage of being more likely to be fired than larger “doomsday” weapons and therefore to be used for objectives besides deterrence—nukes’ sole actual use for those 72 years.

In order to justify the first use of such small nukes, whether on Kim or anyone else, American leaders would have to conclude that halting a downward spiral toward war on the Korean Peninsula, plus the exemplary and political effects on other petty tyrants, would together outweigh the negative political effects on, and resulting acts of, non-involved world powers. That calculation is fraught with uncertainty and possible unintended consequences.

But as Kim (or any similar reckless tyrant) draws closer to having the ability to trigger Armageddon all by himself, the balance of risks shifts in favor of action. If Kim and his inner circle become the first victims of nuclear weapons since 1945, they will have only themselves to blame.

The door to disarmament and co-existence is always open, just as it was in 1962. But in this case there is not yet any real balance of terror. The West may be forced to act before the brute can manufacture one. Nothing in Kim Jong Un’s history or behavior justifies giving him the benefit of any doubt.

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