Monday, July 17, 2006

Mazower on how Europe can tell Israel that punishing civilians backfires


Today's Financial Times has an opinion piece by Columbia historian Mark Mazower titled, "Europe can tell Israel how punishing civilians backfires." (It's subscribers-only, but a synopsis is still available to non-subscribers.) At any rate, the FT caption for its paper edition says, "The 1949 Geneva prohibition on collective punishment in wartime reflected a sense that it was both morally unpalatable and militarily ineffective."

This article is a prime example of the muddled thinking that academics are now pouring out over the latest Arab-Israeli conflagration. But it is also an example of how the mistaken ideals that evolved out of the immediate aftermath of World War II still plague us today. They sound nice, and you can see how they came about, but their unintended consequences are more pain, death and destruction for the weakest in the world.

But first things first: World War II was a nasty affair, and everyone was determined to not let it happen again. The victors created institutions, mechanisms, laws, and a number of other things to try to rectify the problems that they believed led to the recent unpleasantness (a term I believe an English lady once used to refer to World War I). WWII, of course, was not the first such nasty affair, nor was it the first to spark a concerted effort to understand the causes of the war and supply a remedy to prevent it from recurring. World War I resulted in the same thing, and, in particular, the League of Nations and the first attempt to "outlaw war" -- which we all know was a resounding success. But WWI was not the first, either. The Napoleonic Wars led to the Concert of Europe -- which actually did keep the peace, more or less, for a hundred years (the Crimean War doesn't really count, does it? I mean, sucker-punching the Tsar over some Orthodox monks in Bethleham not treating their Catholic buddies properly?) Before that, you had the Peace of Westphalia, which established concepts of national sovereignty in order to try to end the post-Reformation religious wars in Europe.

I think a comparision between the Concert of Europe and the League of Nations is instructive for the world we find ourselves in today. One worked, and one obviously didn't. Why did the Concert work? For one thing, it correctly recognized the problem that led to Napoleon--a really big, really powerful land power in Western Europe. And it proposed a solution: a balance of power arrangement that would keep a single continental European country from collecting too much power that it could impose its will on everyone else. And it had a tool to make the solution work--namely, Great Britain, who was powerful enough to counter any potential hegemon without actually threatening to be such a hegemon itself.

Right off the bat, the League of Nations got it wrong. The problem was not "war." The problem was a hegemonic continental European power. The solution wasn't to "outlaw" war, or even to create a talk-shop so that the world's countries could sit down together and discuss their disagreements in a theraputic setting. (Although one could see how they might draw that conclusion in 1919--the balance of power system had failed and the interlocking system of alliances and predetermined strategic plans seem to make war inevitable once a certain event occurred. If only there was a place to take a step back, take a breath, talk things out, not necessarily launch an invasion of France at the first sign that Russia has mobilized...) The solution, of course, was to keep one single power from dominating continental Europe, or the world. And at that, the League of Nations and its ideals really sucked.

The mechanisms established following WWII were equally flawed, but, because the Cold War quickly put an end to them for all practical purposes, we haven't really noticed how flawed they are until the bipolar international environment collapsed. Rather than looking at how countries really act and designing mechanisms around those factors in order to forestall war, the post-WWII mechanisms followed the pattern of those following WWI--that is, the formal mechanisms were designed around how a handful of visionary leaders wished countries would act. Those lasted until Korea, of course, after which the West installed a second set of mechanisms based around collective security and the Marshall Plan that really did work. But, with a few exceptions (U.S. v. Nicaragua at the International Court of Justice being one--it says we need to give you 6 months notice to withdraw from the treaty? Where? You mean here, where I wiped my butt?), everybody paid lip service to the formal mechanisms, even while they were almost universally ignored.

But somehow (and, of course, I'm not the first to point this out) the fiction nonetheless became viewed as reality in Europe. Think about it: who today talks about "international law" and actually means it? It's not just the U.S. who seems to look at such notions as faintly silly. How frequently do the Japanese bring it up? Or the Russians, Chinese or Indians, unless they have agendas so transparent that they've molded them into automotive windshields for the limos their diplomats are driven around in?

Which brings me back to Professor Mazower. As he writes, "One reason for the virtual unanimity behind the 1949 Geneva prohibition was the sense that it was both morally unpalatable and militarily ineffective." The sentence is absurd hyperbole: I have a hard time believing that Stalin, in particular, was morally troubled by the concept of collective punishment, or that he felt it was militarily ineffective since he himself used it to great effect in so much of the Soviet Union. But while I will grant that collectively punishing an entire people for the aggression of their leaders or a sub-group is morally repugnant, to say it is militarily ineffective is to ignore history. Even recent history is chock full of examples of this type of activity proving highly effective, with Saddam's Iraq being just the first that comes to mind. (Others include Franco's Spain, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, the British suppression of the Malay uprising, the U.S. suppression of the Philippines, etc. etc. etc.)

But this trend that "I think it should be true, therefore it must be true," isn't limited to Mazower or even Stephen Colbert. It seems endemic in the European Union, in particular. It crops up in all sorts of places. For example, land mines are not just inhumane, but are militarily ineffective, though they seem to be rather effective in Iraq. Likewise, torture is inhumane and ineffective. Though if it is completely ineffective, it seems odd that, despite several thousand years of history, we are only now figuring this out. And not polluting is actually more efficient and more profitable than externalizing your pollution and making others pay for it; though only people working for non-profits (or sucking up to non-profits) seem to understand how this is possible.

A little honesty would be nice. Some things you shouldn't do because they are wrong, not because the are ineffective or inefficient. And some things will be done no matter what, and wishing otherwise won't make it so.

10 comments:

ryan said...

I don't know if Stalin was exactly practicing mass punishment -- it wasn't like he was trying to teach people a lesson or deter anything. He just killed everyone -- more of an "incapacitation" sort of thing.

Also, the stuff about pollution and whatnot is a bit more complicated than you make it out. Some things can be more efficient -- it's just that it's only more efficient if you have tremendous technology, so, yeah, it would take thousands of years to work that out. Also, externalizing the cost of pollution is still inefficient if the pollution is borne by a small group of people (low transaction costs) or by your customers (since that's just another form of cost). [That is assuming it's non-optimal pollution, of course.]

M.D. Fatwa said...

Stalin targeted specific population groups, such as Tartars and Byelorussians, if some of them supported his enemies (Tsarist remnants, etc.)

William M. Razavi said...

I don't think you really understand what "collective punishment" in terms of military action means.

The idea was to restrain people (oh, let's say Nazi dickwipes) from walking into an occupied town and saying "Our soldiers were just shot at here...we don't really care who did it, we're just going to burn several houses down and shoot some people--until you idiots learn your lesson."

That's collective punishment.

Is it militarily effective?

When it's done from the air? It depends--the Germans bombing London accomplished nothing.
Other cases of aerial collective punishment may be considered more effective. But not as effective as massive tactical strikes.
(Remember, even under all that bombardment the Germans were still producing planes and tanks until their makeshift factories were overrun. Not to mention the antlike capabilities of the North Vietnamese in rebuilding between US air strikes.)

And WE like to talk about International Law all the time.
We say such and such a place has violated "norms of behavior", such and such a state is a "rogue nation."

And in the war on terrorism we draw some very specific rules of behavior from those very quaint conventions that you find it so fashionable to laugh at.
To whit--the whole reason we say there is such a thing as a terrorist, or an illegal combatant is based on the quaint notion that there are soldiers in uniform who act within the bounds of regular action (or privateers with a letter of marque, who must still fly the flag of their issuing power) and there are un-uniformed mooks with guns capping the occasional soldier.

According to the standards set out in the post-Franco-Prussian War Geneva Convention the latter could be picked up and summarily executed.

Which wasn't a problem, until 1914 when the Allies started complaining (rightly or wrongly) that the German occupiers were rounding up random people in towns where they were shot at and then executing their random selection.

Collective punishment.

When Stalin had people killed, it was more like "targeted killing".
When he let people starve--well, that would be "willfull negligence".

Even in Stalin's case, how really effective was it--really?

The point is, in a military occupation, collective punishment usually just pisses people off.

Unless, of course, you're collectively punishing a group of vegan pacifists.

Then you can pretty much kick down their doors anytime you want, loot their meagre belongings, shoot a couple of them, and probably be able to do that forever without hearing a peep out of any of them.

But in places where normal people live--collective punishment doesn't work.

And we all care about these international laws, because that's what keeps us from showing up at the airport in Antigua and being told that every third person will be forced to eat dog turds.

The notion of some kind of law is what keeps us from completely giving in to the notion that we're just a bunch of Vikings.

The point is collective punishment -- bulldozing houses, taking land, killing everyone in the town that gave shelter to the insurgent, bombing the power station--doesn't pacify people. It hurts everyone. It further pacifies the people who wouldn't have resisted anyway. It doesn't do anything to the people who hate the punisher in the first place--but it usually pushes the marginal people into a desire for revenge. Lots of revenge. That is, in normal places.

Genocide, though, works. (sort of)But a lot of folks like to live in some kind of moral universe where it's not okay.

But I'll leave the discussion of whether or not we should bother with having unenforceable rules against genocide to your next "fatwa".

I'll leave you with one more hypothetical--let's just say that I'm a foreign government. And let's say that I think something you said or did ("I don't like your refrigerator--it looks dangerous to me) was so asinine and potentially dangerous to the security of my nation that I should stop you.

Now let's say that my method is to enter your country with impunity burn your house down around your head, kill some of your family. And several of your neighbors.
And I destroy your personal weapons stocks--including all your kitchen implements, gardening tools and your car.

Tell me, are you going to learn your lesson and take your collective punishment? Or are you going to plot revenge?

Ask anyone the same question.
Other than a vegan pacifist or a quadroplegic.

William M. Razavi said...

And another thing, the Congress of Vienna was effective in part because lots of people had gotten sick of Napoleonic collective punishment.

And gotten sick of being cannon fodder for the Imperial punishment invasion of the day--in Spain, in Russia, in Germany...

William M. Razavi said...

Of course, collective punishment is always MORE morally repugnant when it's happening to you.

And of course all these silly laws can and are broken all the time.
(US Special forces often operate without a uniform, no flags, or other identifying features--so, if they're ever caught by a uniformed German soldier engaged in a war with the US, they'd be liable to being summarily shot--and we'd all be horrified, of course and call the Germans nasty Huns and whatnot).

Was collective punishment militarily effective in Stalin's Russia? Well, the Tatars in Crimea had already supplied the Nazis with troops--but then, so had every other ethnic group in the USSR. So, they were all liable to collective punishment.

The Red Army often fought stubbornly. Sometimes out of sheer gumption, and sometimes out of fear of being shot by a commisar. Maybe collective punishment worked there.

But on the other side of the fence, all the SS deserter patrols in the world couldn't stop Germans from retreating and surrendering at the end of the war. So, collective punishment may have been brought to bear on many many folks, but to no effect.

Franco's Spain. Sure, it took him 3 years to finish off Madrid and Barcelona. And afterward there was a lot of punishment put out, but in terms of Franco's collective punishment of Basque and Catalan ethnic groups--well, that worked real well didn't it?
I mean, no one speaks Basque or Catalan anymore, just like Franco intended, and there sure aren't any more leftists there anymore. And everyone in Spain is a faithful Catholic.

Czechoslovakia? The Russians came in, took out the government, re-established control. But they didn't face much of an insurrection in 1968 and they didn't really inflict collective punishment so much as establish control and order in the wake of their invasion. By coming in with sufficient overwhelming force (and Warsaw Pact allied troops) they enforced their political will and made a prolonged insurgency undesirable.
And of course, the Communists continued to control Czechoslovakia for a good 50 years after the invasion, right? No, more like 21.

Hungary? Maybe the threat of collective punishment was more effective in the Eastern bloc than any actual use of it.
Every time they actually cracked down they sowed the seeds of the eventual downfall of Communist rule. The memory of 1956 and 1968 (and 1953 in East Germany) was sufficient--Not sufficient to prevent another challenge to Soviet power, but sufficient to stoke long-term anger and resentment.

The British eventually negotiated an end to the Malay uprising. It wasn't collective punishment which ended the uprising. It was the negotiations.

For every case you can cite (even where I might concede a marginal short-term effectiveness of collective punishment) I can cite about a dozen others where collective punishment stiffened resistance and in almost every case the collective punishment spawned long-term problems that came back to roost.

British collective punishment of the Boer population?
Led eventually to Afrikaaner dominated South Africa with Apartheid.

Spanish collective punishment in Cuba? Real effective.

Even in the short term some of these cases were ineffective.

Just think of the number of partisan groups who were undeterred by Nazi brutality. NAZI BRUTALITY! Even the Nazis weren't brutal enough to make collective punishment work all the time.

Ever heard of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943?
How about the Warsaw Rising of 1944?

ryan said...

I think the difficulty in saying whether the fact that people do something is evidence that it's effective (or efficient) is that the terms effective (or efficient) aren't being defined properly. If they're about the short run or one-off scenario, well, sure, that pretty much follows. People aren't painfully stupid, so I guess that collective punishment (or polluting, or protectionism, or asymmetrical warfare) have to be useful in some cases. But if it's an iterated scenario, then that argument doesn't necessarily hold. Isn't this entire thread just a fancied up description of the prisoner's dilemma?

M.D. Fatwa said...

Sure, all empires fall, turn to dust, etc. etc. But some lasted longer than others, and collective punishment was what kept the Romans in business and let the Mongols take over the world (even if they didn't hold on to it very long). But why didn't Iraq's long-oppressed Shi'ites--including Muqtada al-Sadr and his ever-so-brave supporters rise up against Saddam when the Americans invaded? Was it because Saddam completely brutalized their entire community the last time they tried (that, and the Americans hung them out to dry last time, too)? Why were their no uprisings in Ukraine and Byelorus against Stalin? Hell, why were there no uprisings in West Germany or Japan after WWII? Was it because everyone knew that an uprising by even a handful of rebels would result in the entire community being destroyed?

Collective punishment isn't just lining up the village and shooting every 3rd person (or every 10th person as the Romans did, because they were a bunch of softies). It could also mean wiping out the entire village from the air.

Of course it doesn't always work. Of course the German blitz of London strengthened British resolve. I'm not saying it always works. What I'm saying is that to say it never works is incorrect. Sometimes it does.

William M. Razavi said...

Between 1991 and 2003 the Badr Brigades continued guerilla operations in Southern Iraq--mostly in night ambushes outside Basra.
Fear of collective punishment only goes so far--even after the major uprising was crushed.
I agree, there's a fine line between watching someone bide their time and gather up strength and watching someone who's given up. It's not always easy to figure out the difference without hindsight.

Look at Roman histories and the new bio of Genghis Khan and you'll realize that where they were most succesful in pacifying a populace over the long term was where they were able to offer major carrots--Genghis Khan's reputation for brutality (while useful to the Mongols as a scare tactic, was also used to stiffen resistance against him by populations not wishing to share the same fate.)
And other sources claim that in fact the reports of Mongol massacres were highly exaggerated and reflected not the destruction of entire communities but the destruction of aristocratic elites. And that treads the fine line between collective punishment and genocidal social engineering--kind of like the Khmer Rouge killing off anyone with glasses.
The Mongol point seems to have been "Hey peasants of village #3, are you really mad at you're rulers? Well, let us in and we'll eliminate them for you in imaginative ways." That's less a matter of collective punishment and more an attempt at driving a wedge between populations and their rulers.

M.D. Fatwa said...

So, you're saying that the Badr Brigades were just on the verge of overthrowing Saddam and stirring a popular uprising against him? All they needed was just a little bit more time? Because 13 years is the magic number? And what were these nighttime attacks? Maybe a firecracker here or there to keep the Republican Guards awake at night?

Also, historians ALWAYS say these old empires weren't as ruthless or cutthroat as they were made out to be, whether they are Assyrians, Romans, Vikings, Mongols, Huns, Spanish, Aztecs, etc. It's always a plot by opposing groups to make their enemies sound worse than they were. Personally, I think this revisionism comes from two sources: (1) modern historians have a hard time imagining anyone being that cruel, despite numerous and repeated modern examples to the contrary; and, more importantly, (2) if they agree with previous interpretations of history, they have nothing to write their dissertations on.

But your arguments, on the other hand, are based on overdetermination. You say that the Mongols and Romans used carrots as well as sticks. Therefore the sticks were unimportant. That's bogus. I never said ONLY the sticks were important. What I said was that saying that sticks aren't important is clearly wrong.

Anonymous said...

How are those sticks working out?