Saturday, October 28, 2006

"Mistakes Were Made"

One of my best Professors, a Religion and Judaic Studies specialist here at Carleton, once remarked on the propensity of bureaucrats to use the passive voice. "If you want to avoid accountability for someting, always use the passive voice."

The context for the discussion was on how the US State Department responded to pleas by the American Jewish community to more forcifully address--rhetorically, militarily, any way at all--the Holocaust during WWII. The responses were all in the passive voice: "reservations were expressed", "the issue was raised", "proposals were taken under consideration." No trail, no specifics, no actor, no agent, no nothing. And, sure enough, the US continued to downplay the genocide occurring--refusing to allow in Jewish refugees, not bombing tracks leading to death camps--until it was far too late.

The Holocaust is an extreme example, meant only to show just what this rhetorical tactic can be made to justify (or, more accurately, ignore). I suppose it shouldn't surprise us, then, when it pops up in compartively lighter situations. NATO General David Richards admitted that "mistakes were made" in a NATO strike that killed 70 Afghani civilians. Begging the General's pardon, but "mistakes weren't made", someone made mistakes. Finding that someone or someones and why they made their mistake or mistakes is a moral imperative when you have that many innocent lives on your hands. The NATO Supreme Commander, James Jones, promised a thorough investigation, but this type of bureaucratic obfuscation is not a promising start.

It's late, I'm tired, and this was probably an unjustified rant. Sometimes the passive voice is just the passive voice. But I am sick of this culture of unaccountability, and I am sick of not being able to detect a pulse among the polity to the end of holding people accountable for their sins. Something needs to change.


Disenchanted Dave said...

My guess: nobody made a mistake. An Afghan warlord gave the military a tip "notifying" them about dangerous activity there. Based on that information alone, "identified and targeted a group of insurgents," who, if they existed at all, were among some civilians the warlord wanted out of his hair.

That's not a mistake. Everybody wins. The warlord gets his enemies taken care of and gets a nice bounty from the Americans, and he can avoid the dirty work and reputation problems that go along with it. The commander gets to improve his relationship with the warlord that recommended the attack. The pilot gets to avoid a confrontation with his commanding officer. Lockheed gets another purchase order to replace the bombs that were used.

I don't know if that's what happened in this case, but it's not uncommon.

This is just what happens when you take a country with too many warring factions to even name and leave most of the country in anarchy. When your allies tell you there's a problem and it's too dangerous to send ground troops, you send bombers instead. When there's no state structure, those tips will often be impossible to confirm and will sometimes be motivated by the goals of a particular faction or warlord.

Disenchanted Dave said...

By the way, I hope you're better-rested now.

Anonymous said...

So, 70 dead and you say "That's not a mistake. Everybody wins."

If you're not kidding, you're a fucking criminal, Dave.

Anonymous said...

May GOD enlightened our heart with guideance and mercy.

Cancer Type

The probligo said...

Anonymouse, the kind of rhetoric that Disenchanted Dave has used has been the standard for the more right of the US population since 9/11. You're right - the guy needs a life 'cos he wastes the one he has...

I want to thank David Schraub for what is NOT "an unjustified rant". He has in fact spelt out one part of the path I believe the US should have been following from day 1 of its adventures in Iraq, perhaps even Afghanistan. He might not have gone quite far enough for my liking, but then I have little to no say in the matter...

The military language of minimisation ("colateral damage" for civilian casualties is the worst in my book) needs to be brought into the light and clensed.

Disenchanted Dave said...

I'd be amused that I was confused for a standard right-winger, but I'm somewhat concerned that I was insufficiently clear. Either that or nobody read what I wrote very carefully... the "benefits" I outlined for killing the civilians were: a "nice bounty" for a warlord, an "improve[d] relationship" between warlords and the military, and higher profits for military contractors. I had assumed no one would think that could compare with 70 lives and that no one would think I thought those "benefits" outweighed the costs. Looks like I was wrong.

For the record, Anonymous and probligo, I wasn't saying attacks like these are good. I was saying that they weren't "mistakes" in the conventional sense. I'll try to be clearer this time.

If this is like the other cases I've seen in Afghanistan, everything went according to plan. But the plan was hatched by some warlord, not by us. This sort of thing is standard in complex multi-faction wars like Afghanistan and Somalia. The warlord says there are insurgents somewhere among a bunch of people he wants dead. The can't be bothered to send ground troops, so they send in bombers without determining if there were actually insurgents there or what the consequences would be in terms of innocent deaths. That's negligent, but it's not a mistake. Like I said, everyone wins (except the civilians).

Perhaps I should have made that parenthetical explicit in my initial comment. I'll be clearer next time.

Mark said...

I'm curious, when "mistakes where made" does it then follow that legal action follows, or that accountability implies loss of life, job, or position each time a mistake was made? What if the mistake was honestly made (that is a judgment call taking one's best shot in the absence of complete information). You mention the holocaust. Should the generals of SHAEF lost their jobs after the firestorms resulted from incendiary attacks at Dresden and/or Tokyo?

So "someone" made a mistake (or more likely an error in a judgment call which in hindsight was found to be an error). I'm curious why you think the (probably) mid to low level intelligence analyst needs to be held accountable to you, i.e., the public.