28 August 2004

Aristotle, Aristotle, Was a Beggar for the Bottle…

Professor Ribstein wants to end the SBV controversy. I can't say I blame him; neither, however, does his position hold water.

The fact that has always been undeniable, and that was probably reponsible for whipping the Swifties into action in the first place, is that Kerry has tried throughout his career to have it both ways — war hero and war opponent. More broadly, the juxtaposition of Kerry on Viet Nam and Kerry on Iraq has vividly shown Kerry as a waffler on this, as on so many other things. Indeed, we have probably never had a president who presented a vaguer, more conflicted, public picture of himself.

"Kerry and the Swifties" (28 Aug 04) (emphasis added). This exemplifies a classic fallacy of Aristotelian, or bivalued logic: the fallacy of the excluded middle.

Two improperly excluded middles undermine Professor Ribstein's disgust at the current quasipolitical debate, one that admittedly looks like something from second-grade recess.

  1. The most obvious is the assumption that one cannot be both a war hero and a war opponent. Assuming for the moment that the implication that these two occurred simultaneously is valid (see below), remember that being a "war hero" has to do with actions, while being a "war opponent" has to do with attitudes. Particularly in an era in which military service was not entirely voluntary—it may have been for some individuals, but can you imagine President Bush having joined the National Guard if there had been no potential for him to be drafted otherwise?—this is akin to saying that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi were either jailbirds or civil-rights leaders. Consider, too, the Quaker who earns a decoration as a medical corpsman pulling wounded soldiers out of the line of fire. (That's not a hypothetical.) By becoming a "war hero," does that mean that he has therefore repudiated his Quaker belief in the unjustifiability of war? In other words, the "exclusion" of the middle case is false because the two extreme cases are not in fact opposites; this is what civil procedure geeks like me might characterize as a "false conflict."
  2. Second, and far more dangerous, is the implicit imposition of simultaneity on the "conflict." This is a common problem in the US; let's look for a moment at the confirmation of Hugo Black to the Supreme Court, since that presents a closer-to-"true conflict" situation. Justice Black did not deny that he had, in the past, been a member of the KKK. He did deny that he had ever shared all of the tenets of the KKK, and certainly that he did so by the 1930s. He was confirmed. In other words, he was allowed to learn from his past experiences. In the abstract, one would hope that all politicians would be held to such a standard; in reality, we expect that politicians and their dogma spring forth fully formed from the foreheads of their precinct captains. The danger here is that in an era of constant change and deception (whether willfully or otherwise), a politician who cannot/does not learn from mistakes of the past is only going to repeat them.

Thus, I'm afraid Professor Ribstein's position rests on logical grounds that are unsound and unclear. Being a veteran myself, I do know that one does things that one later comes to regret, in an abstract sense if nothing else; and doing those things well, as part of one's obligation to one's oath of commissioning and to one's colleagues and subordinates, is a necessary part (but not all) of what it takes to be a "war hero."

I never served in Vietnam; I would nonetheless have opposed it, because there was no military objective and the Gulf of Tonkin "trigger" was questionable by not later than 1968. Had the timing been a bit different, I would nonetheless have gone to Vietnam and done my duty. I'd like to think I would have done it well, because I recognize something that the American public has come to recognize (at some level), that is built into our system of government, and that our media and politicians refuse to accept: As a military officer, once I've stated my opinion on advisability under the appropriate circumstances, and been ordered to perform a task I advised against, my obligation is to either resign or carry out the orders—especially when the "orders" in question are abstract directives from civilian authority. We have civilian control of the military (at least for operational purposes, and at least in theory) in this country, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Even if our civilian leaders make mistakes and get us into conflicts where we don't belong (Vietnam) and keep us out of conflicts where we do (Rwanda)—because the alternative is far, far worse.

So, in the end, Kerry's evolution of his position and the contrast between his actions under orders and his later consideration of the justifiability of those orders are far from inconsistent with being a good officer or a good politician. I would argue the opposite; but then, I'm one of those wierdos who realizes that one's country can sometimes be wrong, so I'm obviously not cut out for national politics.