A Costly Stupidity

A couple of weeks ago I posted some thoughts about being stupid, something of which conservatives are often accused. At that time I offered the thoughts from Philosophy Now as to what constituted stupidity in the first place. That description includes “poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions.” As was then noted and can readily be seen, such a description allows a precious few of us to escape inclusion in the stupid condition, at least on occasion.

It is a theme I will occasionally return, though not with the intent of dwelling there. Some examples of stupidity in cation just cannot go by without comment, and I’ve waited for more than a week to write about one of them. And sure enough, a cruise ship captain succeeds in providing yet another glaring example of stupidity that is not just humorous or head-scratching, but downright costly and tragic for other people. But today I want to look at the incident involving American soldiers desecrating the bodies of slain Taliban combatants in Afghanistan. No more needs to be said about the specific form of desecration.

And that is just the point–the sharing of details that becomes in itself a rush to provide ever more graphic descriptions of what probably should not have been described in the first place, at least not in public. The soldiers immediately responsible certainly acted on “poor reasoning.” They would, and I presume now do, confess that what they did was stupid, guided more by raw emotion than reasoning at all. Saying that the heat of the battle, the hardships of the deployment, the psychological stress endured, etc., do things to people’s capacity for better judgment is undoubtedly true. We can almost understand, even while we cannot excuse. But what about those who took the photographs and distributed them?

Poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions. All of these are in full display in this situation. A photographer sees the act; without reflection, or with poor reflection, he snaps the picture. Why? If it were to show to a commanding officer as proof of the inappropriate actions, one might defend the decision. But that’s not what happened. Whether the photographer himself or another person gaining access to the now documented atrocity, someone decided to take this to the news media, from whence it quickly and predictably circulated around the world. Poor reasoning? Yes. Entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions? Yes.

Just what those habits and assumptions might be should be something for all of us to think about. We so highly value “the public’s right to know” and “freedom of the press” that we seem entirely incapable of placing them into any context whatsoever, as though they trump every other consideration that might be part of the equation. This inevitably leads to poor reasoning. I suspect that most of us had a voice screaming inside of us when we saw the graphic, even if strategically digitized pictures. That voice said something like, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING??” We understood instantly what damage would be done to American interests, American diplomacy, and American lives as a result of our enemies having this sort of publicity–let alone the bulletin-board material for their Al-Qaeda recruitment efforts. For some people, anything that happens becomes open material for worldwide distribution; consequences need not be considered. In fact, there might even be a personal prize involved for being the one to get the scoop. How stupid. Let’s, at the very least, examine some habits and assumptions.

Stupid actions have been going on in the world and in our own circles since humans have occupied the earth; they will continue, and perhaps even escalate as we lose our capacity to reason well. What we do with them, however, is a matter that needs to be thought about in an overall vision what is good for us. Not incidentally, the same logic applies to our shameful, costly, and destructive societal attitude toward pornography. I initially posted the thoughts on not being stupid in the context of declaring the need for a Christian vision of the public good. The center of our faith is the One who embodied the way, the truth, and the life. Surely we should be able to translate that One into a vision of what the good life looks like. Seems to me it’s the only antidote for stupidity.

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3 thoughts on “A Costly Stupidity

  1. One does have to decide whether war is sin, or whether a particular one is, moving from there one has additional forks in the road, is it really possible to regulate war (or sin) for instance? What are the boundaries of war? etc.
    When I saw the picture I had “pragmatic” feelings, as in this is going to cost the US something, even if it is the services/loyalty of what are probably very good soldiers.

    Context is everything for text and actions, how will the multiplicity of meaning of the rather “thin” UCMJ be interpreted here?

    There are areas I have been very careful in, and advised my children and others to be very careful in as well. Ones that they hadn’t considered. [There are other areas where I have no duty of care and so i swing for the fences as well]. What are the teleological implications of all of this? I would say that there are very significant teleological implications for being a soldier in war, beyond that of say your basic undergraduate student.

    But being careful or even maximally being “wise” somehow seems insufficient, it just seems too calculating and so perfectly modern.

    I read in Bauckham’s commentary “eschatology trumps history” yesterday and it has been haunting me ever since. Man looks in the rearview mirror at what man has said and done, this includes the law (including the UCMJ), what is acceptable, what is normal, what is careful, to be able to create the the same recognizable and comfortable future.

    I want to look forward, out the windshield, knowing that this embodied one has an ultimate destination (though i may not know what is in the next mile), in following him I want to have the best possible motives, and then act, and sometimes that will look very stupid.

    When we look at the canon from the OT to the new, what we see is a vast general consensus around the status quo, whether it is 2nd peter (he’s not coming, its always been this way, lets party), to amos’s confrontation with the northern tribes’ priest/pimp.

    • I suppose there are those who, with a high degree of old-school military honor in their veins, would argue that “good soldiers” would not do this; it takes to whole package, moral integrity undr duress included, to earn that name. I can’t say I feel a certain sympathy with that view, yet your onservation that they were probably competent warriors is well taken. But I doubt that our culture at large is capable of producing that romatic image of the good soldier very often. Our institutions do not envision, build, or support it.

      On the other hand, pragmatism alone should tell us how detrimental the conduct would be on so many levels–and it’s not a stretch to think that they shoud have thought of that. But honor doesn’t stop with the military itself. Embedding of reporters reveals things which probably happened in wars for centuries, but until now out of public view. The decision to take it public in this case was–well, stupid. If the action concerned the photographer, a better response might have been to take it to the commanding officer–not splash it on all the world’s pages. And I don’t think one needs to be Christian to recognize this; even fallen human beings recognize that this should not happen by God-given moral instinct.

      • Because you are a good person, you took the best possible interpretation of “good soldier”, i was thinking more like an effective killer that doesn’t normally cross the UCMJ or the Rules of Land Warfare. States need these kinds of men and women to carry on war, it is a well held belief that inefective soldiers means you disappear. Back in the 90’s I laughed when the swedish general about to command American troops (first time, and a stupid BUSH1 precedent) said “we will teach these American cowboys how to be peacekeepers.” Swedish management didn’t really work out for those in Sebrenca in 1995 despite a birds eye view. My vietnam era friends tell me by today’s standards everyone in the field was a war criminal then.

        Returning to teleology, Reiter (Chair polysci at Emory) in Democracy’s At War, talks about the last 2500 years of democracy (ThebesVsSparta, Grant, etc…) and what happens. He see’s democracies as non imperialistic, and so it boils down to “let’s get this over with, at the least cost and go home” (sometimes money, sometimes solder’s lives), because they aren’t sticking around to run/own it.

        My intent is not to justify this action, but to say these things are deeply imbedded, not into personal psychology, but into the ideology or the culture if you want of the State. I actually thought it was an effective psychological op, not necessarily believing that what people think about the US is important, or that any Islamic “fundamentalist” will be persuaded about how we wage war in a “correct manner”.

        While you think it is an obvious wrong, I’d have to contemplate a bit more in the OT to be confident that was so, given all the things that were done in war at the beginning of the canon. symbolic use of the dead seemed high there, and this was definitely a symbolic act.

        If you want to accept that the State and its actions are redeemable (a Neihbur category) then you have to wrestle with things like this.

        I lean towards ignoring it and working with the individuals, family, and while holding my nose, the church, to work on the teleological implications of the cruciform.

        I had a meeting with a staffer from my (BIC) church who believes his mandate is to organize my church and other churches to work with the state/county/muni’s to carry out their mandates. While he and I had discussed this a couple of years ago, when he asked me for some help, I refused. I am generally horrified when the church and state are mixed, though I have served the (federal) State, and have served the last and current governor in their machinations I think I have a good idea of what is possible and probable. I think the beast and the whore are appropriate metaphors for ultimate outcomes there, for the Church (and while I have my doubts at times) I have the promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail there.

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