Conscience in the Mud

When James Madison warned that “no nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,” he was referring to the corrupting influence of unchecked power on leaders. Since the Korean War ended 60 years ago, the world has backed away from war as an instrument of national policy. Tactics have changed to guerrilla warfare, air strikes, drones and house raids; yet all these share moral ambiguities. Unchecked power lurks in the shadows.

If the United States wants to lead and bring about what St. Augustine called the “tranquility of order,” it should first examine its own conscience. The United States has earned worldwide respect for its help to victims of hurricanes and earthquakes. But today, especially in the Middle East and the undeveloped world, the dominant image of America is negative. Why? There are three related reasons: overwhelming U.S. military presence, the drone syndrome and a wobbling commitment to human rights.


Military Presence

The United States maintains approximately 1,000 military bases around the world. And when U.S. troops “withdraw” from Afghanistan, at least 10,000 troops may remain, along with thousands of civilian operatives, to protect U.S. interests in resources and to expand U.S. power. This will cost billions that could be invested better at home.


Many of these bases house the drones that redefine how 21st-century wars will be fought. Drones also expand executive power to a dangerous degree. Robots kill the enemy without endangering American troops or contractors who may operate the weapons from thousands of miles away. But drones also obfuscate the responsibility of the faceless technicians and White House lawyers for their deadly results, and they raise factual and moral questions that the president declines to discuss. After President Obama’s announcement that the United States had killed Anwar-al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, in a drone attack, his press secretary sputtered helplessly when a reporter pressed for evidence that justified the order to target an American citizen abroad. A week later another drone reportedly killed another U.S. citizen, Mr. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son.

Spokesmen for the Central Intelligence Agency have stressed the accuracy of drones. Yet the Awlaki strike killed at least eight persons, not just the two usually named. According to Global Research, based in Canada, out of the 44 drone strikes in the tribal area of Pakistan over the previous 12 months, only five hit their targets. They killed five key Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but at the cost of over 700 civilian lives.

Since 9/11 the C.I.A., now under General David Petraeus, has transformed itself from an intelligence-gathering organization into a paramilitary unit. The C.I.A. has embedded agents in the New York City police force to help infiltrate the Muslim community. And 20 percent of the C.I.A.’s staff members are now “targeters,” who draw up lists of people the C.I.A. will try to kill—by drones, land mines or other means—without the accountability expected of the military.

Today the Air Force trains more unmanned aerial vehicle operators than it does pilots. Robotic researchers design control panels modeled on video games so that 19-year-old recruits who have been playing “Kill Zone” and “Assassin’s Creed” can apply their skills in the real world. The future operator will have to control multiple drones rather than one. Military planners hope technology will develop drones that can be programmed to make life-or-death combat decisions by themselves, at the projected cost of $94 billion over 10 years. By then many of the 50 countries that have acquired drones will have the capacity to destroy enemies from afar. Will they follow America’s moral example?

Human Rights

The United States must extricate itself from the 10-year-old mentality that the journalist Mark Danner has called “the state of exception.” That exception has allowed the distinction between politics and law to become blurred. Being “at war” has led to the setting aside of long-held wartime limits and to violations of human rights. And that exception has allowed the United States to torture, waterboard, assassinate and incarcerate suspected enemies indefinitely in Abu Ghraib, in secret prisons abroad and in Guantánamo, still a symbol of U.S. irresolution.

That former Vice President Dick Cheney would praise President Obama for killing Mr. Awlaki and in the same interview criticize him for not approving the Bush-Cheney “enhanced interrogation techniques” exemplifies the national conscience still stuck in the moral mud. The government and the American people must acknowledge that this struggle against terrorism is a police action, not a war. Police are supposed to enforce the law, not bend it. The more the United States fails to follow this rule, the more its conscience shrinks, until it resembles that of the enemy who would drag America down.

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Lisa Weber
7 years ago
Your comments on all three of these topics are accurate.  I am not proud of much of what the U.S. is doing these days.
Virginia Edman
7 years ago
It is getting pretty difficult to defend the policies and politics of the United States in Canada.  This is a timely article. The military-industrial-complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address may be the troubling reality.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years ago
The main thing muddied by this editorial is confidence in America's ability to produce an open-minded, credible treatment of the American military response to evil in the world.

"Unchecked power lurks in the shadows." The genocidal monsters Milosevic and Saddam Hussein may not have lurked in the shadows, but they certainly were proceeding largely unchecked until the US and its allies intervened. In merely the 10 years of theft from the UN oil for food program, the UN estimates Saddam caused the deaths of 800,000 Iraqis, mostly children and the elderly. How many hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of deaths were avoided by removing him? On the other hand, the US joined the rest of the world in doing nothing in the Tutsi-Hutu conflict. No American troops died there, but perhaps a million Africans were slaughtered, macheted and burned in churches, with perhaps a quarter million African women suffering from AIDS induced by rape at the hands of those killers. Are we proud we did not use the exceptionalism of American military power to put a stop to the carnage? 

It is true that Iraqis, rid of the Butcher of Bagdhad and struggling with a nascent democracy and ancient hatreds, have frustrations and anger with the US, as do the Arab nations generally. At the core of those frustration and negative feelings is the same response that the Britisher on the dole and the American on welfare has even as they receive their handout: it is that they have been provided for, and in accepting the aid, financial or military, they are relinquishing their self-sufficiency and with it a portion of their dignity. 

American exceptionalism, taken literally, is not so much a mentality as the editorial suggests as it is a fact. Only with American support was it possible for Britain and France to sustain their attack against Gaddafi; only America under George Bush could save 1.25 million Africans from death from AIDS. America is the largest economy and the most powerful country in the world, and as such is exceptional. Yet there are limits to what we can or should do. I recall an interview with a German official who, when asked why Germany didn't commit more resources to defense activities, responded, "Why should we? The US is doing it for us." It is not surprising that we will have 10,000 troops in Afghanistan next year; it is suprising to me at least that we will still have 50,000 in Germany. 

President Obama's one area where he has demonstrated a degree of success and competency beyond campaigning and teleprompter appearances is his military policy. He has shown a remarkable consistency with the latter half of the Bush administration, no suprise in that he used the exceptionally talented leaders who produced the turnaround in Iraq. Even his recent success in Libya owes a great deal to his predecessor. It was the overthrow of Saddam that caused Gaddafi to turn over his nuclear program, which had advanced far beyond what the international community had believed. It was the vision of the neocons and the articulated hope of President Bush that a voting democracy in Iraq would spur the Arab peoples to rise up against their authoritarian rulers and offer hopes of a movement toward democracy across the Middle East. We are now seeing that play out in Libya and elsewhere.

Yet there is a highly significant action President Obama has taken that has troubling ramifications which America failed to mention. Whereas President Bush acted constitutionally in receiving the approval of the House and Senate before the Iraq and Afghan campaigns, President Obama acted unilaterally and unconstituionally, getting approval of neither. This is a troubling violation, as well as expansion, of executive power for which he must be held accountable. Such constitutional lawlessness must be stopped.

6 years 12 months ago
Your arguments in this editorial are weakened by your use of questionable "facts." Two examples: How do you know that 20 percent of CIA  "staff members"  are now "targeters?" You cite Global Research as the source of your statement that only five of 44 drone strikes in Pakistan hit their targets killing only five Al Queda and Taliban leaders at the cost of 700 civilian lives. I couldn't find the report on those figures on the Global Research web site.   Where do you think Global Research got those very specific figures on a very secret program?
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 12 months ago
@ Orr (#4),
I couldn't find it there either, but here are some of the topic headings I did find at the Global Research website:
"America's Descent to Depravity"
"Fukushima and the Fall of the Nuclear Priesthood"
"The End of History: Now that the CIA's Proxy Army has Murdered Gadhafi, What Next for Libya?"
Another treats of "NATO's Criminal War" in Libya.
Several treat of attempts amd ways to arrest George Bush when he travels to Canada.
Recently America has resorted to using such biased and agenda-driven resources as Moveon and Truthout along with this one as foundational support for its editorials. Can't it utilize credible liberal news sources such as the NYTimes or CSMonitor which are responsible for their content and don't have such sensationalized, one-sided bias as those above and whose articles warrant general respect and credibility? Which don't produce such silly, sophomoric headlines that proclaim the Arab Spring's overthrow of Gadhafi marks "The End of History," the sort of headline we usually see at the grocery store checkout counters?  It's almost as if a conservative Catholic publication used Brietbart and Rush for primary sources in its editorializing. 
Tom Maher
6 years 12 months ago
Walter Mattingly (#4)

The Global Reasearch is a radical leftist propaganda organization with a very strong anti-Americanism.  Why would an foreign policy editorial in America magazine cite such biased anti-American source located in Canada?  The Global Research website is a spectacle of left-wing anti-American properganda.

It is disturbing that more and more America editorially is offering radical foreign points of views on AMerican foriegn policy unbalanced by any counter American point view.  One gets the impression that America magazine is prejudging all American policies and actions as automatically worthy of of condemnation.  Nothing said against the United States is too crazy to question as it the United States did not have real national security inerests and substantial policies and reasons for these policies worth mentioning. 

America magazine is developing a distinct anti-American bias.  Have you read some of the Mirada Global articles translated from Spanish present in America ?  Mirada Global article are void of any American point of view .An article on Cuba was a one-sided pro-Cuban government implicitly blaming the United States instead of Cuba's failed economic system for Cuba's  chronically  deteriorating economy.  Fair and balanced America magazine is not.
6 years 12 months ago
I believe this is a timely comment on a situation that seldom makes it in the popular media. Somehow as a nation we constantly notice the spec in others' eyes especially the eyes of the so called enemy yet seldom if ever the plank in our own eyes. The truth does hurt but demands a conversion or destrction or vilification of the messenger.
Norman Costa
6 years 12 months ago
@ The Editors and my fellow readers:

I am unable to find, in myself, a consistent sensible reaction to the issues raised in "Conscience in the Mud." My internal chaos of thought is only exacerbated by reading the comments. I am speaking only of myself and not the Editors nor those who contributed their views. 

There are times when I feel like someone who winds up agreeing with the last person to whom I spoke. It's frustrating not being able to articulate a position on important matters like military presence, drone strikes, and human rights. How hard can that be? Really.

In general, I was sympathetic to the Editors' views in "Conscience in the Mud." Sure, I can qualify things a bit and find fault here and there. I was glad Osama bin Laden was killed, and I find no problem seeing it as moral in the larger context. Then I ask: Did we really kill 700 civilians to net five dead leaders? If true, something is very, very wrong. 

I found myself agreeing with the sentiments of Lisa and Virginia. Then I read Walter's well written 'look back' at American military foreign policy and President Obama's execution of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I don't always agree with Walter, but I find little fault.

The last thing I want to do is cop out with a stupid "both sides have good points and bad points." There was a perpetration of great evil and lying that led to the war in Iraq. Much world wide blood and treasure have evaporated. Greed and disregard for the suffering of others have yielded massive unemployment and economic ruin. Yet we see citizens rise up and depose three long-lived tyrants in a matter of months. 

Evil goes in. Pause. Good comes out. Catholic theology has a term for this, "Felix culpa." Out of great evil can come something very good. I never liked the idea. It sounds too much like a terrific Divine Plan. Or is it just putting a good face on a really sucky situation.

Giving a label to something incomprehensible can foster the illusion that it is understood. But, that is the nature of the human condition. In the end, we will never understand. I just wish we had a lot less 'culpa' and a lot more 'felix.'

Stanley Kopacz
6 years 12 months ago
Use your common sense, conservative loyalists.  A mafia hit man can walk into a restaurant and kill a single target with a .38 caliber bullet or two. Now replace the .38 cal bullet with a hellfire missile.  Got the picture?
Tom Maher
6 years 12 months ago
Norman Costa (#8)

It is ironic that President Obama who was rated the most liberal Senator in the U.S. Senate and was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace weeks after becoming President on a very liberal anti-war Presidential platform , would become one of the driving force behind the use of drowns, spcecial forces and CIA which have very effectivelly in a matter of months this year eliminated most of the  the highest levels of leadership of Al Queda terrorist network.  Who would have thought it?  

And it is definately not the case that President Obama has been corrupted.  Obama is a very smart man who realized the nation had a on-going terrorst problem that would haunt him.  If Obama did not do something about terrorism, terrorism would do something about Obama.  As Obama sasid about the failed underwear airline bomber from Nigeria, "We just dodged a bullet."  That is an understatment. Had the airline been successfully blown up their would be a firestorm of rage against administration for failing to protect America from terrorist attack.  Afterall  Obama is the Commander in Chief responsible for the security of the United States.  Obama  would get all the blame if any terrorist attack succeeded.  And don't forget thre were several initiated by none other than Mr. Anwar-al-Awaki, American citizen and top Al Queda leader.  THe Times Square bomber with a SUV full of highly explosive material that just by dumb luck failed to detonate, not for lack of trying.  So Prseident Obama very wisely realized it was time to get serious about the constant terroist attacks one of which would be bound to succeed.  By the way let not forget that Al Qaeda is very capable and has been very successful inits worldwide terroist attacks.  It is not impossible for Al Qaeda to graduate to even more deadly methods and use weapons of mass dsitruction which it has been known to have frequently attempted to acquire. Al Qeda leadership had to go and go fast.  Thankfully all the weapons and forces this article does not like worlked extremely well and elimnated after almost a two decade important Al Qaeda leadership.   Alternatively the United States will have on one or  more of its cities  destroyed by a nuclear bomb going off by an out-of-control terrorism in a world full of nuclear devices.  It is in vitally American interest and the interest of world peace to have world wide conterterroism efforts by the United States. So ever pure of heart Obama did earn the Nobel Peace Prize.  The moralist need to recognize the reality and potential massive evil of worldwide terrorism if left unchecked. 
6 years 12 months ago

Augustine’s theosophic “tranquility of order” directive,  sounds like something descriptive of the Land of the Living, not applicable to life on this tiny speck of cosmic dust called “earth” where tranquility and order  are ever threatened. Maybe “tranquility in disorder” might be more practical?

Several decades ago parenting three boys with my much   smarter wife, I decided to be different by  trying to  live  above  the ordinary domestic  noises of three young boys doing what boys do, yelling instead of talking, waging toy wars instead of sharing with each other, each claiming the same toy at the same time, etc., situations  guaranteed to drive you nuts if you let it! I decided that wouldn’t happen, so by learning to live above the din in a kind of “tranquility of disorder” I began my experiment in  heavenly bliss! Hmmm, “tranquility of disorder” seemed to work – after all Mom would solve ALL conflicts! And I was quite content showing how to live peacefully amid the topsey- turvey experiences  normal to the organized domestic chaos of raising three good boys close in age.  Oh yeah? … BUT!!!

 One day feeling a bit jangled by the normal sounds of kids at “war”  I yelled, “QUIET YOU GUYS!”  slapping  my hand on a table-top for emphasis, injuring my wrist thereby. To this  day, decades later it still hurts! God punished me? Of course not, I PUNISHED MYSELF! It’s said God always forgives, Mother Nature never does! Augustine was right.  It’s   got to be “tranquility of order.”

But peoples and nations don’t get it and  often act like children, with a “this is mine!” or “you can’t have that!” domineering , saber-rattling  schoolyard bullies behaviors..Wars and rumors of wars result, showing that there can be no tranquility in disorder, but only through achieving the moral and social stability of tranquility in well-ordered relationships.

Can this ever be? Who was it that said, WORK as if everything depended on yourself,  not forgetting to PRAY as if everything depended on God. The great St. Ignatius of Loyola!  It can be hard to WORK with “children” who lead   peoples and nations, who try to achieve tranquility in disorder. It won’t work.  Daddy knows! Injured wrist fhe everlasting proof! 

C Walter Mattingly
6 years 12 months ago
Norman (#8), 
You might want to visit the Annenberg foundation's Factcheck under the headline, "Bush's '16 words' on Iraq and Uranium: He May Have Been Wrong But He Wasn't Lying," July 26, 2004; update Aug 23rd.
Who could feel good about any war? You are at best picking the lesser of two evils. How do you look at one of our men returning home minus a limb and then look at the seemingly sleeping men, women, chlidren, goats and chicken of one of Saddam's nerve gas attacks on his own people, or the burned bodies of the priests, men, women, and children who vainly sought refuge in their parish church, and feel good about any choice? It is American exceptionalism of purpose and justive, not power, that calls us to oppose such horrific evil at a cost of blood and treasure. Are we our brother's keeper at such costs? Sometimes we have acted, sometimes we haven't. Today I suspect most Americans take pride in the contrast between the citizens of South Korea, whom by our military action we have saved from the fate of those in North Korea. But those actions cost us 8 times the number of American military deaths that we experienced in Iraq. 
Leonard Villa
6 years 11 months ago

You don't identify the sources for the so-called negative view of the US in the world. Are they from the usual suspects who operate from ideological hatred or envy of the US? You just accept the negativity. Identify your sources. Secondly your analysis of drones and the military presence of the US will continue to be flawed if you don't accurately perceive the moral circumstances. This is a time of asymmetric and not traditional warfare. The enemy is a militant Islam intent on destroying the West and specificially the US. This enemy operates across various political borders relying on host countries like Pakistan. This eneym is a combattant threatening the security of the US with hostile force. Drones target these combattants and they operate within the parameters of Catholic teaching by limiting the damage to the combattants and avoiding innocent civilians. Until you encounter this reality head on your analysis will continue to be flawed with a "blame the US" flavor.

C Walter Mattingly
6 years 11 months ago
These figures came from Pakistan authorities? The same ones who didn't know Bin Laden was hiding in plain sight in one of their own cities? The same ones who according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were aligned with the Haqqani network in their recent attack on our embassy and many attempts to kill US and Afghan government forces? Their numbers are supposed to be trustworthy, reliable, and engender our credibility and confidence?  

Call it what you will, but we are engaged in guerilla warfare with terrorist organizations imbedded and in hiding worldwide who are dedicated to killing US civilians en masse. They resemble nothing so much as saboteurs of earlier times, out of uniform and committed to civilian destruction. Everything from his emails to Major Hassan before he assassinated a dozen soldiers to his encouragement and support of the underwear bomber and his diatribes indicate Al Awlaki  was an accomplice to and leader of terrorism. And your accusation that former VP Cheney's support of killing this murderous traitor while dissenting from waterboarding such murderous terrorists as we still do a few hundred American troops a year to locate Bin Laden and save lives as an example of a conscience stuck in the mud simply doesn't compute with a thoughtful analysis of the situation. And if Abu Ghraib was such an example of a conscience stuck in the mud, why did the US prosecute its perpetrators?

The issue of drone warfare, to me at least, is not about the use of drones per se, but whether targeting terrorists known to support and promulgate the killing of American citizens is justified or not. If it is, then the question becomes whether or not such attacks minimize or maximize the casualties of innocent civilians which always accompany warfare. The fact that it minimizes the death of US military personnel is, to me, not a negative.

I do, however, agree that a president who violates the constitution by authorizing warfare without the approval of the House or Senate has created a severe violation of US law and created a problematic ethical precedent for disregarding the constitution, a serious abuse of executive power. 
6 years 11 months ago

Editor, America:

Having just come from the Post Office where I picked up the Oct 31, 2011 edition of America, and sitting down among my fellow “Hancock 38” defendants in the DeWitt, NY Town Court room, I found myself reading the editorial, “Conscience in the Mud.”

The bench trial regarded charges resulting from our occupying the entrance drive to Hancock Air National Guard Field, out of which the Reaper Drone is operated, outside Syracuse, NY. This was on April 22, 2011, Good Friday.

In another place I have written about “…a ritual I’ve performed many times in my 44 years as a Catholic priest.., but on Good Friday of 2011 it was not to be on the polished floor of a parish church but on an asphalted road at a military base…” (See attached: On Good Friday of Twenty-Eleven.)

That same piece quotes Pope Benedict XVI: “violence never comes from God, never helps bring anything good, but is a destructive means and not the path to escape difficulties.” Apparently not everyone subscribes to this conviction.

Some commentators to America’s editorial are true believers in the would-be redemptive violence of weaponized drones. The fact that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is upping spending on them (NY Times, 6 Nov, 2011) at a time when he is obligated to reduce the Pentagon’s all-over budget, should tip us off we’re going to be dealing for a long time with the ethical challenges presented by employing these instruments of international lynchings.

The Diocese of Syracuse has already cast its lot by having a priest-chaplain at the service of those who operate Hancock’s Reaper-Drones. Let’s pray that that chaplain-position will sooner, rather than later, lead to the kind of conversion experienced by Fr. George Zabelka, chaplain to the crew of the Enola Gay which dropped the first nukes on Japan back in 1945.

Fr. Bernard Survil, 7 November, 2011

Greensburg, PA, Phone: 724-850-1616


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