Two weeks ago, I attended the Petraeus lecture with open ears and a desire to hear from a distinguished public servant about his experience in government. Our generation can’t help but have certain misgivings about anything related to the war in Iraq, but there is always value in hearing about history from those who have lived through it. General Petraeus has, for the entirety of his professional career, put life and limb at risk in the service of this country and for the people who live within it. Regardless of political orientation or ideology, that deserves a measure of respect. Respect doesn’t require acquiescence or dismissal of personal past mistakes, but it does implore an understanding of the environment and the process by which decisions that we disagree with are made. The military life is not an easy one, and the men and woman who serve in uniform are continually expected at a moment’s notice to put their safety and well-being in danger for the service of our democracy, partially so that dissenting voices can be heard.
I was disheartened by the response to the lecture among some students who find it easier to ascribe devious, ill-founded and racist motivations to various policy makers rather than try and understand the context in which those decisions are made. This is not an apologia for American policy in the Middle East. Rather this is a call for a higher standard for the criticisms that we level at public officials. Mistakes have been made and numerous tragedies have undoubtedly occurred through our military interventions in the last decade, but to ascribe those outcomes to the intentional design of our nation’s generals and statesmen is beyond naïve. Policy is rarely the product of one individual, and to pin the explosion of drone warfare and the unintentional deaths of noncombatants across the global south on one man betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how decision-making works in our democracy. Military personnel are responsible for carrying out decisions made by elected civilian officials, not creating their own. Our generals are not responsible for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the increase in drone warfare. The process by which decisions are implemented and military strikes authorized requires the consent of a number of parties—none of whom come into work each day with the intention of ruining lives.
What productive end does the death of scores of non-combatants across the Muslim world serve? What individual would recommend such a policy for the United States? Fear and intimidation only go so far in ensuring security. Encouraging a set of policies that purposefully harm civilians would engender a cycle of hatred that ultimately damages the interests of the United States. General Petraeus understood this as commander of the surge in Iraq. The Counter Insurgency Doctrine (COIN) that he helped develop stressed the necessity of providing security and safety to civilians in order to discourage them from supporting an insurgency. The COIN doctrine was a fundamental part in the reduction of violence in Iraq that saw a 45 percent decrease in civilian deaths from the height of the conflict in December 2007. General Petraeus certainly did not seek an increase in the number of civilian causalities during his tenure as commander. Regrettably, violence has returned to Iraq, but the blame does not lie with the former general.
Likewise the decision to increase drone warfare primarily rests in the executive branch of our government. Past readers of mine will know that President Obama has, according to the New York Times, “placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.” It makes little sense to blame policy on those whose constitutional duty is implementation, not formulation.
Criticism is an important and vital part of the functioning of a democracy. In conjunction with a free press, reasoned argument can help change our world. Critics have a responsibility, however, to speak in specifics and not vague generalities. Alternatives have to be offered and an attempt in good faith must be made to understand why decisions are made rather than ascribing nefarious intentions to unknown motives. Name-calling and hyperbole have a limited role in the dialogue between respectful parties. Such an exercise is intellectually vacuous and engenders more resistance than introspection. There is a legitimate argument to be made about limiting the nature of American involvement in the world, but it can be made in a manner that respects and understands both sides of the issue. This argument, however, needs to be presented in a way that promotes dialogue and conversation rather than foggy allusions to neo-imperialism. To blithely blame General Petraeus and other singular persons for the deaths of non-combatants across the world is unfair. These men and woman who serve our country and implement the policy of our elected officials deserve better.Colin Scott is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday.