Sunday, June 6, 2010

Day 157- The purity of arms

Dear Mr. President,

Today while reading about several Israeli Naval Officers' objections to the attack on the flotilla, I came across a phrase I had not encountered since I was last in college, the Israeli concept of a "purity of arms." While the idea of rendering a weapon impure by employing it in ignoble ways seems as though it is a principle designed to steer a nation toward using force only for "righteous" causes, it seems to me that this ethos leads only to deception. A people who require that an inherently unethical action, violence, be used only for ethical means, are asking only to be lied to and manipulated. I do not, by any means, feel that Israel is the first or only country to employ such an ethos; the United States often seeks to portray our own military actions as being purely righteous and good. Likewise, the American people ask for this deception; we want to believe that we are allowed to possess the weapons and wield the might of our fighting forces, because our cause is just and, even, pure.

I have never been to war, but I don't imagine there is much purity to be found on a battlefield. I don't believe that objects designed to maim and kill can be in a state of purity or impurity; they are weapons and weapons are just devices with purposes and no morality. The soldiers carrying the weapons, themselves devices with purposes handed down to them by men in much more expensive uniforms. It could be argued that these men are guided by the people who elect, appoint, and generally empower them, that their morality is derived only from ours. The power dynamics that support or contradict this could be examined for ages, with no easy or obvious conclusions to be drawn. It is the people's fault; it is the fault of those in power; it is the fault of the human condition; in the end, it does not matter. If our soldiers and their weapons are deployed to kill and to destroy, than we can claim no purity of purpose, regardless of our enemy. They might oppose the terrorists of al-qaeda, or the Janjaweed soldiers in Sudan; at the most individual level it will still be fathers and sons and brothers (and more than a few mothers and daughters and sisters) who are dying.

I am a believer in the paramount righteousness of non-violence, but I am not entrusted to lead any one, much less the United States of America. I understand that you must exist in the "real world" where violence is threatened and done against America and American interests every day. While some would claim that "weakness always begets aggression" I think this is tantamount to blaming the victims of violence for the violence done to them. Furthermore, I don't believe that the use of force is a show of strength, so much as it is of fear. Does our responsibility to protect the weak, to stand for justice and even freedom for all require that we use violence to these ends? I cannot answer this question to my own satisfaction. I want to believe that we could exist in the world as a nation unwilling to use violence and call it righteous, that, if we must defend ourselves with the horrors of our war machine, we might at least be honest about the toll it takes and the complexity of our enemies and our motives.

But I want to believe a great many things.

Respectfully yours,


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