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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Into the Petri dish....

These have been pretty heady days for an accountability bloke when it comes to the news. Three stories related to individuals associated with the military can provide enough material for days of reflections on this weblog, and I am finding it hard to resist long discussions of each.

The first is the resignation of Colin Powell, an individual who I believe personifies the demands and dilemmas of accountability. While I’ve always been on the lookout for an interesting event or situation to study, I’ve often thought of him (and some others from that post-Vietnam cadre of general officers) as a living, breathing case study. And at the heart of his approach to accountability is his background as a soldier. More on that later….

The second story is the latest horror story of the behavior of US military forces in Iraq. This time it is the shooting in a Fallujah mosque of “a wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi insurgent” that was caught on video by an embedded news crew. While we are hearing today from the “war is hell” crowd courtesy of the US media, what I find more relevant was the official response from the commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force: "We follow the Law of Armed Conflict (under the Geneva Convention) and hold ourselves to a high standard of accountability. The facts of this case will be thoroughly pursued to make an informed decision and to protect the rights of all persons involved." Again, more on that to follow.

Finally, there is a piece in today’s New York Times about the resistance of some 2000 military veterans who, under their “inactive reservist” status, are still subject to being called into active duty as part of the US “Individual Ready Reserve.” According to the article, these vets “are seeking exemptions, filing court cases or simply failing to report for duty, moves that will be watched closely by approximately 110,000 other members of the Individual Ready Reserve, a corps of soldiers who are no longer on active duty but still are eligible for call-up.”

As someone obsessed with issues of accountability, I see each of these stories through a peculiar lens. Obviously, military cases are special and perhaps unique when it comes to questions of accountability, and it can be argued that the insights gained by studying these individuals or events would hardly be applicable to the mundane, everyday business of governance that (in the long run) is what we really need to better understand. My position is just the opposite. If the military represents anything, it is the “ideal” (in the Weberian sense) setting for comprehending the central role of accountability in modern governance. Focusing in on the lives of individuals like Powell or the resisting vets -- or situations like the horrors of Abu Ghraib or Fallujah – is like putting a specimen of accountability and governance on a Petri dish for closer examination.

The case of the called-up vets can help make my point, for there is more involved here than merely some anti-war, anti-military sentiments. The figures themselves are interesting. Of the more than 4000 called to active duty, some 1800 have filed for exemptions; of the remaining, only 733 showed up as ordered for re-training on November 7. Given these numbers and the nature of the group (after all, these are folks who had already served in the military), one wonders about the core reason for this reluctance (a term I think more appropriate than “resistance”). There are all sorts of things that can be said about the individual lack of responsibility, legal obligations, etc. But I suspect that most of the reluctance comes down to the fact that these folks take seriously the distinction between their “private” lives as civilians and the very “public” life of someone in the military. By this distinction I am not focusing on issues of “privacy”, etc., but rather the fact that by reentering the military they are submitting to a system of governance ruled by (rather specialized) norms of public accountability as opposed to being governed by the necessities and reproductive functions of the private household. Two paragraphs from the NYT article make the point quite nicely:

"I consider myself a civilian," said Rick Howell, a major from Tuscaloosa, Ala., who said he thought he had left the Army behind in 1997 after more than a decade flying helicopters. "I've done my time. I've got a brand new baby and a wife, and I haven't touched the controls of an aircraft in seven years. I'm 47 years old. How could they be calling me? How could they even want me?"

Some former soldiers acknowledge that the Army has every right to call them back, but argue that their personal circumstances - illness, single parenthood, financial woes - make going overseas impossible now.

A key point is that we are talking about a substantial difference. Being accountable in the public realm is more than merely being answerable or responsible or loyal or faithful. Those are standards for behavior as relevant and appropriate for the private as they are for the public arena. But entering into a system of public sector governance – into the “public service” – demands a transformation of one’s behavior of such magnitude and significance that we can understand why many of those veterans – even those who served many years and achieved high rank – would be reluctant.

It is that point of distinction that makes the military, and those who serve in it, such an interesting focus for attention. It is why all three cases deserve some attention….

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Comments on "Into the Petri dish...."


Blogger Ciarán said ... (6:15 AM) : 

I'm not so sure about the vets example, ab. Apart from thinking that anti-war sentiments are more than 'mere,' I suspect that there's a far simpler explanation for the behaviour of these people. Rather than being concerned about taking on a public role, it strikes me that vets - and what you quote would support this - are simply refusing to submit to the state's authority. This, pacé your post, is precisely about loyalty and faithfulness.

Your mistake is to set loyalty and faithfulness as constant classes, denoting identical behaviour both within the private sphere, where they relate, say to families, and in the public sphere, where they relate to the state.

In the public sphere, however, loyalty and faithfulness is rooted in the authority of the state. All terribly Hobbesian, I suppose. But that's the point. The vets are saying that they are no longer happy to submit, either for personal or political reasons. The question is, will Leviathan take the challenge lying down?


Blogger Mel said ... (7:47 AM) : 

It is obviously difficult to generalize about any group of two or more as to motivation, but in this case it might be too simple to regard the resistance as merely (there is that word again!) a stand against state authority. Without anything to support this than basic assumptions, I would think that quite a few of these folks are like the major quoted in the article -- an individual who served for an extended period (you do not get to field command rank unless you have substantial time in service) and who would probably be regarded as dutiful as well as competent. That said, as a result of changes made in the post-Vietnam period (by folks like Powell) they are also trained (yes, trained) to be sceptical and dialogic in their approach to both command and decision. But on the other side of that approach, once a decision is made, you salute and carry out orders (images of old-style Lennist democratic centralism immediately come to mind). As we know from Woodward book on the decision to go to war in Iraq, this describes Powell's behavior; and I suspect it will be the storyline for Major Howell and many of his reluctant colleagues. Push come to shove (especially when it is the Leviathan doing the shoving), the state authority will win out with little additional resistance.


Blogger Ciarán said ... (8:56 AM) : 

I wasn't suggesting that the soldiers were taking an ideological stand against the state. In saying 'I've done my time and I don't want to do any more,' the ex-soldier is not refusing to serve because of that would require him to submit to a system of governance ruled by (rather specialized) norms of public accountability. He is simply refusing to give priority to a public commitment of any sort. Although the army may have specialised norms of public accountability, these do not present the reason why the refusal is made. I think you're over-egging the accountability element in this story! This pipe is a pipe!


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