What do we owe?

by Daniel on December 12, 2007

On the front page of the Times today, it appears that the UK is attempting to wriggle out of its commitments to Iraqi employees of the British Army, even as we’re preparing to leave Basra. Part of me wants to believe that this is a matter of bureaucratic callousness rather than anything else, but as Brad DeLong says, the Cossacks work for the Czar – if people in David Milliband’s department are trying to wriggle out of a commitment that David Milliband made, then they’re doing it because he told them to, or because he doesn’t care whether they do it or not.

The last time we had a discussion of this on Crooked Timber, it turned pretty ugly pretty quickly, but I’m prepared to have another go. The general obligations of a country which is carrying out a morally unjustified war of aggression[1] to the locals of the country it is invading are set out pretty clearly in the relevant Geneva Conventions, but what special obligations exist to local employees?

Personally I think this is pretty cut and dried. On grounds of fairness, the invading power should not discriminate between its employees on grounds of nationality, so they have a duty to give local employees the same kind of protection against harm that they would one of their own citizens. On prudential grounds, it is fairly obvious that any country has a long-term interest in establishing a reputation for protecting its employees. I am not convinced by any of the arguments against, most of which seem to involve fairly empty assertions about whether people might have been accessories to war crimes, combined with a strange insouciance about whether these alleged offences should be prosecuted in a proper court, or enforced ad hoc by death squads.

If anyone wants to argue either side of the case, go ahead. If you end up being convinced by my view, then perhaps you’d care to express this opinion to the British government. As far as I can tell, the most effective means to doing this (by far – the difference to the next best alternative is orders of magnitude) is by writing a letter or email to your MP. Dan Hardie has got a lot of anecdotal evidence that these letters have made a big difference so far in preventing this issue from being swept under the rug. (Update: You could ask your MP to sign Early Day Motion 401, tabled by Lynne Featherstone MP, please).

Comments policy notice: Just to make it clear, although this is a genuine invitation to a discussion, it’s a sensitive issue and will be moderated with extreme prejudice. In particular, racial epithets won’t be tolerated any more than they are on other CT threads. I am not going to delete or disenvowel people just for using the word “traitor” or equivalent, but nor am I going to tolerate blatant trolling. In which context I remind readers that the requirement for a genuine email address with every comment is still there, and the fact that it’s not particularly consistently enforced is not something anyone should rely on.

[1] Albeit one that was probably legal within the strict terms of these things, which in my mind simply shows it’s already much easier to start a war than it ought to be.

{ 40 comments }

1

foolishmortal 12.12.07 at 3:15 pm

Be proud, Mr. Squared, of being a citizen of a country in which this a contestable issue.

2

rea 12.12.07 at 3:28 pm

Be proud, Mr. Squared, of being a citizen of a country in which this a contestable issue.

Why should this be a contestable issue? (Except in the sense that everyone is free to argue for whatever damn fool notions they support).

If somebody thinks these people are criminals, put them on trial. If you think they’re secret agents for the other side, deny them security clearances pending investgation. But don’t let people get killed for supporting us if we can save them.

I can’t understand why any of that is controversial.

3

mpowell 12.12.07 at 4:33 pm

rea- I think the point is that in the US, dsquared’s position is not even being considered.

4

mcd 12.12.07 at 4:37 pm

There are non-moral (realpolitik) reasons for insisting on protecting your stooges (employees, if you must). But they’re not deep moral reasons. And this cause has seen people discussing covering one’s ass as if it were more moral an issue than the question of whether one should invade countries for their resources.

To some extent, the “help ‘em out” position amounts to realizing that if we don’t, we may find it hard the next time we want to launch a war of aggression.

5

dsquared 12.12.07 at 4:44 pm

There are non-moral (realpolitik) reasons for insisting on protecting your stooges (employees, if you must). But they’re not deep moral reasons.

I think this is getting a bit too utilitarian. There is a general moral principle that if you’ve got someone into a really bad situation, you ought to help them out of it. Reciprocal loyalty between employer and employee isn’t like the bond of child and parent, but it’s not unimportant.

6

Jim S. 12.12.07 at 5:23 pm

“…a morally unjustified war of aggression…”

like Saddam Hussein’s wars against Iran and Kuwait?

Not that one is supporting the present wars of course.

7

geo 12.12.07 at 5:26 pm

Daniel: probably legal within the strict terms of these things

I don’t want to derail the discussion, Daniel, so please feel free not to reply, or to reply off-thread. But what’s the reasoning behind this judgment?

8

chrisc 12.12.07 at 5:31 pm

“To some extent, the “help ‘em out” position amounts to realizing that if we don’t, we may find it hard the next time we want to launch a war of aggression.”

What?!

I hardly think that accurately describes Daniel’s position.

This is an issue (outrage might be a better word) which is uniting people who disagree on just about everything else about the war.

(Excpet idiots like Neil Clark – if you know who he is – whom the Guardian allowed to write an article stating that they deserved to die.)

9

foolishmortal 12.12.07 at 5:38 pm

rea, I apologize for not answering earlier; I’d hoped that the thread would prove my point. Happily, it has not. I cannot better 3.

10

ajay 12.12.07 at 5:39 pm

“To some extent, the “help ‘em out” position amounts to realizing that if we don’t, we may find it hard the next time we want to launch a war of aggression.”

As I think I said last time someone suggested this:

The British Army does lots of things other than wars of aggression. For example, it does peacekeeping. It would be nice if we could go to the next Bosnia and be able to recruit interpreters who weren’t terrified that, as soon as we left, they would be left behind to be murdered by the local Serbs for having helped us.

11

Rob 12.12.07 at 5:41 pm

Reading 4 as utilitarian misses its point, since utilitarianism is a moral theory, and 4 explicitly rules out there being moral reasons for helping the interpreters and so on. It’s a matter of ‘covering your ass’, reputational realpolitik, and totally dominated as a moral issue by the question of ‘whether one should invade countries for their resources’. Fine. If 4 thinks that being concerned about the fate of Iraqis is ‘covering your ass’ and that we should ignore it in favour of asking ‘whether one should invade countries for their resources’, then that’s fine. It makes it a bit difficult to understand why they are as opposed to the invasion as it is obvious they are – after all, we don’t need to worry about the Iraqis, since it’s just ‘covering your ass’ – but I suppose it takes all sorts.

12

dsquared 12.12.07 at 5:42 pm

To some extent, the “help ‘em out” position amounts to realizing that if we don’t, we may find it hard the next time we want to launch a war of aggression

there’s got to be a better way of making it harder to launch a war of aggression – it simply doesn’t seem fair to make Iraqi employees be the ones to bear the cost of UK constitutional arrangements being too lax in this regard.

13

TheIrie 12.12.07 at 5:43 pm

Not wishing to undermine this effort, which I fully agree with, can I just ask about our moral obligation to the approximately 20,000,000 – x – y Iraqi’s (where x is the number of Iraqi’s killed in this war – probably of the order of 1 million if you believe the Lancet, and y is the number of the interpreters, I think of the order of 200) who are still alive and did not work for the US/UK. Is anyone running letter writing campaign’s in their interest. It is by now very clear from poll after poll that they want us out of their country. How about some support for them?

14

abb1 12.12.07 at 6:06 pm

If somebody thinks these people are criminals, put them on trial.

Somehow I doubt that you can put them on trial in the UK for their alleged crimes committed in Iraq against Iraqis.

But don’t let people get killed for supporting us if we can save them.

I don’t the “us” thing, but I’m going to suppress my annoyance at the implied tribalism in this statement. Still, you may want to qualify it, otherwise the US government, for example, should be compelled to bail out probably at least tens of thousands of various chain-saw murderers, nun-rapists, tortures and terrorists it trained and employed (directly or indirectly) in Latin America. I would find it objectionable.

15

dsquared 12.12.07 at 6:17 pm

I’m going to suppress my annoyance at the implied tribalism in this statement

Thank you. In return, I will moderate with a light hand with respect to observing the distinction between local employees of an army, and local criminals who received part of their income from an undercover agency.

16

mpowell 12.12.07 at 6:29 pm

Not to group these two together, but sometimes I wonder about the perspective of folks like theirie and abb1 on this issue.

I assume they want us out of Iraq. Where ‘us’ is the British, it looks like its going to happen. This addresses (to the degree that is plausible at this point) the concerns of the surviving Iraqis.

But do these folks really think we should leave our interpreters behind? Or are they just trolling? I can’t really tell.

There are occupations and then there are occupations. If you’re being occupied by the evil empire, probably helping out the occupation is moral objectionable. But even if the occupation is immoral itself, if the occupiers aims in the occupation are not all fundamentally wrong, I think you could view helping the occupation as helping your country. I think this is a reasonable view to take of the British view of the occupation of Iraq and with respect to interpreters I think this leads to an obligation to help them out. If the aims of the obligation are terribly wrong, this becomes an interesting issue: first, if you’re so evil, why do you care about your obligations to your supporters? But I don’t think that’s really what we’re dealing with.

17

Katherine 12.12.07 at 6:41 pm

You can think the occupiers’ aims in the occupation are fundamentally wrong and still view, say, translating, as helping your country, I think. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of an occupation, I can’t really believe that the lives of the occupied people are made better by their occupiers not being able to understand what they are saying.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that unless the Iraqi employees of the UK government have themselves engaged in criminal acts (a la all those South American torturers abb1 mentions), they don’t deserve to die by death squad – actually, no one should die like that – and since the UK put them in a position where they might die by death squad, it is our moral obligation to help them out of that position.

18

abb1 12.12.07 at 6:59 pm

I don’t mind helping the interpreters as well all the others who need help, but I don’t understand the seemingly sacrosanct status of this particular sub-issue. What’s with all this hyperbolic sensibility and preemptive intimidation?

You can’t discuss it rationally if you already decided that only a troll might disagree.

…no one should die like that…

I agree. This war is not a happy event; many dead, injured, refugees, women forced into prostitution.

Let’s be clear: you’re arguing that helping the interpreters is the highest priority and that’s what you should be addressing. An interpreter who has to hide or leave the country vs. perhaps a 14-year-old refugee girl forced into prostitution in Jordan.

19

TheIrie 12.12.07 at 7:43 pm

I completely agree with Katherine, and see no contradiction between what she wrote (#17) and what I previously wrote (#13)

20

dsquared 12.12.07 at 7:50 pm

Let’s be clear: you’re arguing that helping the interpreters is the highest priority and that’s what you should be addressing. An interpreter who has to hide or leave the country vs. perhaps a 14-year-old refugee girl forced into prostitution in Jordan.

Yes, I’m specifically arguing that the British state has taken on a particular implicit duty of care to the interpreter. I think that this is quite natural – that when you involve someone in your projects as a colleague, you take on responsibilities to them. You seem to be coming from a purely consequentialist perspective, because you think that’s tribalism.

21

Katherine 12.12.07 at 7:52 pm

Um, who is arguing that it is the highest priority? And that it is one thing versus the other? Putting the interpreter in competition with the 14 year old refugee is a false dichotomy – helping the former doesn’t disadvantage the latter.

22

Katherine 12.12.07 at 7:53 pm

Okay, apparently Dsquared is arguing that. Nevertheless, I think my last point holds – there is no need to see saving one person as leaving another in the lurch.

23

dsquared 12.12.07 at 9:09 pm

Yes, I’m arguing that there is a special obligation to someone who has made their plans based on an assumption that the British state would support them (and who we’ve allowed to believe that), over and above the normal obligations of belligerent parties in war to look after the civilian population. But in order to get like for like here, let’s assume that we’re also talking about a fourteen year old female employee of the British forces (which is not an academic point at all – two teenage girls were actually murdered by death squads for treacherously assisting the invading army by treasonously taking in their laundry).

24

Badger 12.12.07 at 9:49 pm

He is only arguing for the British sense of fair play. It is like the lovely crispy bacon we used to get before the war—something still within our reach…

25

novakant 12.12.07 at 9:59 pm

there is no need to see saving one person as leaving another in the lurch.

I’m not against this initiative for the simple reason that I think that nobody deserves to die by deathsquad. Yet, the argument behind it does leave something to be desired and is inherently problematic.

This year in the Basra region there have been over 40 (the number is probably much higher) women murdered, their bodies mutilated and thrown in ditches, for not wearing ‘proper’ Islamic dress. I don’t see how the UK government, how has been in charge of the region, has any less of an obligation towards future victims of such a practice, than they do towards the interpreters. Yet I don’t think they’d even be eligible for asylum status in the UK. Similar obligations exist towards the refugees and internally displaced – they fled their homes escaping from death squads. Yet, I haven’t seen any signs that the US/UK are even planning to live up their obligations with regard to these people.

So I would ditch the moralistic argument because it’s flawed and instead reframe the whole issue in more pragmatic terms: we should help them because we can do so quite easily, since we know who they are and they are willing to leave the country in a heartbeat.

26

seth edenbaum 12.13.07 at 12:57 am

A couple of points:
DD @15 responding to abb1 @14: “with respect to observing the distinction between local employees of an army, and local criminals who received part of their income from an undercover agency.”
In most places those local criminals were the army.

Also, it’s appropriate I guess that this should come up during the “stop snitching” discussion at TPM Starbucks

I agree with katherine, and even more with badger.
But this argument should be the strategy of those who want to help the Iraqi employees. “We” are supposed to be better than “they” are. They being the enemy. So “we” should put up or shut up.
I’m of two minds about this but that’s fine. I think we all should be. You can be opposed to the war and not be opposed to trying to make the schmucks who run it live up to their pretensions.

27

SG 12.13.07 at 1:04 am

I don’t see much conflict between the contention that these people are getting an easier ride than other potential Iraqi refugees, and the contention that the British army should help its own. I too would like to see more energy put into helping other refugees by the countries involved in this business, but if 200 Iraqis who (some people believe) don’t deserve to get out first get out because a few British folk managed to actually hold their own government accountable to a (pretty fucking low) standard of basic decency, well at least we have managed to salvage something from the whole sorry mess.

I also think that if a leftist like Dsquared is of the non-radical-pacifist view, then they have to accept that armies are valid instruments of state and have public morals for which they need to be held accountable, and which it is the responsibility of individuals of that nation to remind them of (armies being what armies are, and all). Dsquared and others seem to be trying to do that, and the effort is admirable whether the public morality in question is “serving healthy food to the troops” or “rescuing local employees who the army wants to leave for dead”.

28

snuh 12.13.07 at 4:54 am

This year in the Basra region there have been over 40 (the number is probably much higher) women murdered, their bodies mutilated and thrown in ditches, for not wearing ‘proper’ Islamic dress…Similar obligations exist towards the refugees and internally displaced – they fled their homes escaping from death squads. Yet, I haven’t seen any signs that the US/UK are even planning to live up their obligations with regard to these people.

there are lots of excellent reasons for someone to want to leave iraq. ideally, the governments of all nations responsible for this war should be helping people leave the country for something better if they want to, especially if they fleeing persecution. pragmatically, this is something western governments are unlikely to support on a wide scale but this campaign seems like a (modest) step in that general direction so it gets my (cleary morally very rigorous) support.

To some extent, the “help ‘em out” position amounts to realizing that if we don’t, we may find it hard the next time we want to launch a war of aggression.

if the goal is to make launching a war of aggression as difficult as possible the next time, establishing the principle that we owe a special obligation to interpreters and the like when it all goes to shit might actually help. no, really.

the sort of authoritarian right-winger who likes aggressive war also has somewhat retrograde views about immigrants, refugees, muslims and so forth, so if aggressive war means thousands more towelheads will soon call britain home, maybe they’d be more circumspect about the likely consequences next time.

29

Quo Vadis 12.13.07 at 10:03 am

I think the situation with the US is much more complex than with the UK. If Daniel is to be taken as typical, Britons limit their responsibility to those at risk due to their direct involvement with British troops; translators in particular.

The US would have to consider at risk everyone who had any cooperative relationship with coalition entities or any entity that might be perceived as a ‘puppet’ of the coalition, including persons in government, members of the Iraqi army and police forces, tribal and other local leaders, persons who accepted contracts for reconstruction or other work or worked on those contracts, anyone who fought against or provided information about any group opposed by the coalition/puppets.

Where does one begin? With translators I suppose.

30

dsquared 12.13.07 at 10:15 am

If Daniel is to be taken as typical, Britons limit their responsibility to those at risk due to their direct involvement with British troops; translators in particular

Employees, and employees of civilian contractors, is what the campaign is about (including people like those laundry workers who got murdered). But I take your larger point.

31

Rob 12.13.07 at 3:49 pm

Less snarkily than last time, the ‘stooges’ opposition to this seems to be invoking a principle something like ‘no-one should benefit from injustice’. But that’s both an implausible principle, and not obviously applicable here. It’s implausible because it would require, if the only options for some person are small benefit or absolutely hideous fate, leaving people to absolutely hiedous fates. I would rather, for example, mildly benefit someone who committed some minor theft than leave them to be tortured to death, even though they should be punished for the theft. It’s not obviously applicable because it’s not obvious that providing basically politically neutral services to an occupying army is an injustice. It’s probably also worth noting that the ‘special relationship’ requirement that dsquared is invoking doesn’t have to stop with Iraqi translators: it could also be a reason for accepting Iraqi refugees over those from conflicts in which in Britain is less directly involved. There could be some kind of heirarchy.

32

seth edenbaum 12.13.07 at 5:52 pm

rob,
“Less snarkily than last time, the ‘stooges’ opposition to this seems to be invoking a principle something like ‘no-one should benefit from injustice’. “
No. The “stooges” are merely those who in their quite reasonable cynicism would say the argument would be better and more honest if stated simply:
“We many be responsible for the deaths of one million Iraqis but at least we should be able to say we looked after our servants.”

I give more credit to DD since I remember all the shit he
had to wade through while defending the Lancet study. He knows the numbers. But your response shows that the “stooges” have a point. And as a matter of logic:
“it’s not obvious that providing basically politically neutral services[sic] to an occupying army is an injustice.”
That level of context free logic is beyond absurdity. Providing services to an occupying army, justifiable or not, is called “treason.”
It’s important to recognize that things are rarely black and white, and it’s important to be able to simplify, out of necessity. Just don’t mistake practical necessity for truth.

33

dsquared 12.13.07 at 7:02 pm

We may be responsible for the deaths of one million Iraqis but at least we should be able to say we looked after our servants

Well yes. I regard this as being clearly better than “We are responsible for the deaths of one million Iraqis and we didn’t even look after our servants”. And since, absent a time machine “We aren’t responsible for the deaths of one million Iraqis” is not an option, you do what you can.

34

seth edenbaum 12.13.07 at 8:34 pm

I meant “we” as the invading countries.

And I don’t think anyone here is opposed to helping the Iraqi employees. For me, and for others I… assume?… hope?, it was more a matter of framing. But framing is important.
“you do what you can.”
yes.

35

Quo Vadis 12.13.07 at 11:28 pm

Employees, and employees of civilian contractors, is what the campaign is about (including people like those laundry workers who got murdered). But I take your larger point.

Then allow me to expand on my point. The solution you propose is only a solution if you define the problem in such a way that your solution solves it. Otherwise the problem as you state it is nonsensical.

Against all expectations (well, my expectation anyway) the ‘surge’ seems to be having a significant positive effect on the security in Iraq and, more to the point, on those hundreds of thousands or millions of persons put at risk for their relationships with the coalition/puppets. I’m forced to admit that I don’t know enough about the situation in Iraq, the insurgency and the military and political capabilities of coalition forces to be able to predict the outcome of any particular action, and that someone in the coalition apparently does (finally).

I propose that if your goal is to deal fairly and responsibly with all those Iraqis who have cooperated with the coalition, the proper course of action to take at this time is not to withdraw and turn your backs on those who who don’t fit your solution, but to remain and continue to try to create an environment in Iraq where those persons will no longer be at risk.

36

TheIrie 12.14.07 at 12:26 am

“I propose that if your goal is to deal fairly and responsibly with all those Iraqis who have cooperated with the coalition, the proper course of action to take at this time is not to withdraw and turn your backs on those who who don’t fit your solution, but to remain and continue to try to create an environment in Iraq where those persons will no longer be at risk.”

But what about the views of the Iraqi people? Do they count at all? Anyone who looks into what Iraqi’s think will find from numerous polls overwhelming support for a withdrawal of the US troops. For me, that’s the case closed – we have to withdraw.

37

Borwnie 12.14.07 at 2:25 am

Irie knows s/he is being disingenuous here. Of course Iraqis want the troops to leave, but when they are given the opportunity to choose between immediate withdrawal and withdrawal at some future point, the poll results are, at best, ambiguous.

But s/he knows this already. Sssshhhhhh…..

38

Rob 12.14.07 at 1:05 pm

“Providing services to an occupying army, justifiable or not, is called “treason.””

a) I don’t think that’s true and b) if it is true, the way in which it is true means that it cannot imply that you’ve done anything wrong by committing treason. For one thing, occupying armies can be there with the permission of the relevant state, so it wouldn’t be treasonous to collaborate with, let alone provide political neutral services like translation to, them. For another thing, because an occupying army can be the de facto state, there’s a question about what features are necessary to generate the duties to an authority which treason violates. Anyway, even if it is true, then it’s true by definition, because there are obviously large classes of cases where the right thing to do is to collaborate with an occupying army and so it can’t be true once significant moral weight gets attached to the idea of treason.

Of course, you’re right to say that this is hardly the best thing that could have happened; obviously that would have invovled not invading Iraq and totally f*cking it up. But DD points out, we have invaded Iraq and totally f*cked it up, so we need to get what we can out of this. That’s not pragmatic in the sense of realpolitik: it’s a moral reaction to the situation as it stands.

39

seth edenbaum 12.14.07 at 6:05 pm

This is beyond silly.
You refer to the state as idea: once one government is overthrown and is replaced by another then it can’t be treasonous to work for the new one. Governments end but allegiances remain. If the US were invaded by Montreal and I got a job as as a translator for the occupation authority many people would call me a traitor. And they’d be right.
People are not ideas.
“political neutral services”
no such thing in a war, son.

borwnie, the Iraqis want us gone soon. Meanwhile we’re building the largest most fortified embassy compound in the world and a series of huge military bases. The USG is positioning us for a long stay against the will of the Iraqi people

40

stuart 12.18.07 at 5:22 am

The BBC have just frontpaged an article on this topic.

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