Up Close And Personal

One of the recurring themes over the nearly five years of war in Afghanistan and nearly three-and-a-half in Iraq has been the Bush admiinstration policy to discourage photographs and video of the coffins returning home. In our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, a relentless stream of coffin imagery would risk conveying one element of the human cost of war — and do so in a way that might personalize that cost to folks beyond the freinds and families of the brave men and women who make the ultimate sacrifice. Moral philosophers — indeed, any human being who would like to consider him or herself moral — would argue that personalizing the costs of war is a necessary element in making war moral and justifiable. Such folks might or might not continue to support the war; but, the point is that mere abstractions (e.g. a number of dead and injured) do not bear the weight of intense, real information and meaning. Indeed, even pictures of coffins would be less real than the visit families receive from military officials bearing the bad news. Still, in our world of markets, networks and organizations, there is a premium on ensuring that our democracy is strengthened through information that matters to making choices.

Having said all that, a recent set of experiments cast an additional and unexpected perspective on the morality of choices like war that put human beings in harm’s way for larger purposes. The experiments have to do with time frame and raise a profound point about the value of information before another human being is put in danger rather than after that person has been injured or died.

In the first of these two experiments, participants are told that they are standing on a train platform watching the immenent approach of a runaway train. There are five people who have fallen on the tracks and are helpless to get out of the way. Next to the participant on the platform stands a very large man.

Question: Would you push the large man onto the tracks to absorb the impact of the train and save the five people?

85% of respondents say, “No.”

Second experiment. Same situation. Only this time, instead of a large man standing next to the participant, there’s a switch that, if pulled, will send the on rushing train to another track out of sight on which, the participant is told, stands one person.

Question: Would you pull the switch?

The majority of respondents say, “Yes.”

Among the many interpretations about how reason and emotion battle to explain this difference is what one might call the ‘eye contact’ factor. In the first experiment, the large man is more real than is the person standing on the tracks in the second experiment. A second and critical explanation also points to the difference between specifically using a human being as an instrument in the first experiment versus the sense that the death in the second experiment is a ‘by product’.

When the United States attacked Afghanistan one month after September 11th, the facts known at the time and subsequently verified on the ground were that the Taliban government housed Osama bin Ladin, Osama bin Ladin had ordered the September 11th attacks, and the attack on Afghanistan would give U.S. forces a reasonable chance of capturing Osama bin Ladin.

In light of this, it’s worth asking if you were the decision maker, whether and how much it would have changed your decision had you personally met the men and women of the U.S. armed forces who would be put in harm’s way in Afghanistan versus not having met them but knowing that some would die and be injured as a consequence of a choice to go after bin Ladin?

When the United States attacked Iraq a year-and-a-half after September 11th, the stated reasons for doing so included charges that Sadaam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, had the delivery capability to use them on the United States, had direct contacts with Osama bin Ladin and actively supported the September 11th attacks. Subsequent to the invasion, each of these stated facts turned out to be false — and that those making the decisions knew or should have known they were false.

It’s worth asking if you were the decision maker (and you knew or should have known the stated reasons were false), whether and how much it would have changed your decision to invade Iraq had you personally met the men and women of the U.S. armed forces who would be put in harm’s way in Afghanistan versus not having met them but knowing that some would die and be injured as a consequence of a choice to go after bin Ladin?

Now, over five years after invading Afghanistan (and failing to capture bin Ladin) and over three-and-a-half years after invading Iraq (and failing to achieve the security and stability that Donald Rumsfeld names as conditions to a military victory — let alone the many conditions he describes as critical to overall success), it continues to be worth asking yourself — as a moral person — if it would make any difference to you in continuing to ‘stay the course’ in either or both of these theaters of war were you required to meet every man and women sent to their possible death or injury as a precondition to your choice to use them as instruments for your policy? And, would you answer differently if you were not required to meet them; but, rather, only thought of them as abstractions on a different track?

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