site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of May 13, 2024

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

Maybe there’s a problem with repatriation? I don’t actually know if countries have to accept criminals if they’re originally citizens.

When I was a young SWO on deployment to the Horn of Africa for anti-piracy operations, we regularly came upon skiffs in open waters with a dozen Somalis crammed on. We'd drive our big warship close, then our VBSS team would take a RHIB over to see what they were doing. They always had one or two fishing poles and a few rotten fish aboard, having jettisoned their weapons as soon as they saw our big warship approaching. "We're fishermen" they'd tell us through a translator, in open ocean on a 12-foot boat with 20 men onboard. Well, one day one group of Somalis decided that they were not going to jettison their weapons, and instead opened fire on one of the ships in our ARG. They launched at least one RPG and somehow completely missed the giant, boxy, unmoving ship that was right next to them. The VBSS team shot them until they surrendered. We zip tied the Somalis, brought them onboard, and gave them a fair bit of medical care (and not just for the holes we'd seen fit to add to a few of them). So now we had these Somalis onboard, locked in our medical spaces (because while the US Navy apparently takes inspiration from jails when designing their berthing, they don't actually make any of those rooms secure for holding criminals). This was back when the US didn't recognize Somalia as a country, so our State Department was having the darndest time figuring out what to do with these guys. We drove around for a week, maybe more, before a deal was brokered to give them to Yemen. They were dropped off and (according to the scuttlebutt) promptly executed.

This was almost 20 years ago, and I still think about it regularly. Should it have gone different, from the moment the Somalis surrendered? Would have been a lot cheaper and easier to have just shot them all there and sunk their skiff, with the same outcome. But that's morally wrong, and not in keeping with the rules of war. We shouldn't've given them to Somalia; they're not a real country (still aren't, IMO) and they government would most likely use the pirates' lives to extort bribes from whatever warlords or families they could, and then free or execute them (flip a coin). We shouldn't've put them into an American jail or Gitmo because they weren't worth it.

The conclusion I keep reaching is that the Somalis (and, to bring it back to the point at hand, immigrant criminals) are a time when "don't flip the switch in the trolley problem" is the best answer. We can know that the "justice" they'll face in their homeland (or Yemen) will probably be unjust, but it's not us doing it and that absolves us of some of the moral responsibility - enough to make it the least shitty of a bunch of shitty choices. We remove them from our control and return them to a place where a government will claim jurisdiction over them, and if that government doesn't afford all the legal protections that we do for our citizens, well... that's on their government. And I know there would be extreme cases when we shouldn't give them over to the other government, like shipping our Jews off to the Nazis or our Lienz Cossacks to the Soviets (oops). But those seem like the extreme cases. As a rule, I think "make the other country deal with their citizens" is the right answer. Our State Department has the power to make every country on Earth do that, assuming we have the political willpower. I worked closely with the State Department later in my career, and there is no doubt in my mind that they're capable of brokering that deal. If the US is ever told by another country that they won't take possession of their citizens who have committed crimes in the US, it is only because the US State Department has decided against spending the effort/money to convince the other country.

Would have been a lot cheaper and easier to have just shot them all there and sunk their skiff, with the same outcome. But that's morally wrong, and not in keeping with the rules of war.

Wait, what? Summary execution is what you do to pirates; that's been universally true for centuries!

I'm not saying that the piracy example necessarily extends to other crimes (usually no), but piracy is the worst example possible for this case, because of the very very long history of it being first on the list of scenarios justifying summary execution.

You raise good points (here and below), and I'm sorry I glossed over that part. I tried not to let the real story get too much in the way of the one I was telling, but I forgot that this is the sort of forum where I can't get away with that.

This occurred back in 2005-2006: hunting Somali pirates before hunting Somali pirates was cool. Our ARG was initially deployed for OPLAT (oil platform) Defense over by the Gulf of Oman, but there were a few hijackings and we were redirected to the East coast of Somalia. Back then Somali piracy was in its infancy, and the world hadn't really reacted. International Maritime Law on piracy wasn't prepared for their tactics, and our JAG plus his more senior lawyer bosses ashore gave us some pretty shitty conclusions about what we could and couldn't do legally. We couldn't do anything to the skiffs while they were just driving around because as much as we knew they were pirates, the JAGs didn't believe the USA could prove it. They always claimed they were fishermen. After a hijacking, it was a civil issue between the ship owners and the pirates. We were only able to actually treat them like pirates if we caught them in the act of piracy, which of course we never did because, see ref A, we were a big warship that could be seen from 15 nautical miles away. Anyways, we had at least 1 large maritime vessel hijacked while we were in the area, and we couldn't do anything about it other than watch. I heard that got the ball rolling on actually updating the international laws (or, perhaps, the US Military's creative interpretation of those laws) so the US could actually do something about the pirates, but I never did much followup to check because I was never out on anti-piracy operations again. The Navy did send me back to the Horn of Africa for other stuff (such a shitty part of the world), but that's completely unrelated.

So who we caught, according to our JAG, was not a group of pirates. They were a group of fishermen who fired small arms and an RPG at a US Naval Vessel. Maybe I was wrong to mention "rules of war" since they weren't uniformed combatants, but we don't kill people who have surrendered and don't pose any more threat to us. After lots (lots) of training on the lawful use of deadly force, my gut tells me that shooting them all and sinking their skiff after they threw down their weapons would have gotten everyone a court martial. I can't cite which specific way they'd be charged, though. It's been too long, and at the time I was a lowly JO who wasn't privy to the actual JAG opinions or conversations about it.

Captains get a lot of leeway in judicial decisions on their ships, but they are generally smart enough to listen to their JAG, and JAG said no keelhauling. So the fishermen/pirates got about 10 days of excellent medical care, good food, comfortable beds, (relative to Somalia) and then were promptly executed by Yemen.

Indeed, I don't doubt that your general understanding of the situation was on point; I just wanted to clarify that the rules you were following were immediately based in the UCMJ and the relevant ROEs for your situation, not the international treaties and conventions concerning actions in war.

I think this is an important distinction because I've found that many people think the Convention-based laws of war are vastly more restrictive than they actually are, and this sometimes undermines the persuasive authority of those agreements. In actual fact, they are much more modest and practical documents that drew a great deal from the brutal lessons taught in the World Wars.

Relatedly, I think a lot of people don't understand just how much more constraining the UCMJ and many ROEs are compared to the international Conventions, in terms of permissible actions by members of the US armed forces. US military discipline is due nearly entirely to internal controls, and those controls could be relaxed a great deal before running afoul of those international agreements. I'd prefer it if we didn't need to explore that space, but it is available.