Responsibility and War Guilt

Addressing a community of students during a public forum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969, Noam Chomsky said, “This particular community is a very relevant one to consider at a place like MIT because, of course, you’re all free to enter this community—in fact, you’re invited and encouraged to enter it. The community of technical intelligentsia, weapons designers, counterinsurgency experts, and pragmatic planners of an American empire is one that you have a great deal of inducement to become associated with. The inducements, in fact, are very real; their rewards in power, affluence, prestige, and authority are quite significant.” 


SCHIVONE: Let’s talk about the significance of these inducements on both a university and societal level. How crucial is it, in your view, that students particularly understand this highly technocratic social order of the academic community and its function in society? 


CHOMSKY: How important it is to an individual depends on what that individual’s goals in life are. If the goals are to enrich yourself, gain privilege, do technically interesting work—in brief, if the goals are self-satisfaction—then these questions are of no particular relevance. If you care about the consequences of your actions, what’s happening in the world, what the future will be like for your grandchildren and so on, then they’re very crucial. So, it’s a question of what choices people make. 


What makes students a natural audience to speak to? And do you think it’s worth “speaking truth” to the professional scholarship? 


I’m always uneasy about the concept of “speaking truth,” as if we somehow know the truth and only have to enlighten others who have not risen to our elevated level. The search for truth is a cooperative, unending endeavor. We can and should engage in it to the extent we can, and encourage others to do so as well, seeking to free ourselves from constraints imposed by coercive institutions, dogma, irrationality, excessive conformity, the lack of initiative and imagination, and numerous other obstacles. 


As for possibilities, they are limited only by will and choice. Students are at a stage of their lives where these choices are most urgent and compelling and when they also enjoy unusual, if not unique, freedom and opportunity to explore the choices available, to evaluate them, and to pursue them. 


In your view, what is it about the privileges within university education and academic scholarship that correlate with a greater responsibility for catastrophic atrocities in which the United States has been involved? 


Well, there are really some moral truisms. One of them is that opportunity confers responsibility. If you have very limited opportunities, then you have limited responsibility for what you do. If you have substantial opportunity you have greater responsibility for what you do. 


The people who we call “intellectuals” are those who happen to have substantial opportunity. They have privilege, they have resources, they have training. In our society, they have a high degree of freedom—not 100 percent, but quite a lot—and that gives them a range of choices that they can pursue with a fair degree of freedom and that confers responsibility for the predictable consequences of the choices they make. 



I think at this point it may do well for us to go over the development of a strong coterie of technical experts in schools, and elsewhere, sometimes referred to as a “bought” or “secular priesthood.” 


It goes back to the latter part of the 19th century when there was substantial discussion—not just in the United States, but in Europe, too—of what was then sometimes called “a new class” of scientific intellectuals. In that period of time there was a level of knowledge and technical expertise accumulating that allowed a kind of managerial class of educated, trained people to have a greater share in decision-making and planning. It was thought that they were a new class displacing the aristocracy, the owners, political leaders, and so on, and they could have a larger role—and, of course, they liked that idea. 


Out of this group developed an ideology of technocratic planning. In industry it was called “scientific management.” It developed in intellectual life with a concept of what was called a “responsible class” of technocratic, serious intellectuals who could solve the world’s problems rationally and would have to be protected from the “vulgar masses” who might interfere with them. And this “ideology” goes right up until the present. 


Just how realistic this is, is another question, but for the class of technical intellectuals, it’s a very attractive conception that, “We are the rational, intelligent people, and management and decision-making should be in our hands.” 


Actually, as I’ve pointed out in some of the things I’ve written, it’s very close to Bolshevism. If you put side by side, say, statements by people like Robert McNamara and V.I. Lenin, they’re strikingly similar. In both cases there’s a conception of a vanguard of rational planners who know the direction that society ought to go and can make efficient decisions and have to be allowed to do so without interference from what one of them, Walter Lippmann, called the “meddlesome and ignorant outsiders,” namely the population, who just get in the way. 


It’s not an entirely new conception: it’s just a new category of people. Two hundred years ago you didn’t have an easily identifiable class of technical intellectuals, just generally educated people. But as scientific and technical progress increased there were people who felt they could appropriate it and become the proper managers of the society in every domain. That, as I said, goes from scientific management in industry to social and political control. 


There are periods in history, for example, during the Kennedy years, when these ideas really flourished. They were, as they called themselves, “the best and the brightest”—the smart guys who could run everything if only they were allowed to. 


It’s a pretty constant strain, and understandable. It underlies the fear and dislike of democracy that runs through elite culture always—and very dramatically right now. It often correlates closely with posturing about love of democracy. As any reader of Orwell would expect, these two things tend to correlate. The more you hate democracy, the more you talk about how wonderful it is and how much you’re dedicated to it. It’s one of the clearer expressions of the visceral fear and dislike of democracy and of allowing, again going back to Lippmann, the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” to get in our way. They have to be distracted and marginalized somehow while we can take care of the serious questions. 


The claims to expertise are very striking. So, economists tell you, “We know how to run the economy,” and the political scientists tell you, “We know how to run the world and you keep out of it because you don’t have special knowledge and training.” 


When you look at it, the claims tend to erode pretty quickly. It’s not quantum physics. There is, at least, a pretense, and sometimes, some justification for the claims. But what matters for human life is, typically, well within the reach of the concerned person who is willing to undertake some effort. 


Given the self-proclaimed notion that this new class is entitled to decision-making, how close are they to actual policy? 


My feeling is that they’re nowhere near as powerful as they think they are. When, say, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the technocratic elite, which is taking over the running of society—or when Mc- Namara wrote about it, or others—there’s a lot of illusion there. Meaning, they can gain positions of authority and decision-making when they act in the interests of those who really own and run the society. You can have people that are just as competent or more competent, who have conceptions of social and economic order that run counter to, say, corporate power, and they’re not going to be in the planning sectors. To get into those sectors you first have to conform to the interests of the real concentrations of power. 


There are a lot of illusions about this in the media, too. Tom Wicker is a famous example, one of the “left commentators” of the New York Times. He would get very angry when critics would tell him he’s conforming to power interests and that he’s keeping within the doctrinal framework of the media, which goes back to their corporate structure and so on. He would answer, very angrily—and correctly—that nobody tells him what to say. He writes anything he wants—which is absolutely true—but if he wasn’t writing the things he did, he wouldn’t have a column in the New York Times


That’s the kind of thing that is very hard to perceive. People do not want—or often are not able—to perceive that they are conforming to external authority. They feel themselves to be very free—and indeed they are—as long as they conform. But power lies elsewhere. That’s as old as history in the modern period. It’s often very explicit. 


Adam Smith, for example, discussing England, quite interestingly pointed out that the merchants and manufacturers—the economic forces of his day—are the “principal architects of policy” and they make sure that their own interests are “most peculiarly attended to,” no matter how grievous the effect on others, including the people in England. And that’s a good principle of statecraft, and social and economic planning, which runs pretty much to the present. When you get people with management and decision-making skills, they can enter into that system and they can make the actual decisions—within a framework that’s set within the real concentrations of power. Now it’s not the merchants and manufacturers of Adam Smith’s day, it’s the multinational corporations, financial institutions, and so on. But stray too far beyond their concerns and you won’t be the decision maker. 


It’s overwhelmingly true that the people who make it to decision-making positions (that is, what they think of as decision-making positions) are those who conform to the basic framework of the people who fundamentally own and run the society. That’s why you have a certain choice of technocratic managers and not some other choice of people equally or better capable of carrying out policies, but who have different ideas. 


What about degrees of responsibility and shared burdens of guilt on an individual level? 


You almost never find anyone, whether it’s in a weapons plant or planning agency or in corporate management or almost anywhere, who says, “I’m really a bad person and I just want to do things that benefit myself and my friends.” Almost invariably you get noble rhetoric like: “We’re working for the benefit of the people.” The corporate executive who is slaving for the benefit of the workers and community; the friendly banker who just wants to help everybody start their business; the political leader who’s trying to bring freedom and justice to the world—and they probably all believe it. I’m not suggesting that they’re lying. There’s an array of routine justifications for whatever you’re doing and it’s easy to believe them. It’s very hard to look into the mirror and say, “Yeah, that person looking at me is a vicious criminal.” It’s much easier to say, “That person looking at me is really very benign, self-sacrificing, and he or she has to do these things because it’s for the benefit of everyone.” 


Or you get respected moralists like Reinhold Niebuhr, who was once called “the theologian of the establishment” because he presented a framework which, essentially, justified just about anything they wanted to do. His thesis is dressed up in long words and so on (it’s what you do if you’re an intellectual), but what it came down to is that, “Even if you try to do good, evil’s going to come out of it; that’s the paradox of grace.” That’s wonderful for war criminals. “We try to do good, but evil necessarily comes out of it.” And it’s influential. So I don’t think that people in decision-making positions are lying when they describe themselves as benevolent—or people working on more advanced nuclear weapons. Ask them what they’re doing, they’ll say: “We’re trying to preserve the peace of the world.” People who are devising military strategies that are massacring people will say, “Well, that’s the cost you have to pay for freedom and justice.”  


We don’t take those sentiments seriously when we hear them from enemies, say, from Stalinist commissars. They’ll give you the same answers, but we don’t take that seriously because they can know what they’re doing if they choose to. If they choose not to, that’s their choice. If they choose to believe self-satisfying propaganda, that’s their choice. But it doesn’t change the moral responsibility. We understand that perfectly well with regard to others. It’s very hard to apply the same reasoning to ourselves.  


One of the most elementary of moral principles is that of universality: that is, if something’s right for me, it’s right for you. If it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. Any moral code worth looking at has that at its core somehow. But that principle is overwhelmingly disregarded all the time. If you want to run through examples, we can easily do it. Take, say, George W. Bush, since he happens to be president. If you apply the standards that we applied to Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, he’d be hanged. But is this even a conceivable possibility? It’s not even discussable because we don’t apply to ourselves the principles we apply to others. 


There’s a lot of talk about “terror” and how awful it is. Whose terror? Our terror against them? Is that considered reprehensible? No, it’s considered highly moral; it’s considered self-defense. Now, their terror against us, that’s awful, and terrible, and so on. 


To try to rise to the level of becoming a minimal moral agent and just enter in the domain of moral discourse is very difficult because that means accepting the principle of universality. And you can experiment and see how often that’s accepted, either in personal or political life. Very rarely. 


What about criminal responsibility and intellectuals?  Nuremberg is an interesting precedent. 


The Nuremberg case is a very interesting precedent. First of all, the Nuremberg trials, which, of all the tribunals that have taken place from then until today, is, I think, the most serious by far. Nevertheless, it was very seriously flawed—and it was recognized to be. When Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor, wrote about it, he recognized that it was flawed for a number of fundamental reasons. For one thing, the Nazi war criminals were being tried for crimes that had not yet been declared to be crimes. So, it was ex-post-facto. “We’re now declaring these things you did to be crimes.” That is already questionable. 


Secondly, the choice of what was considered a crime was based on a very explicit criterion, namely, denial of the principle of universality. In other words, something was called a crime at Nuremberg if they did it. So, for example, the bombing of urban concentrations—Tokyo, Dresden, and so on—those weren’t crimes because we did them. In fact, Nazi war criminals who were charged were able to escape prosecution when they could show that the Americans and the British did the same thing they did. Admiral Doenitz, a submarine commander who was involved in all kinds of war crimes, called in his defense a high official in the British admiralty and Admiral Nimitz from the United States, who testified that, “Yeah, that’s the kind of thing we did.” [Doenitz was sentenced to ten years in prison, but his order to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare was not officially included in his sentence.] And that’s the way it ran throughout. 


When Chief Justice Jackson, chief counsel for the prosecution, spoke to the tribunal and explained to them the importance of what they were doing, he said, to paraphrase, that: “We are handing these defendants a poisoned chalice and if we ever sip from it, we must be subject to the same punishments, otherwise this whole trial is a farce.” Well, you can look at the history from then on, and we’ve sipped from the poisoned chalice many times, but it has never been considered a crime. So that means we are saying that trial was a farce. 


Interestingly, in Jackson’s opening statement he claimed that the defense did not wish to incriminate the whole German populace, but only the “planners and designers” of those crimes, “the inciters and leaders without whose evil architecture the world would not have been for so long scourged with the violence and lawlessness…of this terrible war.” 


That’s correct. And that’s another principle that we flatly reject. At Nuremberg, they weren’t trying the people who threw Jews into crematoria, they were trying the leaders. When the U.S. has a trial for crimes, it’s of some low-level person—like a torturer from Abu Ghraib—not the people who were setting up the framework from which they operate. We certainly don’t try political leaders for the crime of aggression. The invasion of Iraq was about as clear-cut a case of aggression that you can imagine. By the Nuremberg principles, if you read them carefully, the U.S. war against Nicaragua was a crime of aggression for which Ronald Reagan should have been tried. But you can’t even mention it in the West. The reason is our denial of the most elementary moral truisms—we just flatly reject them. We don’t even think we reject them and that’s even worse than rejecting them outright. 


If we were able to say to ourselves, “Look, we are totally immoral, we don’t accept elementary moral principles,” that would be a kind of consistent position in a certain way. But when we sink to the level where we cannot even perceive that we’re violating elementary moral principles and international law, that’s pretty bad. But that’s the nature of the intellectual culture—not just in the United States—but in powerful societies everywhere. 


You mentioned Doenitz. Two who were among the most severely punished at Nuremberg were Julius Streicher, an editor of a major newspaper, and Dr. Wolfram Sievers of the Ahnenerbe Society’s Institute of Military Scientific Research, whose crimes were traced back to the University of Strasbourg. Not the typical people prosecuted for international war crimes, given their civilian professions. 


There’s justification for that, namely, those defendants could understand what they were doing. They could understand the consequences of the work that they were carrying out. But, of course, if we were to accept this principle of universality, that would have a pretty long reach—to journalists, university researchers, and so on. 


Let me quote the mission statement of the Army Research Office. This research agency of the Army is for the purpose of “developing and exploiting innovative advances to insure the Nation’s technological superiority.” It executes this mission “through conduct of an aggressive basic science research program on behalf of the Army so that cutting-edge scientific discoveries and the general store of scientific knowledge will be optimally used to develop and improve weapons systems that establish land-force dominance.” 


That’s a Pentagon office and they’re doing their job. In our system, the military is under civilian control. Civilians assign a certain task to the military: their job is to obey and carry the role out, otherwise quit. That’s what it means to have a military under civilian control. You can’t really blame them for their mission statement. They’re doing what they’re told to do by the civilian authorities. The civilian authorities are the culpable ones. If we don’t like those policies (and I don’t and you don’t), then we go back to those civilians who designed the framework and gave the orders. 


You can, as the Nuremberg precedents indicated, be charged with obeying illegal orders, but that’s often a stretch. If a person is in a position of military command, they are sworn to obey civilian orders, even if they don’t like them. If you say they’re really criminal orders, then, yes, they can reject them and get into trouble. But this is just carrying out the function that they’re ordered to carry out. So we go straight back to the civilian authority and then to the general intellectual culture, which regards this as proper and legitimate. And now we’re back to universities, newspapers, the centers of the doctrinal system. 


It’s the forthright honesty of the mission statement which is also very striking, I think. 


Well, it’s like going to an armory and finding out they’re making better guns. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Their orders are, “Make this gun work better” and so they’re doing it.  At some point, people have to ask, “Do I want to make a better gun?” That’s where the Nuremberg issues arise. But you really can’t blame people very severely for carrying out orders that they’re told to carry out when there’s nothing in the culture that tells them there’s anything wrong with it. You have to be kind of a moral hero to perceive it, to break out of the cultural framework and say, “Look, what I’m doing is wrong.” Like somebody who deserts from the army because they think the war is wrong. That’s not the place to assign guilt, I think. Just as at Nuremberg. As I said, they didn’t try the SS guards who threw people into crematoria. They might have been tried elsewhere, but not at Nuremberg. 



In this case, the results of the ARO’s mission statement in harvesting scholarly work for better weapons design, it is professors, scholars, researchers, scientific designers, etc. who have these choices for intellectual work to be used for such ends and who aren’t acting necessarily from direct orders, but are acting more out of free will. 


It’s free will, but don’t forget that there’s a general intellectual culture that raises no objection to this. Take the Iraq war. There’s libraries of material arguing about the war, debating it, asking “What should we do?” Now try to find a sentence somewhere that says “Carrying out a war of aggression is the supreme international crime, which differs from other war crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that follows” (paraphrasing from Nuremberg). You can find it. I’ve written about it and you can find a couple dozen other people who have written about it in the world. But is it part of the intellectual culture? Can you find it in a newspaper or a journal or in Congress or any public discourse—anything that’s part of the general exchange of knowledge and ideas? Do students study it in school? Do they have courses where they teach students that “to carry out a war of aggression is the supreme international crime, which encompasses all the evil that follows?” 


So, for example, if sectarian warfare is a horrible atrocity, as it is, who’s responsible? By the principles of Nuremberg, Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rice are responsible for sectarian warfare because they carried out the supreme international crime, which encompasses all the evil that follows. Try and find somebody who points that out. You can’t. Because our dominant intellectual culture accepts as legitimate our crushing anybody we like. 


And take Iran. Both political parties—and practically the whole press—accept it as legitimate and, in fact, honorable, that “all options are on the table,” presumably including nuclear weapons, to quote Hilary Clinton and everyone else. “All options are on the table” means we threaten war. Well, there’s something called the UN Charter, which outlaws “the threat or use of force” in international affairs. Does anybody care? Actually, I saw one op-ed somewhere, but that’s so rare it’s like finding a diamond in a pile of hay or something. It’s not part of the culture. We’re allowed to threaten anyone we want and to attack anyone we want. When a person grows up and acts in a culture like that, they’re culpable in a sense, but the culpability is much broader. 


I was just reading a review of a new book by Steven Miles, a medical doctor and bioethicist, who ran through 35,000 pages of documents from the Freedom of Information Act on the torture in Abu Ghraib. The question that concerned him was, “What were the doctors doing during all of this?” All through those torture sessions there were doctors, nurses, behavioral scientists, and others who were organizing them. What were they doing when this torture was going on? Well, you go through the detailed record and it turns out that they were designing and improving it. Just like Nazi doctors. 


Robert Jay Lifton did a big study on Nazi doctors. He points out that it’s not those individual doctors who had the final guilt, it was a culture and a society that accepted torture and criminal activities as legitimate. The same is true at Abu Ghraib. To focus on the torturers as if they’re somehow terrible people is a serious mistake. They’re coming out of a culture that regards this as legitimate. Maybe there are some excesses you don’t really do, but torture in interrogation is considered legitimate. 


There’s a big technical debate on now about who’s an enemy combatant. Suppose we invade another country and we capture somebody who’s defending the country against our invasion. If some country invaded the United States and let’s say you were captured throwing a rock at one of the soldiers, would it be legitimate to send you to the equivalent of Guantanamo and then have a debate about whether you’re a “lawful” or “unlawful” combatant? The whole discussion is kind of off in outer space somewhere. But in a culture that accepts that we own and rule the world, it’s reasonable. 


There seems to be some very serious aberrations and defects in our society and culture. How, in your view, might a new level of culture be established, say, one in which torture isn’t accepted? After all, slavery and child labor were each accepted for a long period of time and now are not. 


Your examples give the answer to the question, the only answer that has ever been known. Slavery and child labor didn’t become unacceptable by magic. It took hard, dedicated, courageous work by lots of people. The same is true of torture, which was once completely routine. There has been a gradual codification of constraints against torture and they have had some effect, though only limited, even before the Bush regression to savagery. Alfred McCoy’s work reviews that ugly history. Still, there is improvement and there can be more if enough people are willing to undertake the efforts that led to large-scale rejection of slavery and child labor—still far from complete. 



Gabriel Matthew Schivone is editor Days Beyond Recall Literary Journal, based in Tucson, AZ.