Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Condition: Academic detachment from reality. Prescription: a dose of reality

Last month I attended a Ph.D. "master class" in which eight or so doctoral candidates presented their work-in-progress, preliminary findings, context of their research, etc.  One presentation in particular caught my attention.

A young lady is examining compliance with international humanitarian law (the Geneva Conventions et alia).  Her hypothesis is that the laws in question are often(?) not followed on the battlefield because military personnel receive inadequate training in this regard; in particular, the imperative of adherence to these provisions is not impressed upon them with sufficient urgency and sobriety.  If only--she contends--soldiers were instructed more formidably in how critical it is to comply with the norms of international humanitarian law, the likelihood of instances of abuse such as the Abu 3'rayb prisoner mistreatment scandal or the more recent contretemps involving Sgt. Alexander Blackman would have been minimized if not altogether averted.

As I was absorbing her polemic, it struck me again how alarmingly insular and detached from the real world academia is becoming.  College students and academics have been castigated for being "out of touch" on many issues.  An apposite example is the now decades-in-the-making promotion of a happy-go-lucky mode of education for children that accentuates their right to personhood, individuality, having fun, and so forth, which critics claim (now supported by hard research) deprives them of the structure, discipline, knowledge, and skills that they require to grow into both competent workers and functional adults.  Prison reform, human rights, civil liberties, sexual equality, and immigration are some other matters that lend themselves to such criticism, too.

The biggest difficulty with the issue in the docket is that it is being theorized on by someone who has no first- or even second-hand experience of the battlefield.  It is not only unrealistic, but also egregious and insulting, for an adolescent ensconced in an armchair in Manchester to be prescribing to grown men and women situated in the midst of war how they ought to behave.

Imagine, if you will, the reality of the theater of war: Mines and R.P.G.s are exploding left and right, dozens of bullets are making the cracking sound inches away from your ears, you have witnessed people who an hour ago were laughing and planning Christmas with their families blown to smithereens a few feet in front of you, your friends' guts are spilling out of their bodies or their limbs are gone...

There is no Undo button to press anywhere.

There is no Pause button.

There is no Quit button.

Somehow you make it out alive and later on you come across a wounded enemy combatant who mere minutes previously had been launching grenades at you and spraying you with bullets.  Can anyone seriously argue that in such a situation you can be reasonably expected to engage in an objective, dispassionate, detached introspection of the Geneva Conventions!?!  "Ludicrous" does not begin to describe it!

I am not even remotely impugning the importance of both the existence and enforcement of robust international rules governing engagement in armed conflicts.  Wanton destruction, revenge, brutalization of civilians or even coldblooded abuse of enemy combatants are to be unreservedly condemned, outlawed, and censured.  However, there has to be a dose of hard realism present when presuming to prescribe the behavior of individuals placed under unimaginable levels of personal, existential stress.  P.T.S.D. is a recognized condition, which affects the sufferers profoundly; this has to be accounted for in any discourse seeking to regulate the conduct of those likely to be severely afflicted by it.

After all, many of those insisting that soldiers should abide by the international humanitarian law even in the most stressful circumstances are among the first to characterize many types of criminals and societal transgressors as "victims" who should first and foremost be helped address their multifarious problems, and be punished only as an afterthought and certainly with leniency.  Can they not extend the same kind of consideration to those who underwent experiences the "disenfranchised" and "marginalized" rioters of 2011 or violent robbers afflicted by assorted "substance addictions" cannot even fathom?

© 2014 Michael L.S.

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