For Your Information

by Max Budovitch:

In late 2001, U.S. military personnel oversaw one of the most shocking atrocities you never cared about.  Northern Alliance (NA) and American soldiers had been transporting a large number of newly captured Taliban prisoners across the Afghan desert.  By the end of the transfer, between 250 and 3,000 prisoners had been killed by NA troops as U.S. personnel looked on.

Wars create undesired consequences. Collateral damage, the extended suffering of civilian populations, or the usurpation of a country’s sovereignty demonstrates that war is not a precise tool of statecraft.  Two factors may determine the moral interpretations of these events: information and memory.

The public’s reaction to the consequences of war is contingent on the release of information.  Information that is concealed by the government cannot elicit a response from a population.  However, information that is released is invariably an interpretation of an event through human eyes; it is never a complete, perfect representation.  The moral reaction to the effects of war is never unadulterated, even in the best of circumstances.

If information is released, it must somehow find traction in people’s minds.  This traction stems from collective memory and national culture.  The history of a country and the way in which the history is remembered will have great influence on the way a population reacts to the news of its own country’s actions.

The Israeli film Waltz With Bashir presents an Israeli, historically conscious, and self-aware reflection on the massacres at Sabra and Shatila during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.  Through a long process of reflection, the massacres gain traction with a group of Israeli soldiers because of the parallels between the Israeli action in Lebanon and the collective memory of the Holocaust.  The Holocaust gives moral weight to Israel’s actions in Lebanon.  So in what context do Americans evaluate the mass graves in the Afghan desert in which hundreds, maybe thousands, of prisoners were dumped after U.S. soldiers oversaw their execution by NA personnel?

Max Budovitch, TYG

The question of whether to withhold information has been a particular challenge since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.  The public discourse on this challenge is a dichotomy; either the information has been wrongfully withheld, or it has been rightfully released for public consumption.  This dichotomy glosses over the important factor of how the public will react to the information that is released.  Reactions and interpretations to this information will vary from culture to culture and peoples to peoples.  The American memory has not evolved to demand that the Taliban prisoner dilemma be a point of national introspection and outrage.  On the other hand, the unique experiences in the Israeli memory prompted self-reflection following the 1982 massacres in Lebanon. The goal should be to find a balance between one’s own collective memory and an objective analysis in order to truly understand the moral importance of these events.

Think no longer about the information being withheld from you—the true moral connotations of the information that you do have may have gone completely unnoticed.