Monday, 20 August 2007

Responsibility and War Guilt

Responsibility and War Guilt
A Culture-Setting Intelligentsia
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Gabriel Matthew Schivone

The Responsibility of Intellectuals

GMS: Addressing a community of mostly students during a public forum at
the steps of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1969, you
expressed: "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, and weapons designers, and
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, and
affluence, and prestige and authority are quite significant." Let's start off
talking about the significance of these inducements, on both a
university and societal level. How crucial is it, in your view, that students
particularly consider and understand this, as you describe, highly
technocratic social order of the academic community and its function in
society, that is, comparably to the more directly associated professional
scholarship considering it?

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.

GMS: What makes students a natural audience to speak to? And do you
think it's worth 'speaking truth' to the professional scholarship as well
or differently? Are there any short- or long-term possibilities here?

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 and lack of initiative and imagination, and numerous other

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.

GMS: In your view, what is it about the privileges within university
education and academic scholarship which, as you assert in some of the
things you've written, correlate with them a greater responsibility for
catastrophic atrocities such as the Vietnam War or those in the Middle
East in which the United States is now 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. I
mean, that's kind of elementary, I don't know how it can be discussed.

And the people who we call 'intellectuals' are just 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 a hundred 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
hence simply confers responsibility for the predictable consequences of
the choices they make.

The Rise of a Technical Intelligentsia

GMS: I think at this point it may do well for us to go over a bit the
beginnings and evolution of the ideological currents which now prevail
throughout modern social intellectual life in the U.S. Essentially, from
where may we trace the development of this strong coterie of technical
experts in the schools, and elsewhere, sometimes having been referred
to as a 'bought' or 'secular priesthood'?

Well, it really goes back to the latter-part of the nineteenth 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 it 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. And, in fact, if you put side-by-side, say,
statements by people like Robert McNamara and V.I. Lenin, it's
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
can 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. There were, as they called
themselves, 'the best and the brightest.' The 'smart guys' who could run
everything if only they were allowed to; who could do things scientifically
without people getting in their way.

It's a pretty constant strain, and understandable. And 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

Now, that's the basic strain. And you find it all the time, but
increasingly in the modern period when, at least, claims to expertise become
somewhat more plausible. Whether they're authentic or not is, again, a
different question. But, the claims to expertise are very striking. So,
economists tell you, 'We know how to run the economy'; 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.

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

My feeling is that they're nowhere near as powerful as they think they
are. So, when, say, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the technocratic
elite which is taking over the running of society-or when McNamara
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, and 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. So, to get
into those planning sectors you first of all have to conform to the
interests of the real concentrations of power.

And, again, 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. And 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. And 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 not a mechanical phenomenon, but 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 have different ideas.

GMS: What about degrees of responsibility and shared burdens of guilt
on an individual level? What can we learn about how one views oneself
often in positions of power or authority?

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 guy, 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 guy looking at me is a vicious criminal.' It's much easier
to say, 'That guy looking at me is really very benign,
self-sacrificing, and he has to do these things because it's for the benefit of

Or you get respected moralists like Reinhold Niebuhr, who was once
called 'the theologian of the establishment'. And the reason is 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'. -And 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, they'll say,
'Well, that's the cost you have to pay for freedom and justice', and so on.

But, 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.

In fact, one of the-maybe 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 that is
even 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. Is it an even 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? I mean, is that considered reprehensible? No,
it's considered highly moral; it's considered self-defense, and so on.
Now, their terror against us, that's awful, and terrible, and so on.

But, 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 for yourself and see how often that's accepted, either in personal
or political life. Very rarely.

Looking at Nuremberg and the Culture of Torture

GMS: 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-of all the tribunals that have taken place, from then
until today-it is, I think, the most serious by far. But, 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, and it was so 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
and we didn't do it.

So, for example, the bombing of urban concentrations was not considered
a crime. The bombings of Tokyo, Dresden, and so on-those aren't
crimes. Why? Because we did them. So, therefore, it's not a crime. 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 the defense a high official in the
British admiralty and, I think, Admiral Nimitz from the United States, who
testified that, 'Yeah, that's the kind of thing we did.' And,
therefore, they weren't sentenced for these crimes. Doenitz was absolved. And
that's the way it ran through. Now, that's a very serious flaw.
Nevertheless, of all the tribunals, that's the most serious one.

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's 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 from whence
the defendants came, for the crimes they committed, 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 which we flatly reject.
So, at Nuremberg, we weren't trying the people who threw Jews into
crematoria; we were trying the leaders. When we ever have 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. And we
certainly don't try political leaders for the crime of aggression.
That's out of the question. The invasion of Iraq was about as clear-cut a
case of aggression than you can imagine. In fact, 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, it's inconceivable; you can't even mention it in the West. And the
reason is our radical 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.

I mean, 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 respectable 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.

GMS: You mentioned Doenitz escaping culpability for his crimes. Two who
didn't escape punishment and were among the most severely punished at
Nuremberg were Julius Streicher, an editor of a major newspaper,
and-also an interesting example-Dr. Wolfram Sievers of the Ahnenerbe
Society's Institute of Military Scientific Research, whose own crimes were
traced back to the University of Strasbourg. Not the typical people
prosecuted for international war crimes, it seems, given their civilian

Yeah; and there's a 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 awful principle of universality, that would have a
pretty long reach-to journalists, university researchers, and so on.

GMS: Let me quote for you the mission statement of the Army Research
Office. This "premier extramural" research agency of the Army is grounded
upon "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."

This is 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 you quit. That's what it means to have a military under civilian
control. So, 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, in fact, to obey civilian
orders, even if they don't like them. If you say they're really just
criminal orders, then, yes, they can reject them, and get into trouble and so
on. 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.

GMS: It's just 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. And, if they're honest,
they'll say, 'Yeah, that's what we're doing; that's what the civilian
authorities told us to do.'

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 the orders that they're told to carry
out when there's nothing in the culture that tells them there's
anything wrong with it. I mean, you have to be kind of like 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, at Nuremberg. They might have been tried
elsewhere, but not at Nuremberg.

GMS: But, in this case, the results of the ARO's mission statement in
harvesting scholarly work for better weapons design, it's professors,
scholars, researchers, scientific designers, etc., who have these choices
to focus serious intellectual effort and to be so used for such ends,
and who aren't acting necessarily from direct orders but are acting
more out of freewill.

It's freewill, but don't forget that there's a general intellectual
culture that raises no objection to this.

Let's take the Iraq war. There's libraries of material arguing about
the war, debating it, asking 'What should we do?', this and that, and the
other thing. Now, try to find a sentence somewhere that says that
'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). Try to find that somewhere. -I
mean, you can find it. I've written about it, and you can find a
couple other dozen 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 in
a journal; in Congress; any public discourse; anything that's part of
the general exchange of knowledge and ideas? I mean, 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-they're 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 U.N. Charter, which outlaws
'the threat or use of force' in international affairs. Does anybody
care? Actually, I saw one op-ed somewhere by Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist
close to the government, who pointed out that threats are serious
violations of international law. But that's so rare that when you find it
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. And, when a person grows up and acts in a culture like
that, they're culpable in a sense, but the culpability is much

I was just reading a couple days ago a review of a new book by Steven
Miles, a medical doctor and bioethicist, who ran through 35,000 pages of
documents he got from the Freedom of Information Act on the torture in
Abu Ghraib. And the question that concerned him is, '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 in
connection with the Nazi doctors that, in a way, it's not those individual
doctors who had the final guilt, it was a culture and a society which
accepted torture and criminal activities as legitimate. The same is
true with the tortures at Abu Ghraib. I mean, just to focus on them as if
they're somehow terrible people is just 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 debate now on, 'Who's an enemy combatant?'; a big
technical debate. Suppose we invade another country and we capture somebody
who's defending the country against our invasion: what do you mean to
call them an 'enemy combatant'? 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, like, off in outer space
somewhere. But, in a culture which accepts that we own and rule the world,
it's reasonable. But, also, we should go back to the roots of the
intellectual or moral culture, not just to the individuals directly involved.

GMS: As you mentioned before, whether students are taught serious moral
principles: At my school, the University of Arizona, there are courses
in bioethics-required ones, in fact, to hard scientific undergraduates
(I took one, out of interest)- which mostly just discuss scenarios in
terms of 'slippery slopes' and hypothetical questions within certain
bounds, and still none at all in the social sciences or humanities. Do
you think there should be? Would that be beneficial?

If they were honest, yes. If they're honest they'd be talking about
what we're talking about, and doing case studies. There's no point
pontificating about high minded principles. That's easy. Nazi doctors could do
that, too.

Let's take a look at the cases and ask how the principles apply-to
Vietnam; to El Salvador; to Iraq; to Palestine-just run through the cases
and see how the principles apply to our own actions. That's what is of
prime importance, and what is least discussed.

GMS: As a note to end on, there seems to be some very serious
aberrations and defects in our society and our level of culture. How, in your
view, might they be corrected and 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.

If I remember correctly, the renowned Norwegian criminologist Nils
Christie wrote somewhere that prisons began to proliferate in Norway in the
early 19th century. They weren't much needed before, when the
punishment for robbery could be driving a stake through the hand of the
accused. Now it's perhaps the most civilized country on earth.

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.

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