Andrew Jackson Lives
Americans Still Support Torture

Support for torture has been growing in the United States and elsewhere lately, The Daily Beast reports:

Bombarded by President-Elect Donald Trump’s election rhetoric promising to step up the campaign against the so-called Islamic State, Americans are more likely to accept torture and indiscriminate bombing of suspected terrorists than they were two decades ago, according to a poll by the International Committee of the Red Cross released Monday.

The majority of those surveyed across more than a dozen countries including the United States still think bombing of populated areas and torturing detainees is wrong, according to the WINS/Gallup International poll, released by the ICRC. But rising numbers of people, especially Americans and Britons, said they are willing to accept less humane practices if it means winning the fight faster.

The insinuation that President-elect Trump persuaded Americans to be more pro-torture has cause and effect backwards. In fact, Americans have long been more likely to favor the use of torture than citizens of many other countries. Trump’s view on torture is a popular and very typical Jacksonian viewpoint which likely helped him win; it’s elites and “normal” politicians who are the biggest outliers here.

As WRM has written here before, many Americans view war rather differently than other people do. Americans tend to feel that if they are attacked, they have the right and prerogative to use whatever means necessary to defeat the enemy:

The whole jus in bello argument sails right over the heads of most Americans.  The proportionality concept never went over that big here. Many Americans are instinctive Clausewitzians; Clausewitz argued that efforts to make war less cruel end up making it worse, and a lot of Americans agree. [UPDATED NOTE: Many Americans consider the classic concept of proportionality — that the violence used must be proportional to the end sought — as meaningless when responding to attacks on the lives of citizens because the protection of citizens from armed and planned attacks is of enough importance to justify any steps taken to ensure that the attacks end.]

From this perspective, the kind of tit-for-tat limited warfare that the advocates of just and proportionate warfare would require is a recipe for unending war: for decades of random air strikes, bombs and other raids. An endless war of limited intensity is worse, many Americans instinctively feel, than a time-limited war of unlimited ferocity. A crushing blow that brings an end to the war—like General Sherman’s march of destruction through the Confederacy in 1864-65—is ultimately kinder even to the vanquished than an endless state of desultory war.

The European just war tradition springs in part from the reality that historically in Europe war was an affair of kings and rulers that hurt the little people without doing anything for them. Peasants really didn’t care whether the Duke of Burgundy or the Count of Anjou was recognized as the rightful overlord of their village, and moralists and theologians worked to limit the violence that the dukes and the counts and their henchmen wreaked on the poor peasants caught up in a quarrel that wasn’t theirs.

With no feudal past in this country, Americans have tended to see wars as wars of peoples rather than wars of elites and in a war of peoples the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate targets tends to collapse. The German civilian (male or female) making weapons for Hitler’s Wehrmacht was as much a part of the enemy’s warmaking potential as the soldier at the front. Furthermore, in a war of peoples in which civilians are implicated in the conflict, the health and morale of the civilian population is a legitimate target of war. This justified the blockades against the Confederacy and against Germany and German occupied Europe during the world wars, and it also justified the mass terror bombing raids of World War Two in which the destruction of enemy morale was one of the stated aims.

When it comes to war, Donald Trump’s victory is a return to form for America. Countries around the world would do well to note the shift. Jacksonians aren’t very interested in humanitarian wars or wars for democratization, but when they do feel like an attack is justified, they believe in doing whatever it takes to defeat their enemies quickly and completely.

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