The Moral Problem of the Hostage Situation
July 17, 2014, a bank robbery gone bad resulted in the killing of Misty Holt-Singh. She and two others had been taken hostage. The others escaped during the chase. Holt-Singh was shot 10 times by the 31 Stockton police officers pursing the getaway van. The standard Objectivist analysis is that her death was the moral responsibility of the robbers, not the police. That is arguable. However, I do not want to argue this case at this time. I cite it because such incidents provide the fundamental justification for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other atrocities of war: the deaths of the victims are the fault of their own govenrment which began the aggression; they are not the fault of the USA government which responded to the aggression. That argument is wholly fallacious on many grounds.
First, it extends the case beyond its context. In the bank robbery, all of the actors are known. They are individuals, held individually responsible for their actions. The robbery was their planful intention, carried out in the first person. In war, even if the hapless conscripts all wear dogtags, the civilians are anonymous. They are just people who were not involved but who were lumped into a collective they have chosen not to join.
Moreover, the bank robbers have an attained status: they chose to make themselves bank robbers. When nations go to war, the victims have an ascribed status: someone else decides that you are a Kraut or a Jap or a Gook, and therefore you deserve to die. In particular, when nations go to war, people are not allowed to leave. From 1933 forward, requests for exit visas clogged the German bureaucracy. Read about Ludwig Wittegenstein - the Nazis took the entire family fortune converted first to gold as the price of an exit visa. Other members of his family died in the war. Some Objectivists claim that it was an example of victims being their own destroyers for not successfully preventing the Anschluss or the rise of the Nazi Party.
In the specific case here of Seal Team 6 it was said that they were not allowed to fire back at someone who launched a rocket-propelled grenade at their helicopter because the building itself might have held innocent non-combatants. The argument stops there. But why? Why must be we accept that context, and not a wider one? What were they doing? Why they there in the first place? The answers are all collectivist, altruist, and mysticist: they were serving their country; they were following orders; they were doing their duty.
In the first place, a commissioned officer can refuse any assignment. It is a tradition that you never refuse a combat assignment. However, ultimately, you can refuse by resigning your commission. It is the end of the road for your military career, but it is your way of preventing a blunder such as The Charge of the Light Brigade or Custer's Last Stand. If only someone had spoken up.
While it is convenient to blame President Barack Hussein Obama, the fact is that a long chain of command kept Seal Team 6 intact and in action. Any commander at any level could have reassigned any of them - or (again) resigned rather than carry out a wrongful order.
In the case of commissioned officers, their Oath is to the Constitution. Any second lieutant - to say nothing of everyone else up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff - could countermand a presidential order if it violates the Constitution. Utlimately, their Oath allows them to stage a coup d'etat to protect the Constitiotn from the President.
Rather than any of that, Seal Team 6 - kept in tact, target on its back and all - simply carried out its assigned duty. So, is the fault theirs? Or their commander's? Or the people of Afghanistan? Or is it yours for not doing enough to prevent it -- just as the victims in Dresden got what they deserved for not preventing Hitler?
Another set of contradictions comes from the demand that "something" be done "right now." In other words, that every perception of aggression demands an immediate and overwhelming response. That simply is not true. As I have noted here, my degrees (BS 2008, MA 2010) are in criminology. Before I enrolled in college or at university, I had private training sponsored by the New Mexico Law Enforcement Acadmenty. In a class for frontline supervisors we were given a problem: You and your partner are called to a robbery in progress. When you leave your vehicle and approach the scene, the perpetrators burst from the store, firing. Your partner goes down. The perpetrators get in their car and flee. What do you do? Do you stay with your partner or pursue? The Los Angeles Police Department in particular has a policy of relentless pursuit. Your partner is down, let the EMTs handle it: you go after the perpetrators. (The class had some discussion on this...) Some years later, I was on patrol in campus safety at midnight in the summer with a young man who had completed his bachelor's and who was in the community college police academy. I told him the story. When I suggested pursuit, he replied: "Thanks, a lot, Marotta. Now I know where you stand if I go down." I attempted to backpedal. He said, "You cannot kill a policeman, a fireman, a school crossing guard, no one in protective services, not even us, without every law enforcement officer in America - and maybe the world - chasing you for the rest of your life. So, stay with your partner and let them do the chasing."
So, with the hostage situation above, it suggests that the perpetrators could get away (temporarily); the police could fall back (strategically). Again, not to discuss that but to look at the wider scenario of nations at war: it is not necessary to go to war, even if someone declares war on you. Germany had been attacking shipping in the Atlantic before war was declared. What was the difference?
Above, I mentioned the War of 1812, but America has suffered many invasions from Mexico. Pancho Villa, the Garza Rebellion, and others all violated US territory. The US Army and others pursued the criminals, but the USA did not declare war on Mexico. In the case of German U-boats in the Atlantic, the USA could simple have asked for warrants against the individual captains and treated them entirely as persons per se, denying their German military status. Going to war was not causally required.