Is Noam Chomsky a prophet or a simpleton?

Give peace a chance: 'It's been done.'

Give peace a chance: ‘It’s been done.’

I am sorry but I simply cannot resist this rhetorical question. The esteemed Noam Chomsky, who inspired the world with his theory of generative grammar and his outspoken criticism of America’s meddlesome and counterproductive foreign policy, has (it seems) recently acquired the capacity to read minds. In a (admittedly rather reluctant) discourse with Sam Harris, Chomsky postulates that Bill Clinton, “assuming that he was minimally sane”, would certainly have known that he would kill a great many innocent civilians when bombing a target in Sudan, that turned out to be a pharmaceutical factory. And that Clinton simply didn’t care.

Without repeating too much detail of what exactly Chomsky believes (one can read the discourse for oneself here), I’d like to critique his overall technique of meting justice in cases of civilian deaths during military interventions. The technique used by Chomsky to gauge the commanding officer’s accountability seems to be hindsight. Whatever said and done, if one party in the conflict ends up causing civilian deaths, and there is plausible evidence in hindsight, that these deaths could have been prevented if we had access to the right information, then, the commander who issued the orders would have to be held accountable for these civilian deaths, and be branded a war criminal.

It matters not, according to Chomsky, whether the facts before the commanding officer at the time of making the decision (to carry out an offensive) were in favor of making such an offensive, within the framework of a calculated risk. We needn’t bother ourselves with gathering any evidence to ascertain the attitude of the commanding officer at the time she made the decision, such as whether she was rational and compassionate (“take every precaution to ensure we target combatants only”), and whether the commanding officer’s intentions were noble (“are we really sure this is a chemical weapons plant?”) No. Instead, we judge him or her on the outcome, and on better knowledge available in hindsight.

I personally find this type of justice hypocritical, parallel to the very thing Chomsky started out to warn the world against: prejudiced western leaders purposefully misjudging the intentions of other nations and peoples, and taking military action against them. Seems to me, Chomsky is purposefully misjudging his own country’s former president, and nailing him in his private mind for genocide, like a vengeful urban guerilla fighting for a “new world order”.

Or perhaps Chomsky has the capacity to spy into the oval office and read minds?

My own country Sri Lanka has been at the receiving end of ludicrous “Western Foreign Policy” from time to time. For example, our former president Mahinda Rajapakse was the most successful president we had since independence, measured from an empirical standpoint. Yet he was more or less branded a “pariah” by the west because he took conclusive action to defeat what was arguably the most dangerous terrorist movement in the world, in the process of which there were civilian deaths (of far lesser proportions than what took place in US-instigated “humanitarian wars” like Iraq or Vietnam or Afghanistan).

However, I personally don’t wish to see America become a nation of flippant, judgmental pacifists. Instead, I feel we should engage in fair-minded analysis of armed conflict (a sad reality of humanity, dwindling we are assured by Steve Pinker), and understand that there is indeed a place in a world full of hawks, for violent mediation by good Samaritans. Samaritans who may accidentally cause some harm in the course of trying to help others.

I sincerely hope Chomsky goes back to his drawing board, and refines his views on morality in human conflict. We don’t want to fight wars, but there might be situations where “war” is a good option, in spite of the awful “cost”. Therefore, I’d suggest we judge the individuals involved in such cases in a well rounded fashion, not merely on outcomes alone. We must judge them on the outcome, the intent, and on their personal moral standing as is evident to others. To me, if I were to believe Chomsky’s “evidence”, Bill Clinton was a fool at worst, but not a villain. He cared. And words matter, as the greatest linguist in the world would surely know…

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