May 18, 2010

The Handy War Handbook

After the American Century

There was a strange moment on the Danish national news yesterday. A journalist was interviewing someone about Danish troops fighting in Afghanistan, and the question under discussion was serious: when was it permitted to kill enermy soldiers and when not. I am not going to address this question here, because I want to focus on the journalist's excitement when hearing that there was a handbook spelling out the rules of slaughter. Immediately the issue became whether these solders were carrying the rules around with them or not. It was quite evident that the journalist believed it essential that these young men have that book at all times. 

Imagine. You are a soldier, in a firefight, a matter of life or death. Then, in the best Monty Python tradition, you realize that there is a question in your mind as to whether it is OK to heave a grenade into yonder ditch. Perhaps one should go look in there first? Could be a little dangerous. Wait, a happy thought. I can consult my trusty handbook, which weighs only a kilo or so. It is a pleasure to haul it around  to consult in just these situations. So, put down the rifle, open the backpack, get out the handbook, consult the index, and find the proper instructions. Meanwhile,  the enemy, including anyone in that ditch, will respectfully maintain a ceasefire until there has been time to read the appropriate passages.

In that journalistic moment, the almost religious Danish belief in bureaucratic rules was blindingly, maddening manifest. For the discussion did turn to whether the soldiers were all issued such a handbook, whether they carried it with them at all times, as clearly they should, etc. etc.  Clearly the rulebook was the crucial point, the nub of the matter.

I am not presuming to judge what the Danish soldiers were doing or not doing. But wasn't the journalist at that moment an idiot?