Libya, March 2011

I’m in favor of the current allied military action in Libya.  I wrote to President Obama one week ago urging him to support a no-fly zone, and I’m pleased he finally heeded the advice of Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Hillary Clinton.  Some liberal bloggers, with whom I usually agree, are appalled however.  Josh Marshall worries the intervention is too late and in support of a hopeless cause. Others take a dismal view of almost any exercise of American power and are cynical about Western humanitarian justifications. These critics would have left the partisans and their families in Benghazi, Misurata, and Ajdabiya to be slaughtered by the thousands.  Gadhafi left no doubt about his intentions in a recent radio address: “We are coming tonight… We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.”

As a practicing Buddhist, being in favor of any military action is problematic.  Should a Buddhist ever support military action?  Shouldn’t Buddhists be pacifists? After all, our first precept is to abstain from killing living beings, while the noble eightfold path emphasizes the intention of non-harming.  When a warrior asked the Buddha whether he would go to a special heaven when he died, the Buddha reluctantly informed him he would be reborn in one of the lower realms.  The Buddha taught unequivocally that violence breeds more violence and that practitioners should always strive for peace and reconciliation.

The question about whether it is ever permissible to apply force against another human being is complex.  Are we allowed to cause harm in self-defense?  In protecting our family?  In preventing serious crime? Can we call the exterminator when termites eat into our home?  (For a more thorough examinations of these issues, check out this post.) The Pali canon never condones violence or killing, but the Mahāyāna Upaya-kausalya Sūtra condones killing on compassionate grounds in extraordinary circumstances. Similarly, the Ārya-satyaka-parivarta Sūtra permits a ruler’s use of force to protect life when all attempts at negotiation and placation have failed.   One can always cite scripture in support of whatever position one wants to take.

My own view is that there are times when resort to force is permitted, but it must meet certain conditions: 1) It must be undertaken as a last resort, 2) it must be undertaken for the compassionate protection of beings, and not out of hatred, greed, or revenge, 3) it must use the minimum force necessary to accomplish its goal, 4) it must have a reasonable chance of success, 5) it must not dehumanize opponents, 6) it must make all reasonable efforts to avoid harming innocent non-combatants, 7) the magnitude of reasonably anticipated “blowback” must not exceed the good it is hoped it will achieve, and 8),  it must be undertaken with the understanding that even the most moral use of force still generates some degree of bad karma.

The Alīnacitta-jātaka, one of the Jātaka Tales that purport to tell the story of the Buddha’s many incarnations on the bodhisattva path before his birth as Siddhartha, seems relevant to this discussion. It tells the story of King Brahmadatta who befriended an elephant during his reign.  Later, the King and Queen conceived a child, the Buddha-to-be in a future incarnation, but the King died before the child was born. The neighboring King of Kosala, hearing about Brahmadatta’s death, plotted to take over his kingdom, and proceeded to lay siege to it.  On the day of the Bodhisattva’s birth the townsfolk began battling the Kosalan army:

“But as they had no leader, little by little the army gave way, great though it was. The courtiers told this news to the Queen, adding, ‘Since our army loses ground in this way, we fear defeat. But our King’s friend, the elephant, has never been told that the King is dead, that a son was born to him, and that the King of Kosala is here to give us battle. Shall we tell him?’

“Yes, do so,” said the Queen. She dressed up her son, laid him in a fine linen cloth, and  went with all her court to the elephant’s stable. She laid the babe at the elephant’s feet, saying, “Master, your comrade is dead, but we feared to tell it you lest you might break your heart. This is your comrade’s son; the King of Kosala is making war against him; the army is losing ground; either kill my son yourself, or win the kingdom back for him!”

The elephant stroked the child with his trunk and lifted him upon his own head; then  moaning and lamenting, laid him in his mother’s arms, saying, ‘I will master the King of Kosala!’

Then the courtiers put his armor and caparison on him and unlocked the city gate. The elephant trumpeted and frightened all the host so that they ran away and broke up their camp; then seizing the king of Kosala by his topknot, he carried him to the young Prince, and laid him at his feet. Some rose to kill him, but the elephant stayed them; and he let the captive king go with this advice: “Be careful in the future, and don’t be  presumptuous because our Prince is young!”  After that, the power over all India fell into the Bodhisattva’s hands and not a foe was able to rise up against him. The Bodhisattva was consecrated at age seven; his reign was just and when he came to life’s end he went to swell the hosts of heaven.”

The text implies citizens have a right to defend themselves and use force against an oppressor, but self-defense must be tempered by mercy and reverence for life.  Of course, no lives are lost in this charming tale.  The elephant is able to scare the invading army away without injuring anyone, and the invading king’s life is spared.  If only U.N. sanctions and warnings had been effective in frightening Gadhafi into leaving his enemies in peace!  It would have made this tale a perfect parable.

I could easily have cited another Jātaka Tale the counsels radical pacifism, however.  In that tale a king threatened by an invader says “I want no kingdom that must be kept by doing harm.”  He opens his city’s gates to the invader and allows himself to be taken captive.  While imprisoned he cultivates compassion for his conqueror.  The tale has a happy ending.  The invading king develops insight into the wrongfulness of his actions, frees the virtuous king, and leaves his kingdom in peace.   This tale is even more charming than the first.  Can you see Gadhafi developing moral insight and leaving his enemies in peace?

Does our current military action in Libya meet these the eight conditions I outlined above?  Well yes and no.

In order to meet such a test a military action would have to be motivated by compassion.  As the stated purpose of the action is to protect civilians, and as there will be no occupation, and as President Obama’s rhetoric is neither dehumanizing nor bloodthirsty, I think the action meets those criteria, at least for the United States. It’s possible, however, that a desire for vengeance lurks in the background for some coalition members or U.N. supporters. The Lebanese remember Gadhafi’s murder of Musa al-Sadr in 1978, the British remember the Lockerbie bombing of 1988, and the Saudi’s remember Gadhafi’s 2004 plot to kill Crown Prince Abdullah.  Gadhafi has created an enormous amount of low-grade karma over the past forty years, and human memories are long.

To the extent that the allies make all efforts to avoid civilian deaths and limit their actions to protecting the cities in rebellion a good case can be made for this being a moral intervention —  or at least as moral an intervention as is possible given the inevitable negative consequences inherent in any use of force.  We don’t know how this will turn out in the end.  If a civilian bloodbath is averted; if a relatively free government is established in rebel-held territory; if tribal civil warfare and devolution into anarchy is avoided; if the war does not stir up virulent anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East; if the democratic strivings that began in Tunisia and Egypt and are sweeping through the Middle East are bolstered and supported, then this will have been worth it.  But, as the Japanese say, “Ningen banji Saiō ga uma” (人間万事 塞翁が馬)  — Everything is like Uncle Sai’s horse: Good?  Bad?  Who Knows?  We never know how the story ends until it’s over.  And of course, the story which we are a part of is never over.

Would the Buddha have approved of the Libyan no-fly zone?   Would he have approved Allied bombing of the railroads leading to Auschwitz?  Would he have approved an intervention in Rwanda?  Maybe not.  On the other hand, this Buddhist does approve, and hopes things turn out as well as they can. We live in a world where tough moral choices can’t be avoided.  Going into battle creates bad karma.  But so does sitting back and watching thousands die while arguing moral niceties.

19 Replies to “Libya, March 2011”

  1. I’m afraid there is no way to bomb from planes without killing people unintentionally. I don’t see how it can be justified from a Buddhist perspective (or from a basic humanitarian perspective, for that matter). Bombing is by nature dehumanizing and places the killers so far away from the killed and wounded that it is impossible not to kill unintended people.

    I think it is easier to justify military action when one faces no actual danger in it. When it is not your house that will be bombed, or your neighborhood, or your city, or your family, it is quite a bit easier to justify bombing. The same is true when it is not your son or daughter, your husband or wife, your father, mother, sister or brother who will be doing the fighting. When we look deeply at the entire enterprise, we can see that it involves adding suffering onto suffering, just as every other war has. We can think it is “justified,” but I don’t believe it can actually be justified from a Buddhist position. The precepts alone make it impossible.

    1. Thanks, Kate for your comment. I know that many, if not most, of my readers will agree with you. I agree that bombing will result in the loss of lives: loyalist soldiers manning tanks and artillery, and undoubtedly, even some civilians. If we knew these people personally, we would mourn their loss. They might all be decent people: fathers, sons, brothers — people doing what they construe as their duty, or mislead by Gadhafi’s lies. I don’t mean to minimize or trivialize their deaths. But how would you feel about watching thousands die when we could have prevented it? How is that justified? I have heard some teachers say that compassion trumps the precepts. We should always do what wisdom and compassion tells us to do. The trouble is, we disagree about what is wisdom and what is compassion. I think if I were in Benghazi right now I would be relieved to see allied warplanes overhead. It would not be my house, my neighborhood that was being bombed. It would be the planes and guns that had been targeting my house, my family.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtfully-written article. I am sorely uneducated about Buddhism and it was interesting to finally see one Buddhist interpretation of current events. Something that seemed so archaic and unworldly before now has some relevant context.

    1. Glad you liked reading it, Karen. Please keep in mind this probably not a mainstream Buddhist take on the issue, and that many — if not most — fellow Buddhists might disagree.

  3. Great post Seth. I think you hit on two points that I was mentioning in an earlier piece about bullying. I agree that violence should always be an act of last resort and that it can also be compassionate thing, even though on the surface, it may not appear.

    And yes, I think Buddhists that I’ve talked to have been split, but I honestly think a lot of that comes from a more political and social movement of ethics that sprang from the 1960’s counter-culture from where Buddhism in the West, outside of the Asian communities found fertile ground. I can say with some certainty that Buddhists in Asia, by in large agree that from time to time force must be used. Studying military history, you will see many examples of Buddhists in combat roles, in both defensive and humanitarian missions, as well as, unfortunately aggressive and hostile actions.

  4. Thanks Kyle! As a sixties counter-culture type myself, I can appreciate your comment about the differing political stances of “convert” and “Asian” Buddhists. We’ve certainly seen pro-war stances among Asian Buddhists before, including Zen’s endorsement of the Japanese war effort and the Sri Lankan Sangha’s endorsement of the war against the Tamil Tigers. Those wars were noted for neither their morality nor humanity, and the Buddhist establishment’s endorsement of them didn’t reflect a deep or correct understanding of Buddhist ethics. But you’re right. The Counter-culture has had as marked an imprint on Western Buddhism as Asian sociopolitical factors have had on Asian Buddhism. These these factors are always worth investigating and exploring.

  5. Excellent post, Seth, on a complex and difficult subject. I believe that, if the U.S. and its western allies are to use their immense military power, it should be precisely to help those people who have been oppressed by murderous international terrorists like Ghadaffi, who have been “ethnically cleansed” by the likes of Slobodan Milošević, and slaughtered, raped and abused by the hundreds of thousands in Rwanda, Darfur, and elsewhere. It is wars of aggression, conquest, and imperial ambitions that must be curbed. I do not believe one should abide a Hitler or that such a person can be expected to develop compassion. The fog of politics and war makes it very difficult to properly comprehend this type of situation or to come to an informed and reasoned decision. The situation in Libya, however, is one of unusual moral clarity. I say this as the father of a U.S. marine who survived “Shock and Awe” in Iraq and is in line to be deployed again to some godforsaken place, maybe Libya, putting his life at risk. I also say it as someone who grew up in a cruel, bloody, Latin American dictatorship supported by the U.S. government. I remember sitting on the front porch of my house and watching the rural guards’ jeeps carry often captured rebels into the forest, only to return without the captives. I remember abuses of power I personally witnessed, and peering into a torture chamber in the guards’ headquarters, and the mass graves in the forest, after the fall of the dictator. It is difficult to remain impassive or a absolutist, doctrinal pacifist with those memories. Each situation is different. As a Buddhist, I might have volunteered to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish civil war and for the Allies in WWII. But I fought with all my might against the Vietnam war and oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      1. Cute aphorism. I was merely politely saying “If I did not want the US to take the action taken it did — especially in the manner it did.” But I don’t want to divert into debates on the issue, I was just appreciating the way you shared your decision to prompt the actions of others. I picked up on the obvious shades of uncertainty in your positions — you were playfully obvious about them. I equally hold my contrary opinion in a doubtful position.

  6. Seth,
    I am working on a little piece on (superstitious) “Merit” in Buddhism and ran into this fun little bit which sort of relates to your article. It thought you’d enjoy it because of your refreshing ability to unhesitatingly embrace heterodoxy while valuing orthodoxy! (a compliment):

    “Some people might want to offer weapons such as guns, and grenades to the monk for his safety and for protecting himself, particularly to the monk who lives in the jungle or in the remote areas. But weapons are for fighting and killing; Lord Buddha did not allow monks to own and handle weapons. This is why we will not receive merit from such alms offering. ”
    Source: How to get good results from Merit

  7. @ Sabio. You might enjoy this bit of Tibetan history from Wikipedia about the “Great Fifth” Dalai Lama:

    “The Fifth Dalai Lama is known for unifying Tibet under the control of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, after defeating the rival Kagyu school and a secular ruler, the prince of Tsang based in Shigatse. Sonam Rapten, the Regent during the youth of Lobsang Gyatso, requested the aid of Gushi Khan, a powerful Mongol military leader. Gushi Khan conquered Kham in 1640 bringing the Sakyas and the lords of Kham and Amdo under their control. His victory over the prince of Tsang in Shigatse in 1642, completed the unification of the country, and displacing the rival dominant school of the Karmapas. He then recognized the authority of the Fifth Dalai Lama, making him the ruler of the whole of Tibet. The Mongol army in Tibet and Tibetans loyal to the Gelugpa are said to have forced monks of some Kagyu monasteries to convert to the Gelug school in 1648. In 1674 he met with the 10th Karmapa, Chöying Dorje (1604–1674) at the Potala, and the reconciliation was welcomed by all after the many conflicts and difficulties. However, he banished the Jonang to Amdo from Central Tibet and some Bonpo monasteries were forced to convert to the Gelug school. This ban was politically motivated, although there were some philosophical disagreements.”

    1. @ Seth,

      Indeed, that is a fascinating story! Thank you. I love the intrigues of ‘righteous’ religions of all colors. Though, I am not sure why you included that note to me in this thread. I hope you understand that I personally have no problem with the use of weapons, with ‘appropriate’ violence, with self-defense, with preemptive self-defense, with forcefully defending the weak or the vulnerable or with heavy-handed ass-kicking. 🙂
      I wasn’t trying to be Buddhist in any manner — it is not my disposition. I was just enjoying your wrestlings and thinking on a complex issue that I just happen to disagree with but understand I could be very wrong (which I have been many, many times in the past). 🙂

  8. regardless of what the buddha might or might not do, the reality is that YOU are in favor of innocent people losing their lives. Your lack of insight into the true nature of politics is a little worrying. A no-fly zone always lead to the death of civilians, your president has convinced you that this is a humanitarian mission when it has everything to do with securing the region for US interests and oil, thats it, nothing more. Don’t take my word for it, please research it for yourself. A self proclaimed Buddhist in favor of war? Sorry, I don’t mean to judge but I think you may have missed a few steps along the way. Peace to you….

    1. Sorry we disagree on so much, Chris. I’m also sorry you are so cynical about President Obama’s motivation for American involvement. The West already pumps all the oil there is from Libyan oil fields with Gadhafi’s permisison. It certainly doesn’t need this police action to get more Libyan oil.

      Let me pose this hypothetical question to you. Imagine you’re looking out your window and you see a gang of armed thugs break into your neighbor’s house and you overhear them saying they intend to murder everyone in the house. Do you call the police to stop them, or do you tell yourself “if the police come, there’s bound to be gunfire, and stray bullets may accidently kill innocents in the process” and do nothing? I think the recommendation to do nothing in Libya is like failing to call the police when your neighbor’s house is invaded. I think holding out for the moral purity of pacifism creates the greater moral hazard of failing to save innocents who will certaintly be slaughtered through one’s inaction. As Voltaire said, “le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” “the best is the enemy of the good.”

    2. I agree with you Chris. I find the blind political faith in Obama expressed in this article, disturbing. Especially when an educated inquisitive person expresses it. Seth I think its time to question some of your assumptions about Obama’s intentions or the american governments intentions in the world.

      1. I wouldn’t call it blind faith Laura; more like verified trust. I’ve been very critical of many elements of American foreign policy over the years,including some of Obama’s initiaitives, but time seems to have born out the accuracy of my beliefs in this particular instance: we have no troops in Libya, we haven’t installed a puppet regime there, we haven’t plundered their resources. I’m sure our motives haven’t been 100% “pure” — enlightened self-interest is a necessary part of all foreign policy — but in this case, our motives have been purer than most. I’m more disturbed, actually, by the endemic knee-jerk distrust of Obama on the Left. Sometimes his heart and intentions are actually in the right place; sometimes we actually do the right thing; and sometimes the judicious use of force is exactly the right thing; but rest assured, if we undertake any military action around the world, you can be sure it will be automatically and reflexively condemned by those who always assume the worst.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *