What constitutes mercy? Under what circumstances does mercy become an ill-afforded luxury? Is there intrinsic value in sacrificing soldiers in order to retain a moral imperative? Does that value persist if exercising mercy may prolong the combat and prevent an immediate peaceable solution, post conflict? These two posts on Weekend Pundit and The Truth Laid Bear have turned my thoughts to this topic.

One of the overarching concerns of the Coalition has been to minimize civilian casualties as well as to avoid wholesale slaughter of Iraqi troops. The feeling is that most of the rank and file of the armed forces would just as soon go home as die fighting a futile war to preserve the reign of the tyrant Saddam. On the surface this seems a reasonable expectation, but as has been clearly demonstrated, the situation in Iraq is far more complex: it defies simple pronouncements and therefore confounds simple solutions. Offering troops the opportunity to surrender in a situation where the Coalition cannot guarantee they can be prevented from rejoining the battle, willingly or otherwise, renders the practice virtually meaningless and ultimately foolhardy. The desire to show mercy in these cases is counter to the objective of de-mobilizing the regular Iraqi Army.

Despite the above, mercy is ultimately the best weapon the west can wield against the reactionaries, both religious and socialist. The cost is high in the short term, both in blood and treasure and there will be absolutely no short-term reward. That bears repeating: There will be NO short-term reward. Those whose cultures are too diseased to see anything other than weakness in the willingness to forgo killing, just this one time, will exploit acts of mercy. A policy of mercy requires an acceptance of the vulnerability it imposes and an understanding that the ultimate reward will not be realized in days, or weeks, or months, but likely in decades.

Mercy does not require prostration to those who would abuse it. The hand that firmly clutches the sword can deliver mercy, often times far more effectively than the hand that refuses to wield one. Mercy is possessed of more meaning when it comes from a position of strength and determination and it is most effective when it constitutes a central pillar of a policy of reconstruction and reconciliation. Mercy can be given with the full intent to severely punish those who abuse it, but one must be willing to accept the cost, and must be willing to follow through with consequences.

An interesting (and admittedly not perfect) parallel to this can be found in the history of crime and punishment in the United States during the third quarter of the twentieth century. Increasingly the experts in criminal behavior were putting forth he idea that there were underlying causes that went beyond simplistic explanations that some people were simply “bad seed”. Doctors became involved in attempts to truly rehabilitate those involved in a life of crime. Attempts were made to determine root causes, tie anti-social behavior to childhood traumas, find ways to allow the alienated to express the rage the experts were certain lay at the core of their misbehavior. Adjunct to this there were moves to loosen the penal system, to allow experts to pronounce on the worthiness of the rehabilitated. In short, there was an attempt to make a systematic application of mercy in an attempt to turn the tide against the undercurrents of criminal behavior.

The attempts to make mercy a more central part of the criminal justice system are generally considered to have been a failure. Central to this assessment is the idea that mercy had transformed the penal system in to a revolving door through which offenders were cycled through the system and released in to society when “experts” decided they were ready. Ten years in prison no longer meant ten years in prison. Mercy had been expanded to a point where it ceased to have any true meaning. It is almost tragic that the experience was perceived as such a failure by the public because those who attempted it had the right idea, but lacked the science to back them up. Today the west understands far more about the biochemistry of mental illness, but routinely locks up the mentally ill in holding pens where the emphasis is solely on punishment and lip service (if any) is paid to the idea of rehabilitation, but that is a topic for another day.

The lesson is that mercy was applied without a firm understanding of how it should work and with a popular perception that there was no great consequence to abusing the mercy one was shown. The result was a failure that the United States struggles with to this very day.

Military strength can crush armies. Economic prosperity can entice. But only mercy can begin to cure the disease of fundamentalist reactionary resentment. The reactionaries will not respect mercy shown by those whom they perceive to be weak- hence 300,000 soldiers march on Baghdad. The west has the strength to crush them. The west must also have the strength to offer the firm hand of mercy; the kind of mercy that is a second chance, not a third or a fourth or a fifth. Mercy that offers not blind forgiveness, but the chance for redemption. THAT is the great task of western society.

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