Andy McNab says yes, Mark Kurlansky says noby Andy McNab and Mark Kurlansky / November 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Yes: I have respect for well-meaning people who say, “it’s never right to kill.” The pacifist is a person of great bravery—but also naivety. Maybe they have had the good fortune of never experiencing anything that has forced them to question their belief. Clearly, they have never faced a force-on-force encounter, otherwise their moral stance would have resulted in them being dead.Killing for domination, and ultimately for survival, is partly the reason why we are so successful as a species. Killing each other is part of the human experience and history has shown that mankind has always had a fascination with it.Roman gladiatorial combat was barbaric, but it fulfilled a societal need. That need is still with us. According to US research, the average 18-year-old teenage boy has been subjected to approximately 22,000 killings of their fellow human beings on film, television and computer games. Death and combat have long been viewed as a form of entertainment. But killing is not just about people destroying each other. It can solve problems.Would the Haitian slave rebellion of 1781 have been successful if the slaves had decided to join together as a union to demand freedom? Would their peaceful threats to withdraw their labour from the sugar cane fields unless their French owners gave in to their demands have been successful? I think not. The rebellion would have failed and even more slaves would have been killed. It would have been the only way the French could have solved the problem. We celebrate the slaves’ success now with the benefit of hindsight and regard the event as the start of abolition. Much like the fight against Hitler and fascism, the only way to win is to match the force and violence we face.As the quote often attributed to Winston Churchill says: “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”No: Your argument was in its deepest trouble when you quoted Winston Churchill, a war monger who was one of the causes of the Second World War, despite claims to the contrary. Yes, Hitler could have been stopped without violence as the Danish demonstrated. As the Czechs demonstrated against the Soviet Union in 1989, as the Indians demonstrated against a brutal, racist regime (which Churchill led) that thought nothing of machine gunning crowds of women and children, as Desmond Tutu showed against apartheid. There are many such examples of people standing peacefully against ruthless violent foes.But your fundamental argument about the human species is a perfect example of what biologist EO Wilson calls the “naturalist fallacy.” Wilson, whose expertise is ants, which are even more violent than humans, believes that violence is a part of nature. He says that human beings are “hard-wired for violence.” But he also believes that there is no reason that we have to give in to this destructive impulse, anymore than we have to run naked or eat with our fingers.Violence does not solve problems, it creates them. The Second World War created the Cold War with a half dozen other wars. The American Civil War created Jim Crow and African Americans are still struggling to cast their votes. Violence leads to violence. Unimpeded, it does not resolve. The success of the human species has been the ability to create. The ability to kill may yet destroy them.An individual may find him or herself in a situation where the only solution that is viable is to kill. Were I in that situation I might kill. But it would be a great failure. I would have failed to find a solution and I would rightly feel tremendous guilt. Non-violence requires not only physical courage but great intelligence. Anything else is a failure in both moral and practical terms.Yes: I agree that there have been examples of non-aggression to resolve oppression, but plenty of examples give a different lesson. The ANC conducted a campaign of terror in South Africa that killed many innocent people before they realised they would lose that fight. Tutu’s policy of non-aggression has not stopped 19,000 murders a year in his country. The partition of India resulted in over a million Indians killing each other. That is because EO Wilson is correct: we are hard-wired for violence. We do, it is true, try and control our destructive impulses.Alliances, treaties and even global commerce have made the world far safer than ever before. The UN tries to resolve disputes before they escalate to war, as do organisations like Nato. But we have given these bodies the power to authorise states to kill. The mutual threat of destruction has kept peace for over 70 years.You might say commerce has done that too. But wealth cannot control our hard-wiring. In response to the US trade sanctions, the Chinese government have warned: “When trade stops, war starts.” What history has taught us about killing is that it will continue. As climate change affects our natural resources, we have institutions, organisations and treaties to avoid conflict. But eventually there will be war to control these ever-declining resources. The stronger nations or alliances will take the spoils and understand that they will also have to defend them.I have only written about state killing. What about personal? How can killing a terrorist travelling on public transport and wearing a suicide vest be considered a failure in both moral and practical terms? Is it not both moral and practical to preserve the lives of the greater number? If not you would be responsible for even more deaths and wouldn’t that be considered an even bigger failure?No: Nobody argues that non-violence creates perfect states, only that it can effectively overthrow tyrants and avoids pointless slaughter.I think you are missing Wilson’s point. (By the way, he is a pacifist.) He was saying that just because you are hard-wired for something does not mean that this is what you ought to do. We are probably hard-wired for polygamy. And I doubt we are hard-wired for democracy. Sometimes you need to struggle against your nature. Saying it is in my nature is not a valid argument for doing something.I have never heard it suggested that mutually assured nuclear destruction was a good way to run the world for 70 years of peace. It is quite true but possibly beside the point that “when trade stops war begins.” That is why free trade agreements, including the European Union, are very good ideas while nationalism and Brexit are not.If a terrorist has a bomb and he is killed to stop the bombing, this may be the only solution that could be found at the time. But it is a failure to find the better solution. Why? Because killing is wrong. If you don’t believe that, what do you have against the terrorist in the first place? To say “killing justifies killing,” is a logical absurdism. It is like capital punishment, killing the killer because it is wrong to kill.I understand a circumstance where nothing better than killing the killer can be thought of, but it is a failure. Law enforcement officers are not supposed to kill. When they do there is an investigation. If an alternative could have been easily imagined it is considered a crime. If no one can think of a solution it is accepted. But it is really a failure to find the alternative.Yes: I agree that just because we are hard-wired to kill, it doesn’t mean we should kill. We do because it’s in our genes, and that drives our emotions and even our societies. That is why we need governance to control our proclivity to kill each other. As a 19-year-old soldier I killed someone for the first time, it was me or him, and it was a natural instinct to protect my own life. Since then I have killed to prevent myself being killed and killed to stop others from being killed. I feel no elation, shame or personal failure. I had a right, as a soldier in the battle space, to defend myself and others from aggressors. I would have the same right if my home was invaded by people who wished my family harm.We can come up with as many academic arguments as we like, but none of them are going to help in a real-life situation because that is when natural instinct kicks in—when we have to make immediate judgments on right and wrong, and immediate decisions on how to act.I know from personal experience that it is impossible to reason people out of killing, no matter what governance is placed on a state or individual. During my career in the army I saw brutality and destruction, including the senseless slaughter of women and children. That is why killing can be justified and if I was able to I would have killed any number of people to prevent other innocent people from dying.I would like to end with a simple quote. It isn’t from a world-class academic or great statesperson but from people like myself who have experience of having to make these decisions. “If you are still breathing, you are still winning.”No: I have to admit that I am not an admirer of war veterans. I don’t find them heroic and I don’t, as the expression goes in America “feel grateful for their service.” I wish they hadn’t served at all. But I do feel compassion because I think they are victims, sold on a great lie. I have been around combat veterans, starting with my family, and then neighbours and friends and colleagues, all of my life. And I have seen that they suffer.Psychiatrists who specialise in combat veterans such as Jonathan Shay in Boston, say that they struggle because they were forced to do things that deep inside were against their nature.But you say you killed without remorse. That is more disturbing. I don’t know why you think that people who oppose violence have merely academic interest. Many of us have reached this point from real-life experience. I was in the exact same position as you. But I refused to do it and I am very glad I did. I wish you had too.Killing a stranger because some government told you to do it is no way to act. Let’s all refuse and see if governments can’t get more creative about statecraft.