The Closet Moderate: Terminator (1984) Teaches Just War Theory

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Terminator (1984) Teaches Just War Theory

Now, anyone who's taught anything in a formal (in other words, graded) environment is intimately familiar with the expression on Sarah Palin's face when she's asked about the Bush Doctrine. It's the expression every student wears when they're asked a question they have no fucking idea how to answer. It's the facial analogue to the thought "Oh fuck, I'm fucked now. Time to look attentive and talk about something vaguely related to the question and see if I can salvage anything from this mess." We've all worn it, and we've all seen others wear it.

Still, seeing someone who could potentially be President of the United States of America wearing it when confronted with a fairly elementary foreign policy question does not inspire a great deal of confidence.

That aside, Sarah Palin's interview provides the opportunity for me to do one of my favorite things: explain irritatingly complex concepts in a simple fashion using pop-culture iconography. So, when Mrs. Palin is asked about the Bush Doctrine, her response is:

"Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend."

That statement actually makes a terrifying amount of sense, and is a position well-supported by international law and just war theory. It's a sane position to take. The problem is, it's not the Bush Doctrine. The Bush Doctrine is about preventive war, not preemptive war. The crucial difference is the idea of "imminence." Arnold Schwarzenegger will explain, in the thickest Austrian accent he can muster (you might want to read this section aloud for maximum enjoyment):

CM: So, Arnold, when you were sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, would that be analogous to preemptive or preventive war?

AS: That would be a lot like preventive war. You see, the goal was to terminate Sarah Connor in order to prevent John Connor from being born, thereby ending the threat he would later pose to Skynet as an adult leader of the resistance. Paradoxically, our attempt to kill Sarah Connor ended up creating exactly the situation we were trying to prevent. [ironic, vaguely threatening laughter] However, the situation was a little more complicated because of time travel--I had certain knowledge that John Connor would be a threat to Skynet because I came from the future.

CM: And why would that course of action be frowned upon in the international community?

AS: Well, you see, in a world as complex as ours it is hard to accurately project the costs and consequences of our actions over a long period of time. If a nearly omniscient and singleminded artificial intelligence and its time-traveling nearly-indestructible cyborg assassin couldn't prevent one measly human female from conceiving a rebel leader, what hope can there be for a disjointed herd of puny humans striving to accomplish a far more ambitious goal? And, in the meantime, I murdered a lot of innocent people who were only tangentially related to event I was programmed to prevent.

CM: You the terminator, or you the Governor of California?

AS: Yes.

CM [Nervously]: So, uh, can you give us an analogy or example of preemptive war?

AS: You will remember that scene in the nightclub when I am advancing on Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese is at the bar, and he shoots me with the sawed-off shotgun right before I shoot her with my gun? That is preemptive war. I am about to kill her, and Kyle has a limited number of options and a sharply limited timeframe in which to consider them. In other words, the threat to his charge is imminent. In this case, his application of force against my robust hyperalloy endoskeleton was his only hope for seizing the element of surprise and perhaps disrupting the otherwise imminent termination of Sarah Connor and thus protected under international and intertemporal law.

The next time you're hitting on a hot chick at an IR conference and she flips her hair and asks you what the difference between prevention and preemption is, you can refer back to this handy explanation and work your best Ahnold impression. And who knows? She might even overlook your flabby midsection, pasty skin and watery, nearsighted eyes and decide to go for it.


[Crossposted to From the Balcony.]


Herodotus said...

I finally got around to reading this, huzzah for the apt analogy.

I wonder what von Clausewitz would say about Terminator as a study of war theory in general. Do artificially intelligent cyborg kill-machines experience the fog of war? Clearly in the Terminator scenario, there is no moral issue with killing innocent civilians since the end goal in the future is the destruction of humanity anyway. And what of the strategy and tactics? Surely one must admire Skynet’s tactical capabilities of time travel, but surely he’d question their strategy. Really? The ability to travel through time and all they do is send back one cyborg to kill a woman? Why not send several killbots through time and kill lots of people? Or, instead of programming Arnold for kill, program him to take over Skynet, and use the technical knowledge of the future to start the war much earlier? And that said, what of the human rebels of the future? They somehow also travel through time. Instead of taking on super killbot, why not kill the puny nerds who eventually found Skynet? Murder? Perhaps, but von Clauswitz would certainly appreciate the limited and achievable aims and greater good. I think he would also find Summer Glau hot.

Dixie said...

You write very well.