“Fellas, this guy is going to stand trial in a U.S. court, and if we have to stick heroin on his plane to get him there, that’s what we’re going to do.”
– President Jed Bartlet, The West Wing
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was Japan’s top naval commander-in-chief. A brilliant strategist, a masterful tactician, and a genius at logistics, Yamamoto masterminded Pearl Harbor and had operated the Japanese attack fleet against the Allies in such a way that their materiel disadvantage was more than compensated for by his audacity.
In 1942, the American SIS broke the Japanese naval code and used the information – discreetly – to narrowly avoid disaster at Midway. Not long after, that same group, Project Magic, uncovered Yamamoto’s personal itinerary, indicating precisely where he would be and when on his inspection tour of the Pacific Ring defenses.
And we used that information to assassinate him.
I want to be clear: This was no duck-blind ambush, with someone seeing Yamamoto’s plane coming and yelling “Pull!” There were no snipers on tall buildings, no bombs wired to ignition cables, no poisoned jab with an umbrella tip. On 18 April 1943, an attack force of P-38 Lightnings was sent to wipe out the escort and Yamamoto’s special high-speed transports, and they did their jobs.
To the pilots it was battle; that’s what soldiers do in war. They did their jobs and they did them well. But the admirals and (possibly) politicians who approved the attack did so knowing it was deliberate targeted murder, and for that basest of motives: Revenge. Revenge for Pearl Harbor.
Was it wrong? Of course it was. But it was wartime, and like it or not Yamamoto was wearing a uniform and sitting in a military plane. He was a fair target, and his enemies set him up and took the shot. It was immoral mainly due to the calculation and motivation behind it, but against a backdrop of a modern war with unrestricted submarine warfare and the firebombing of cities, that level of immorality fades into the background and vanishes almost without trace.
“He was tortured?”
“Well, I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that’s inadmissible.”
– conversation between President Bartlet and an advisor
On 3rd January 2020, at approximately 1 A.M. local time, an American drone force attacked a convoy carrying high-ranking military leaders on the way to Baghdad International Airport. Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was the primary target; he was killed along with several others including members of the Iraqi military.
Much as with Yamamoto, Soleimani was a uniformed soldier. He directed attacks against the United States, in particular a raid on the Embassy in Baghdad. The Iraqi commander with him cooperated in this raid. And so, when another man halfway around the world made a decision, these two died.
Again, it’s easy to oversimplify things. Soleimani has led the quasi-autonomous Iranian Revolutionary Guard for several years. He was the brains behind Iranian military assistance to Hezbollah in Lebanon, a major driving force against American interests in the Syrian War, supporting Taliban forces in Afghanistan in strikes against American troops, flooding Iraq with anti-armor rounds designed specifically to kill U.S. peacekeeping troops there, and several rather more direct yet clandestine acts. This is a man who funded, trained, and supplied terrorists who attacked Americans, both military and civilian. By logical extension, he was a terrorist, and we declared War On Terror a while back. So… yes, he was an enemy combatant, and so I’m told were the other six people that died with him. Just like Yamamoto — and his fighter escort.
“It’s pretty easy to say this is a war scenario.”
“It’s pretty easy to say anything is a war scenario. The war on poverty. It’s a slippery slope.”
– Jed Bartlet and Leo McGarry
In a way, I’m not really sure what to say here. On the one hand, what we did was wrong. It is immoral to assassinate people. Believing that is what differentiates us from terrorists. Sure, it was legal; under Article II any limited military action can be legally authorized. Heck, we might even have managed somehow to clear it with the Iraqi government first (though I doubt it). And certainly it was justified; this man deserved to die a hundred times over. But all the justification in the world doesn’t make it right.
But there’s that pesky other hand.
Five hundred years ago, wars were fought between armed soldiers. There were rules; hell, it was as much a pageant as a war, with heralds standing by to tell who had won or lost or whether a given blow was fairly struck. And since that time we’ve tried to act as though warfare ought to have rules, because morally of course it should.
But the Civil War wasn’t ended by armies fighting each other. It was brought to a close by Sherman’s march to the sea, burning and pillaging and wiping out infrastructure and agriculture — and incidentally making absolutely certain no Georgia or Carolina troops could come north to reinforce Lee in Virginia. The U.S. justified its entry into the First World War in part due to German U-boat attacks on neutral shipping, but we began the Second by conquering neutral Iceland and ended it by nuking Nagasaki. Military morality has a way of creeping as need drives it.
Which begs that final tough question: Is terrorism always wrong? If so, isn’t what we just did an act of terrorism? Isn’t every successful — and justified — revolution begun by rioters, freedom fighters; terrorists by another name?
To that, I don’t have simple answers. It’s not simple, nor should it be.
But what I do know, and this for certain: Soleimani attacked the United States not once but many times, and he would have continued doing so as long as he lived. Put simply, he needed killin’, and we killed him.
“It’s just wrong. It’s absolutely wrong.”
“I know, but you have to do it anyway.”
“‘Cause you won.”
– Bartlet and Leo
A lot of people are making this out to be about American imperialism, a warmongering president on the eve of a tough election battle, or even the simple morality of assassination. These are all valid positions and reasonable concerns, but I submit to you that they do not apply here.
Whether or not it’s right and proper for American military forces to be in Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, they -are- there. If there’s a moral objection to be raised, it should have been raised when Bush and Obama sent them over, not now — and particularly not against a president who, despite his flaws (and they are myriad, serious, and abhorrent) has been doing his damnedest to pull the troops back home ever since he got elected. It’s not about being fair to Trump so much as it is to yourself; hypocrisy doesn’t look good on anyone. Sure, Trump’s odious; I’ll even grant that he doesn’t deserve to be president — but this is not about Trump.
Regardless of Trump’s election concerns, this reaction was appropriate. Unlike strike plans that had been authorized in the past under Kelly and Bolton (and then never carried out), this response was proportional. It targeted specific enemy assets, and it delivered precise punishment for something we consider a crime. There was no court; there never is with these things, though in an ideal world there ought to be. There was just a man — a very flawed man — who had a decision to make. And, morality notwithstanding, he made it.
If, Heaven forfend, I were in Trump’s shoes, I’d like to think I’d have done the same thing.