The effect of the chain of command on the Dirty Hands issue

November 8, 2011

Dirty Hands


An issue of great complexity is that of the Dirty Hands problem. The concept itself is a judgment. To speculate an occurrence of Dirty Hands is to apply your personal views unto the actions of someone else. When making a judgment, circumstances need to be considered in order for it to be supported. However, this is subject to pluralism, which is why a judgment of Dirty Hands can be very questionable.

A reasonable definition for a Dirty Hands problem is an act by which a politician violates the constraints of morality in order to achieve good. In other words, he/she does something bad while keeping in mind the INTEREST OF THE STATE. This issue dates back to Machiavelli who firmly believed that a leader should be prepared to make unpopular decisions in order to maintain and defend the state. He also thought that a leader must have the wisdom to know when to make these decisions, not just the ability to make them.

A lot has changed since Machiavelli’s time, but his contribution to political theory are still held in high regard. The management of a state is not exactly the same as he outlined it, which is why his application to certain circumstances are unclear. In today’s government, we have a ‘chain of command’ like system in nearly every aspect. With a chain of command comes the transfer of information. By transferring information, accuracy is compromised by personal interpretation and method of delivery. In other words, an idea might be interpreted a slightly different way because of personal understanding (prior knowledge) as well as the way the idea was delivered ( was it clear, unclear, etc.). When interpretation changes an original idea then the interests behind that idea can be thought to have changed. This complicates the issue of the Dirty Hands problem a great deal which is why the chain of command (the passing of ideas) can change judgment on whether an act is categorized under Dirty Hands.

An real world example of this complication is the torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Abu Ghraib was a US military detention center where terror suspects were interrogated by soldiers. In March 2004, under the Bush Administration, journalist Seymour Hersh released photos of the detainees in a United States prison in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. These photos were brutal and revealing. They consisted of Iraqi detainees being tortured by U.S. military officers. Prisoners were naked, cuffed, physically stressed, and sexually humiliated in little, metal prison cells. In addition, soldiers were smiling and throwing their thumbs up as these detainees suffered. Are these soldiers victims of Dirty Hands? Were their brutal methods essentially justified by their want to eliminate Al-Qaeda?

It is important to note that these soldiers were given orders by their commanders. These commanders were given orders by secretaries and government officials. In the end, all the soldiers remember hearing was: “take the gloves off to soften them up,”–a quote by Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Hersh 4). By hearing an order like that, how is the interest of the state implied? For one to truly judge whether an issue is a Dirty Hands problem there needs to be implication of some sort of interest. A soldier in combat might take those eight words differently than a high ranking government official in the Department of Defense. With this, are the interests of the soldiers skewed because of their poorly delivered orders by Secy. Rumsfeld? Skewed interests leads to questionable validity of the means. The ends are in question because of the chain of command. The ends can no longer justify the means unless enough is done in the chain of command (consistently) to enforce the interest of the state and prevent inaccurate interpretation.

Works Cited

Hersh, Seymour M. Chain of Command: the Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.

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4 Comments on “The effect of the chain of command on the Dirty Hands issue”

  1. Jake Weimar Says:

    I agree that the source can affect the message that is received. When writing a paper or doing research for a project you need to have reputable resources. Getting information from a different source can change the connotation, and degree of what is interpreted. The situation the individual is in can also change the meaning of what is said. Not following orders in war gets people killed.

    I disagree that the ends can no longer justify the means because of this. While the meaning can be changed depending on the source and the situation, this is not a product of our time. Not so long ago it was much harder to communicate so the message had much more potential to be changed. The message was relayed through just as many sources to the soldiers.

    The only difference between then and now is we actually find out about news like soldiers torturing detainees. In Machiavellian times the Prince would not have made this information public, and no investigative reporters would have found out about this information. Now there are 24 hour news stations with televisions and internet to quickly spread this information to the masses.

    The ends still justify the means it is just easier to judge now because the subjects have more information.

  2. ldahbour Says:

    With a change in connotation comes change in action. So, although it was the ‘goal’ of the US to surface terrorists in Iraq the actual soldiers committing the act did not do it with the correct interest in mind. Therefore we see that the methods of interrogation were amplified to a degree that lies outside the original boundaries set by the original interests.

    It can’t be assumed that inaccurate interpretation does not influence means. You are right about the difficulty of communication, which is why there had to be a greater deal of law enforcement in the case of Abu Ghraib. When Rumsfeld said ‘soften them up’ I certainly hope he didn’t mean strip the naked, sexually abuse them, and urinate on them. If so, then this becomes an issue of international law (ie the Geneva Conventions–the only law soldiers can appeal to). His loose words lead to the actions executed by the soldiers. So the transfer of information influences the means, and it would be silly not to recognize that.

    I do respect your opinion and appreciate your comment a lot! Thank you.

  3. sarahspath23 Says:

    This issue seems to be a question of dirty hands, not of the soldiers, but of the U.S. government. Machiavelli’s point about how the ends justify the means, refers to the person(s) in charge, the government. The soldiers, in my opinion, are not part of the U.S. government directly; they are not elected by the people. Also, the soldiers are not making the decisions to “take the gloves off.” This decision was made by someone in the U.S. government, which was trickled down to the soldiers. Therefore, I think the dirty hands issue relates the U.S. government, not the soldiers, to the “prince” in Machiavelli’s terms.

    However, I believe it is a valid point brought up in the post that the original decision with what to do with the prisoners in Abu Ghraib could have gotten misinterpreted down the chain of command. This reminds me of the game, “telephone” that I used to play as a kid where someone would come up with a sentence and everyone would take a turn whispering the sentence into the person’s ear to the right of them. By the end of the chain, the sentence always became twisted into something way different. It is possible, then, that government officials made a decision to be more forceful, but still within the realm of reason. However, if these officials did not articulate exactly what was alright and what wasn’t, people down the chain of command interpret the decision in whichever way they liked. Although this is certainly a possibility, I do not think it was the main cause of the awful torture that happened in Abu Ghraib. With such a direct, extreme command from Donald Rumsfeld, I do not think the soldiers interpreted it to be something it wasn’t meant to be. I also do not think government officials higher up in the line than Rumsfeld would have allowed the violent actions of the soldiers to continue if it was not what they had originally commanded and thought was acceptable.

    Now, comes the question of if the ends justify the means. The means, no matter how violent and horrific they were, are irrelevant if this is a dirty hands issue. Nothing was off limits with respect to the means according to Machiavelli, as long as the end result was in the best interests of the people of the state. Therefore, what we need to focus on is the reason behind the decision to issue a command for such violent and un-American action. The main reason I can think of behind the government’s decision is to ensure American’s safety in the future by eliminating/breaking up Al-Qaeda. If this was the actual and only reason for the torture of the prisoners, Machiavelli would see this as a end that is selfless and in the best interests of the people. However, I do believe there are more reasons behind this decision than simply to protect the people because the government could have just as easily protected its people by imprisoning and interrogating the Al-Qaeda members without the physical and violent torture.

    I also think that the government felt the need to command that the soldiers “take the gloves off” because of revenge and also to prove to other groups and countries how powerful the U.S. is and won’t stand for the harming of its people. I think that there was some selfish motive in the decision to hurt the prisoners in such a horrific way. It is possible that the U.S. wanted to get revenge on Al-Qaeda for the harm they caused to so many Americans. Although many Americans probably also wanted revenge, I don’t think that they would have wanted it through the torturing of prisoners. I think that Americans wanted justice, more than revenge. Therefore, in this case, the government’s end was not for its people. Secondly, it is also possible that the U.S. wanted to prove how powerful it was so that no other groups would attempt to go against them. This too was a somewhat selfish motive and does not justify the means.

    Overall, it is difficult just looking in from the outside to know if the torturing of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib was a case of dirty hands. However, I believe that there were many reasons, some in the best interests of the American people and some not, that went down the chain of command and led to the unimaginable treatment of the prisoners. Therefore, I do not think this was a case of dirty hands.

  4. briank726 Says:

    I like the example you gave, and i find it similar to Hollis’. However, I don’t think that the soldiers’ actions were solely due to a skewed interpretation of the message. Even they should have known that no command could possibly be so extreme as to humiliate the prisoners as they did. While the original message may have been a case of Dirty Hands, the way the soldiers acted was not. It was not justified nor for the welfare of the state. The ends did not justify the means in this case. The message’s order could have been carried out without the excess violence and humiliation. A similar case of Dirty Hands is the torturing of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Here, the soldiers are actually ordered to harm them and put them in extreme pain to get information out of them. This is a clear case of Dirty Hands because it is a moral wrong being committed for the welfare of the state. And if they are able to gain valuable information through this torturing, the ends most likely justify the means.

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