Sunday, April 09, 2006

Michael Williamson: The Weapon

Michael Williamson's novel The Weapon is tiresome, but with plenty of adventure. The protagonist, Ken Chinran, is a boastful special agent who is assigned to many secretive, dangerous missions. The book follows him through a brutal training regime, intended to harden him and weed out the weak, and into his deployment as a special agent. The story is presented in enough gruesome detail to weed out many readers as well.

The novel was a nominee for the Prometheus award; I read it as a member of the finalist nominating committee. I stopped reading about 50 pages from the end, which is not at all normal for me, but I'd had enough, and from what I'd heard from other reviewers, the disquieting events I was reading at the time were only going to get worse.

Chinran can personally take on (unarmed) a handful of conventionally trained and armed troops and disable them all in less than a minute. The reason the book is a plausible contender for the Prometheus is that he is part of an elite unit defending Freehold, a peaceful, free, market-oriented planet. The emphasis on defense of liberty, and the idea that a peaceful society has to be able to and willing to defend itself in order to survive in a hostile environment is thoroughly justifiable. But the story tries to make the case that this extends to indiscriminate slaughter of civilians on the opposing side. It doesn't succeed, in my view.

Chinran's personal reaction to the events he participates in are at least in the right direction: he is revolted in several cases by what he has done, but remains convinced that he did the right thing, and continues to follow orders. There's a particular campaign he leads which ends in a scene reminiscent of Viet Nam's My Lai Massacre. In this case, Chinran and his squad has been attempting to instill fear of his peacekeeping force in an environment in which all tribes are at each other's throats. Their campaign uses surprise, fear and threats to cow successive villages into giving up arms at least temporarily. Chinran justifies the strategy to himself and the reader because they're only using threats, and not actually killing anyone. Because of their superior battle acumen (all the members of Chinran's squad are as highly trained as he is), they are able to get the drop on village after village, and when entire families are lined up, the fighters are usually quick to capitulate.

Eventually, however, they come across a village in which the head man is defiant, and refuses to give up his grievances with his neighbors. Chinran concludes that the logic of the situation requires that they massacre everyone in the village in order to maintain the believability of their threats. (Chinran, as leader of the squad, takes the first shot as he orders the massacre.) But in the aftermath of the massacre, everyone in the squad needs counseling and time away from the battlefield. The campaign is halted, and they move on to the next battle.

If they had intended from the beginning to perform indiscriminate killing in the name of maintaining the peace, I could see Chinran's argument. I'd still question the underlying morality, but at least it would have been internally consistent. As it is, the logic of the situation (their reliance on an ethic that threats were acceptable, and killing to be minimized) required that once their bluff was called, they should have given up on the campaign and tried a different tactic. They weren't willing or able to continue the campaign under the changed rules, so the massacre didn't serve the purpose Chinran proposed for it. The campaign was over, and the slaughter didn't preserve any options they could morally make use of.

I can easily imagine that similar forces were in play in the incident with Lt. William Calley at My Lai in Viet Nam. (Though I admit to knowing few details.) But an American or any military that believes in some kind of just war moral theory isn't going to continue a campaign on those terms for long. Indiscriminate slaughter of civilians is the wrong answer

I had considered giving up on the book several times much earlier. There is little character development, and no unifying conflict other than repeated jibes at societies that aren't as free as Chinran's Freehold, and the subject populations that allow their governments to micromanage their lives.

The book tells about a series of engagements that establish and develop Chinran's skills and abilities. He undergoes basic and advanced training and a sequence of training assignments before being assigned to head a sleeper cell on Earth in case a threatened war develops. Since Chinran's home doesn't have the population base that Earth does, their self-defense plan is to sow havoc behind the front lines sapping Earth's will to continue.

At the point in the book where I finally gave up, Chinran's elite forces have killed millions of civilians in cities all over the world, and spread panic that will kill many more. Chinran wanders around a devastated Minneapolis, and is sick about the effects he has caused. But the other reviews I've seen tell me that he will willingly do it again and worse. I'm not going to read the rest of the book.

There is a right to self-defense, and it does entail violence and the death of innocent bystanders. But part of the theory has to be knowing where to draw the line at wholesale targeting of non-combatants. Aiming for military targets and accepting civilian casualties because your enemy has located them close together can be justified. It might be effective to target the civilians first, but I don't think you can claim it's a moral way to wage a war.

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