1000 dead, ergo. . ..

Source (NYT 09/10/04): It is a lot easier to find logical fallacies in arguments with which you disagree. For the thoughtful reader, disagreement prompts reflection concerning the ground of the disagreement. If, however, I believe deeply that Dick Cheney is right when he claims that electing John Kerry will make us more vulnerable to attack, then my agreement will in all likelihod obscure the fallacies in his implicit argument.

There are many candidates in the op-ed pages of the last few days for analysis and criticism–Novak’s false generalizations about the 500,000 protestors in New York on the basis of a few particular encounters (yesterday in the Chicago Sun Times Source (ChST 09/09/04)), or Krauthammer’s mis-characterizations of the arguments and positions of the Kerry campaign (straw man fallacies) in the Washington Post (Source(WaPo 09/10/04). In a departure from previous form, I want to analyze an argument with which I agree entirely. In a palpably emotional reponse to the NYT’s honouring of the 1000 men and women who have had their lives ended by the conflict in Iraq–and if you have not scrolled through this wracking testimony stop reading and follow this link (Roster of the Dead.) –Herbert asks:

How many thousands more will have to die before we acknowledge that President Bush’s obsession with Iraq and Saddam Hussein has been a catastrophe for the United States?

The question is so serious and necessary that I am, at first, perplexed by the task I have set myself–to analyze the logic of his argument.

His answer to the question is not a precise number, of course, but takes the form of a confirmation of the premise of the question:

At some point, as in Vietnam, the American public will balk at the continued carnage, and this tragic misadventure will become politically unsustainable.

This is the conclusion that Herbert is arguing for. What reasons does he advance for the conclusion?

  1. There is no persuasive goal for this war.
  2. The Americans are not at all clear what they’re fighting for. Saddam is gone. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The link between Saddam and the atrocities of Sept. 11 was always specious and has been proven so.


    You can wave goodbye to the naive idea that democracy would take root in Iraq and then spread like the flowers of spring throughout the Middle East. That was never going to happen

  3. There is no adequate means for winning the war.
  4. And our Iraqi “allies” will never fight their Iraqi brethren with the kind of intensity the U.S. would like, any more than the South Vietnamese would fight their fellow Vietnamese with the fury and the effectiveness demanded by the hawks in the Johnson administration.


    The Iraqi insurgents–whether one agrees with them or not–believe that they are fighting for their homeland, their religion and their families.


    We won’t–and shoudln’t–wage total war in Iraq either. But to the insurgents, the Americans epitomize eveil. . .For them, this is total war.

  5. The cost will eventually be too high for the American people.
  6. There is undoubtedly an unspoken premise here:

  7. The American people will balk at continued carnage, if they perceive the war to pointless, unwinable, and too costly.
  8. Therefore, the American people will (eventually) make this war politically unsustainable.

That I take it is his argument, and as it stands it seems entirely valid. Of course, the truth of the premises could be questioned if our concern was with the soundness of the argument rather than its validity. The premises have not been entirely justifed. His claim about the unlikelihood of democracy arising in the Iraq would certainly be contested and then would need further justification. But we cannot fault him for having premises that need further justification, since all arguments must begin provisionally from premises.

I want to ask now about the presence or absence of two fallacies in his editorial: an appeal to pity and an ad hominem argument.

Appeal to Pity: There will be some I suspect who will try to tarnish the NYT for printing this Roster of the Dead. As Ted Koppel’s Nightline found out months ago, the motives of this memorial will be viewed cynically as a form of manipulation. These critics will argue that the purpose of showing the roster of the dead is to trade on the public’s emotions in order to lead them to the conclusion that the war is not worth the cost. By ratcheting up the publics perception of the real human cost (or at least, the cost for Americans, since a “Roster of the Civilian Dead” would fill a day or more of the NYT) the public will be led to conclude that the war is not worth the price. Of course, the emotions that this Roster of the Dead provoke include at least sadness, pity, and respect. Thus, it might seem to be an implicit argumentum ad misericordiam, or the fallacy of an appeal to pity.

Herbert interrupts his argument three times with a line of four names and nothing more. The question is thus, what is the function of this rhetorical gesture and is it implicitly fallacious?

An argument by appeal to pity is an argument that claims that something is true by evoking an irrelevent emotional experience of pity that makes the listener willing to grant the truth of the claim without justification or reason. The traditional example given in virtually all logic textbooks is: “I deserve an A because if I don’t get an A I won’t get into Law School.” Although the reason might be a motivation for giving an A, it is not a reason for deserving an A. This is where it gets tricky. An appeal to pity only occurs when the appeal is irrelevant for justifying the conclusion.

Herbert’s rhetorical use of the soldiers’ names, however, is directly relevant to his argument: the cost of the war in Iraq is already too high. To judge the truth of this requires that we have a clear sense of what that cost is. The pages of photographs, although it will never convey the real loss experienced in each and every one of the 1000 dead, strives, however failingly, to evoke a sense of its magnitude.

Ad Hominem:

They were sent by a president who ran and hid when he was a young man and his country was at war.

This one sentence stands out in the editorial: It rings of an ad hominem fallacy. An ad hominem fallacy occurs when one argues for a conclusion based on an irrelevant fact about a person who maintains an opposing view. Not all arguments that rest on premises about a person’s character are, however, fallacious. Often character is relevant to the inference that is being made, and even if the character is represented unflatteringly it does not make the argument fallacious.

Once again it is a question of relevance: Is George Bush’s avoidance of risk during the Vietnam war relevant to an assessment of his qualifications for ordering soldiers to their deaths or relevant to the justification of the war?

This is a profoundly difficult question, and one which I suspect those who have served in the military might answer differently than those of us who have not. Given the way the campaign is shaping up, however, we will have ample opportunity to address this question in the future.

In place of that here, I would point out only the following: This sentence does no logical work here and assuming it is true, it would not provide reason to disagree with Bush’s policies and decisions. I don’t think, however, that Herbert intends it to provide such reason, though, in fact, I am not sure what it contributes to his argument.

Arguments, if they are to succeed in persuading, are directed towards those who either disagree or who have not made up their minds. Sometimes even the hint of a fallacy, however, can detract from the persuasiveness of an argument. Just as a fallacy can induce people to accept a conclusion that is not justified, so the appearance of a fallacy can induce people to reject a conclusion that has been justified.

One thought on “1000 dead, ergo. . ..”

  1. J. pointed out that I am probably too soft on Herbert here. He does utilize an ad hominem aside that is entirely unnecessary and only detracts from his argument.

    Though I think that’s right, I’d just add that there is a difference between using an ad hominem as a central part of the argument and using it as a rhetorical side-swipe. In this case, Herbert could have deleted the sentence without affecting his argument.

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