nick fury’s ambiguous civilian protection approach

First, a sincere apology to my readership: between final examsmy girlfriend‘s Georgetown graduation, and the first few weeks of my summer internship, I haven’t had much time to blog throughout the past month. My summer blogging schedule will be light, and I’ll stick to broader, conceptual pieces, which require summer levels of mental clarity, rather than periodic, frustrated comments on the Shortsighted Sudan Column of the Week. In the meantime, a number of excellent, young blogs have appeared on the Interwebs: Ben Brockman’s travelogue, which will chronicle his experiences as an international development consultant in Zambia; Sean Langberg’s “Tower of Babel,” which centers on critical geography, human rights advocacy, and community organizing; and, not to be missed, Adam Elkus and Dan Trombly also blog at former House-of-Exum Abu Muqawama, and have brought a youthful, insightful perspective to CNAS’ digital discussion of military strategy, disruptive technologies, and policymaking processes.

Last night, I went to see Joss Whedon’s Avengers–my second viewing, and my girlfriend’s first. The first time around, I wrote up a short review, highlighting the Marvel dialogue’s Universe-wide whimsy, Whedon’s sober, humanistic approach towards superheroism, and A.O. Scott’s infernal wrongheadedness. A full month later, I’ve been thoroughly briefed into the Whedon community–if not the fandom, per se, certainly a loose constituency of novice enthusiasts. Taking full advantage of my newfound affection, Hayes proposed a blog concept: reconcile the S.H.I.E.L.D’ counter-alien mobilization, alien military operations, and the Avengers’ unwavering commitment to civilian protection. After a series of Firefly-dependent weeks, a Serenity night, and my second Avengers viewing, Whedon’s prioritization of civilian lives, the relationship between heroism and protection in conflict, and ethical, responsible stabilization operations is evident (see, “Heart of Gold“). As the saying goes, when Hayes gives you lemons, make Mudder’s Milk:

The emergence, over the last decade, of the U.S. and international atrocities prevention movement has, in some respects, both complicated and simplified our understanding of “civilian protection,” its functional purpose, and its relevance to the practice of international human rights policy. Advocates, myself included, often blur rights-related dynamics of political violence, highlighting a pervasive need for civilian-minded approaches to conflict resolution, prevention, and mitigation. However, as Hugh Breakey observes in his excellent literature review of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine and “protection of civilian” framework, civilian protection (as policymakers understand it) and R2P (as advocates perceive it) represent two distinct, if potentially reconcilable policy planes. Under R2P, civilian protection is a policy priority, subject to the myriad whims of intrastate politics: territorial control, operational dominance, and military strategy, among others; in an international-institutional context, civilian protection has encountered a broader normative evolution, ranging from ethical boundaries in warfare to humanitarian procedures. The latter’s humanitarian and peacekeeping iterations, as Breakey indicates, are notable for their veil of impartiality, which prioritizes the fact of life-saving over the complex slog of political violence.

Now, Hayes posits that, more than any other component of their warfighting approach, civilian protection underlines the Avengers’ efforts against Loki’s alien invasion. From a purely objective perspective, this statement is not in dispute. The Avengers’ operational approach is clear: a containment perimeter, which focuses the battle around an already devastated, largely evacuated Pershing Square Plaza, restricts the civilian costs of violent conflict. Instead, civilian protection’s role is more discrete: the question is not whether, but how civilian protection operates, and how the Avengers’ approach conflicts with S.H.I.E.L.D’s.

As Nick Fury’s wanton endorsement of Phase 2 weapons development demonstrates, the S.H.I.E.L.D director adopts a maximalist understanding of his agency’s mandate, particularly as concerns the complex processes of (human) civilian protection. At the beginning of the movie, Fury actively demonstrates his interest in weaponizing the tesseract, which he intends to use as a technical platform to protect the Earth’s population from divine interventions, alien invasions, zombie apocalypses, and the like (well, not the third one). As Tony Stark is quick to observe, Fury adopts a prototypical “technology rules” fallacy: if Earth’s elites can harness divine technologies, demigod hoards stand little chance of planetary takeover, civilian destruction, and mass subjugation. Of course, Fury is hopelessly incorrect, and soon finds himself before the Shadow Council, defending the strategic, operational, and morale value of the Avengers’ (mostly) human strike force. But, before he adopts a counter-Phase 2 approach, Fury’s civilian protection concept is clear: it’s about the policy, and Fury is willing to use whatever means are most effective to achieve his short-term goals, regardless of their long-term consequences. The Shadow Council’s political leadership is an inherently limiting force, restricting Fury’s civilian protection priorities to the Council’s strategic objectives.

The Avengers, generally speaking, take a different tack. On the Awesome Floating Fortress Thing, the Avengers engage Fury in a heated, Loki-infused debate over Phase 2 arms proliferation, gamma deterrence, and the effectiveness of technical approaches to civilian protection policy. The Avengers, in their extensive wisdom, recognize an essential truth of civilian protection’s implementation: sometimes, settling for an operational framework, therefore avoiding the complications of doctrine, is the best we can hope for. When, at the end of the film, the Shadow Council overrides a nuclear-armed F-35, sending a wave of tactical destruction towards Manhattan, the Avengers seek to destroy the missile, at the potential expense of S.H.I.E.L.D’s operational success. The Avengers prioritize civilian protection, but it’s the civilian protection of a peacekeeping organization, approximating the impartiality expected of UN forces. In an idealized approach, the Avengers circumnavigate the Shadow Council’s politics, ensuring civilian security within their operating environment.

There is, admittedly, a missing link, which Whedon is quick to address at the end of the film: accountability, and its inextricable role in ensuring effective civilian protection policies, operational procedures, and norms. In much of the Marvel Universe’s historical narrative, the Avengers function as a standby peacekeeping force, with a charter to boot. In Whedon’s film, the Avengers are an ad-hoc team, mobilized outside of the formal institutional framework of an accountable organization. S.H.I.E.L.D is depicted as a covert initiative, with few oversight capabilities. However, particularly in the context of superheroism, accountability remains a persistent challenge, and one which should underline the Avengers’–and our–perceptions of responsible civilian protection approaches.

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