"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, February 18, 2013

Just Wars And Killing Children

In an article in The Guardian (2.17.13) James Jeffrey writes about the emotional wounds of war suffered by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. In these wars, he says “Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan find little ethical defense in the 'just war'. Each of us struggles to make peace with our actions”. He cites the killing of children as the most emotionally traumatic:

During the ensuing firefight with the Taliban, he spotted a girl – he reckoned a four-year-old – on the roof of an Afghan compound, holding a mobile phone to her ear. He assessed she was a Taliban mortar fire controller, directing intense enemy fire onto his patrol's position; they were pinned down as a result. He radioed a jet and directed it to drop a bomb on the girl and the building.

The soldier in question commented, “I did what I had to do”, but Jeffrey suggests that it is just this kind of incident which causes permanent emotional damage and lifelong, painful reflection:

"The killing of children, Jerry children, or Jap children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us, can never be justified," wrote Kurt Vonnegut, after he experienced the Dresden bombing.

It is no solace, Jeffrey continues, in the conviction that the actions were justified because of the nature of the war and its supposedly righteous goal.  Even if a soldier were to believe that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were necessary, right, and moral, the wounds left by fighting in ‘the fog of war’ will be deep, painful, and permanent:

"I'm no longer the 'good' person I once thought I was," wrote Timothy Kudo an ex-US marine corps captain, of life after an Afghanistan tour and ordering the deaths of others. He nails a dilemma most veterans face: the only people who can forgive us are dead.

That thought haunts the coming to terms with what we were part of and who we thought we were. Futile attempts to reconcile our actions in wars which proved to have little if nothing to do with defending our homeland or that of others fuel further doubts about whatever threads of moral authority we thought we once possessed or knew how to act on.

Since WWII the United States has not fought in what was universally considered to be a moral or just war.  In that conflict, countries were invaded in a brutal, medieval assault to conquer and to annex.  Not only that, the man behind the European war, Hitler, committed heinous acts, and the Holocaust still lives in most people’s minds as the most barbaric and uncivilized event in history, bar none.  Although many rulers have been responsible for more death and destruction - Genghis Khan alone is reported to have killed an estimated 40 million people, 11 percent of the known world – and Stalin, Tamburlaine, and Pol Pot had plenty of blood on their hands; we believe that Hitler was evil. Genghis Khan rode out of the steppes, marauding through Asia and Europe to conquer and to build a vast empire; but the killing of the Jews had nothing to do with Nazi expansionism.  It was a planned extermination but secondary to the principle reason for invading the Sudetenland.  He killed because he was evil. If there ever was a just war, WWII was it.

It is undeniable that thousands of veterans of WWII returned from the front with what is now called PTSD; or what was called 'shell shock’ in WWI.  Soldiers in war – any war whether just or unjust – are subjected to horrors that no civilian can truly appreciate.  War is not the sanitized, heroic vision of Hollywood; and even when filmmakers try to add grit and reality, the real stench, the grotesque wounds, the hysteria, the fear, and the terror can never be accurately depicted. 

The realities of war have also been misted over by our conviction that it was fought by our greatest generation, and that heroism and hero-worship has cloaked the brutality and misery of war. 

Our perception of how the war was fought also clouds are judgment about shell shock and psychological trauma.  There were front lines in WWII, frontal assaults on enemy positions, storming of bastions, landings in wave after wave of courageous daring and firepower. Yes, people were killed, but only in humane ways.  Watching old newsreels of the amphibious landing on the beaches of Normandy and seeing soldiers simply crumple and fall, we acclaim their valor, but ignore the rest to follow – the bloody street fighting, the cannonades the shredded Allied positions, grenades that blew bodies apart, and sniper fire that killed and terrified.

At the same time, there are few reports of the same kinds of morally-precipitated horrors cited by Jeffrey, above. Of course civilians were killed in WWII, hundreds of thousands of them in collateral damage – more if you include the bombing of Dresden and Japan – but soldiers were not asked to deliberately, methodically kill children as soldiers have had to in Iraq, Afghanistan, and of course Vietnam.  Soldiers in France were not fighting a guerrilla force perfectly integrated into civilian complexes.

The enemy of course knows this, and because his moral parameters are not at all ours. Who among us can envision or condone walking into a crowded marketplace and blowing up 300 people? Or killing students on a school bus? Or flying planes into the Twin Towers? The Taliban know that an American soldier will always have moral qualms about pulling the trigger and blowing the head off a little 10-year old girl.

Perhaps the most famous line from the movie Apocalypse Now is Marlon Brando’s “The horror, the horror”, prefaced a number of scenes earlier by his account of how he and his troops vaccinated all the children in a village in an attempt to show the Vietnamese how good, kind, and caring Americans were.  The next day when they went back to the village for a routine inspection, they found that the Vietcong had cut off the arm of every vaccinated child.  That brutal rejection of American moral values was as deft and powerful a military victory as any land assault.  Whether or not the story is true or apocryphal, the actual accounts of the ‘win-at-any-cost’ attitude of the enemy were frequent and confirmed.

Accounts of the nightmarish terror suffered by American troops in Vietnam who were faced day in and day out with the likelihood of killing innocent civilians are legion.  It was our first asymmetrical war – there was no outward distinction between civilian and Vietcong operative.  There were few battle fronts and enemy lines.  The enemy was everywhere, nowhere.

Regardless of whether or not Vietnam was a just war or not, the particular type of war that it was changed the nature of PTSD.  Now, not only were soldiers returning from the horrors of war that had always characterized armed conflict; they were returning from a theatre of combat where anyone could be the enemy; and that women, children, even babies could be instruments of war.

The incidence of this particular type of stress disorder might be reduced or even eliminated if we moved beyond the just-unjust approach to war, and eliminated the moral-immoral arguments about it.  In order to win against an implacable enemy like al-Qaeda which shares none of our moral compunctions, we must fight like them. We must lose our debilitating rectitude and become as brutal as our enemy. 

Many will say, “Never!”, for this would mean the famous hallowed moral ground always trod by Americans.  It will weaken our exceptionalism, our special moral, ethical, and Christian vision for the world.  It will drag us down to the scurrilous level of our godless enemies.  Yes, it will require us to get off our pedestal and soapbox; but it is about time.  No one has ever believed our claims to moral superiority in decades, perhaps since WWII; and if our goal is to defeat al-Qaeda or any other hateful enemy waiting to emerge from its shadow, then we must fight like them.

The indoctrination of our troops must not be, “We are fighting a just war”; but “We are fighting a brutal war which we must win at all costs”. Killing children, women, and babies is permitted and necessary.  You should feel no shame, no guilt, no remorse because you are killing the enemy.”

Would we then drop a bomb on a neighborhood because the commander of the enemy’s army is holed up there and we cannot get to him by any other means? Before answering that question, we must ask, “What would al-Qaeda do if General Petraeus were that commander?”.  The answer is clear – bombs away!

Our effort to limit civilian casualties is a liability.  Although our reticence is understandable – civilians did not ask for this war and should not suffer, we say – it is untenable.  Of course civilians knew who they were harboring in Vietnam; and of course many, many Afghan civilians are as militant in their hatred for Satanic America as al-Qaeda.  The reason why we did not distinguish between military and civilians in WWII and bombed Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki without compunction, was because of our belief that nations are at war, not simply soldiers with helmets. 

Finally, the old adage ‘War is Hell’ still remains true; and one must consider that the Geneva Convention, the World Court, and other supposedly moral watchdogs may be doing more harm than good in trying to civilize war.  If war were truly a no-holds-barred affair, then perhaps there would be less of it.

The conflict in Mali is showing once again our debility and inability to fight the enemy on his terms. Who ever thought that al-Qaeda would stand and fight the French?  Every savvy observer knew that they would quickly repair to the desert and mountains, then return to infiltrate populated towns, and fight with the same terror, IEDs, and disregard for civilian casualties used as instruments of war in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. If – or perhaps when – the United States gets involved in the Sahel and the Sahara – we will go through the same crises and hesitation that we have shown in Afghanistan.  Al-Qaeda will soon take over both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and our careful, well-meaning, civilized war will be lost.

There are some signs of moving with the times, for President Obama has sanctioned the use of drones.  This decision shows how we are gradually moving away from our ‘principled’ stance.  It is still immoral to kill children, we say, but sort of OK if we do it from an unmanned plane controlled by a geek with a joy-stick in the basement of the Pentagon.  The rest will follow, and it will be about time.

The issue is not about a just war vs. an unjust one.  Nor is it about a moral war vs. an immoral one.  All wars are the same and the objective is to win.  Period.

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