Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Politically Incorrect--but Consider This

We are now inundated by charge and counter-charge related to the treatment of prisoners in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. The USA--always a nation to claim the moral high ground--was obviously dealt (to quote the irascible Don Rumsfeld) a "body blow" by the release of emotionally charged pictures of naked men, dog leashes, and smiling MPs. Just when given a PR officer's dream--what does the "other side" do? They videotape the beheading of a hapless American civilian.

Among the list of stupid moves made by either side in the battle for hearts and minds, this not only makes the Top Ten, I suggest, for Islamists, it should rank in the top three. But rather than argue about which stupid move was the stupidest, I want to point out something very politically incorrect. And I await the howls and screams of all the 'right thinking' patriots who read this.

Nick Berg was, according to the press and pundits, "brutally murdered". His beheading was "barbaric", "shocking and depraved", and, overall, an example of just how bestial America's enemies can be. Here's the politically incorrect part. Trapping people in buildings destroyed by nearby 1000 pound bombs causing them to bleed slowly to death over hours is FAR MORE brutal and barbaric than a blade that severs the spine and causes instant death. Slow death from injuries as the result of "collateral damage" is not as dramatic, and--strangely--governments do not encourage the comparison.

So what's the point? The point is simple--war is about destruction and death. It's never pretty and it's never NOT brutal, no matter which side you're on. A slow death from injuries caused by a bomb is far more painful and every bit as fatal as a scimitar through the neck. So don't kid yourself, it isn't the act itself that is reprehensible. Focusing on the method of killing is good propaganda, but isn't persuasive to anyone who actually thinks about war and what it's about.

No, the point needs to be WHY. Going to war will always kill people. Some of them will be old women and ten year old girls and infants and nice people and MOST of them will be innocent of any crime or action that justifies their deaths. That is why after 4000 years of humans killing humans we have tried so hard to avoid wars. It is also why war must only be undertaken when there is really no other choice. War must be reserved for those reasons and those occasions which so profoundly affect the human condition that whole nations are forced to send men and women into battle. To trivialize war is perhaps the greatest crime that a person or party can perpetrate upon the people.

So now the USA has 130,000 troops in Iraq. As of yesterday, there were 777 dead and an estimated 21,000 medical evacuations for severe injuries. The number of dead Iraqis is controversial, but generally accepted estimates put the number of civilians killed at 9100 to 11,000. Although some of these people died as quickly as Nick Berg--rest assured that the vast majority did not--on both sides. So, the HOW of all of these deaths, the ways by which all of these human beings have been killed--that is not the most important question. No, the question of supreme importance remains "WHY?".

It is extremely uncomfortable for citizens of advanced societies, of countries with representative governments to accept that each of them bears part of the responsibility for this kind of killing. If you are a citizen of the USA, soldiers and marines and special ops teams and intelligence operatives have been sent to Iraq to kill people in your name. Are you sure that you know why? Are you absolutely certain that you can justify the real cost in human lives. Could you look at the mother of a dead 8 year old girl and argue that it was necessary? Could you tell a 5 year old boy why his parents are dead?

I would argue that there indeed have been times when you could. When Hitler's armies were toppling nations in Europe and herding humans by the millions into the gas chambers, you might have had tears in your eyes, but you very possibly could have argued that very point with great passion after the fire bombing of Dresden or the nuclear blast at Hiroshima. In the absence of WMD and anything even remotely resembling an imminent threat to the USA, could you make that same argument to a grieving Iraqi family? Could you honestly and passionately console the family of a fallen US soldier by clearly explaining why he or she had to be sent to Iraq first to kill and then to die?

These are the troubling questions raised by the horrific (yes, I agree) execution of Nick Berg. So long as we try to console ourselves by paying attention only to HOW this poor man was killed, we can avoid the painful examination of why--and the far worse conclusion that the "why" is not good enough.
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