Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Regulating Atrocity

Sy Hersh's follow-up piece is the crown jewel of this week’s New Yorker but be sure to look at Hertzberg’s column. He touched on something that I’ve been mulling over for the last few days.
There is something a little unsettling about the suggestion that war is just another routine human activity, like driving or stock trading, that needs to be conducted according to the rules lest someone get hurt. Baroness Bertha von Suttner, the 1905 Nobel Peace laureate, once remarked that improving the laws of war was like regulating the temperature while boiling someone in oil.

I’ve always been confused by the concept of the “fair fight.” If the object is to pulverize your opponent why set parameters? And yet from the schoolyard to the war zone, we believe that within every aggressive situation there are lines that we don’t cross. Systematic extermination is barbaric, whereas collateral damage is merely unfortunate. We’ve so internalized the idea that war is necessary that we agree to this absurd notion of systemic killing “within reason.” Hence the Geneva Conventions, The Hague, etc. We also assume that we can objectively identify a war crime when we see one.

Except that there is no objectivity in the perception of a war crime. If we assume that the basis for war is just, or at least justified, we can very easily slant the actions of soldiers, leaders, and etcetera however dubious or criminal as all part of the same just cause.

That is what has made the War on Terror rhetoric so effective. It is a failsafe. We can persuade the weaker minds of this country that there is no possible comparison between anything the terrorists do and our own actions at Guantanomo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. They want to destroy freedom and we want to spread democracy, therefore we have a moral justification for all of our actions whereas they do not.

Right now most the regular readers here are going, “Duh.”

If you look at this debate over the Abu Ghraib scandal it clearly illustrates how the rhetoric of the war on terror has forced us to have this absolutely absurd argument comparing the crimes of Saddam Hussein, and the actions of the terrorists who killed Nick Berg *, and Daniel Pearl, to our own at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. There seem to be following under three categories.

1) Yeah what we did was wrong but what they did was worse.
2) What we did wasn’t wrong because they’re all terrorists and enemies.
3) I went to a very bad high school and can't tell the difference betwee hijinks and torture.

To which our response should be

1) What we did was wrong; end of story.
2) See number 1.
3) (Don't speak to this person. Walk away quickly and avoid eye contact.)

What’s more complicated about this debate, is the "Bad Apple" quandary. And this is something those of us in the anti-war camp should have known better to get tangled up in.

When we first went to war, we let ourselves get caught up in the “Support our troops,” meme which is why we find ourselves fighting this idea of just a few bad apples. Leaving aside the question of Rumsfield’s responsibility (and at this point there isn’t really a question about it) why should it surprise us that soldiers whether ordered to or not tortured prisoners? It doesn’t occur to us that a person who has been trained to kill people labeled as the enemy is probably capable of any amount of abuse. This isn’t to say that all of our soldiers have the capacity to do this. But the fact that this scandal is growing beyond the seven initial suspects illustrates that this is more common than we know. And isn’t a tad bizarre that we are willing to accept the deaths of at least 10,000 Iraqi civilians during major combat, but we are shocked and disgusted at the photos and the stories that are coming out now?

When John Kerry was protesting the Vietnam war he said this on Meet The Press in 1971:
There are all kinds of atrocities and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones.  I conducted harassment and interdiction fire.  I used 50-caliber machine guns which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people.  I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages.  All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare.  All of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and all of this ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down.  And I believe that the men who designed these, the men who designed the free-fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas, I think these men, by the letter of the law, the same letter of the law that tried Lieutenant Calley, are war criminals.

I wish he'd stood by that statement, but I still think that it's relevant. An unjust war compromises everyone involved and the longer it goes on, the harder it is to distiguish between the good and the bad apples. I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't continue to support our troops nor that to do so was wrong. But what we are seeing now is a merely a preview of things to come and it is entirely likely that the longer our troops are in Iraq the harder it will be to support them.

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