Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm purse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel. --Mark Twain
As I watch the nightly news, I am struck by the lack of moral inquiry and heartfelt concern over the consequences of America’s state of permanent war. Too often we are content to divide the world into good and evil, black and white. It is less taxing that way, for complexity and nuance require thought and judgment. Perhaps we have too much on our minds, a weak economy, the Republican primary circus, the next set of contestants on Dancing with the Stars, to expect us to think deeply and sincerely about the human consequences of America’s involvements in foreign wars, past and present.
For all of our news and noise, talking heads and 24/7 updates, we rarely examine the humanity of those we kill. We call them insurgents or terrorists, enemy combatants or collateral damage. To us, they are always the "Other," for which we display a frightening lack of concern. We keep precise track of U.S. forces killed and wounded in action, but spend very little time counting, much less contemplating, who and in what numbers we kill. Perhaps it must be this way, for if we really considered the actual consequences of our killing, we might become soft and compassionate, or worse, begin to question the necessity and legitimacy of war. For when “war is looked upon as wicked,” noted Oscar Wilde, “it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.”
How many innocent civilians did we kill during the War in Iraq? How many children have American bombs, guns, and drone missiles killed or maimed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen? To merely ask such questions in the wrong company may render one rude and impertinent, even disloyal and unpatriotic, as if the sacrifices of American soldiers are devalued by a search for truth and transparency. As free and open a society as we pride ourselves of having, on some topics, genuine intellectual inquiry is subversive. At the very least, it makes those in privileged and powerful positions deeply uncomfortable.
We have become immune to killing, it seems, having delegated it to a professional military class, unmanned drones, and aerial bombing campaigns which allow us to inflict maximum damage at minimal loss, as if we are putting together a financial statement for a public corporation. The power of modern weaponry allows us to keep our hands clean as military technicians “target” our enemies with a high degree of precision. We consider ourselves ethical, because we intentionally try to minimize “collateral damage” and avoid, whenever possible, unnecessary deaths, errant bombs, and the killing of innocents. But we are told by those in power that war is a dirty business that is by nature imprecise. We must balance the dangers to our country and our troops against the risks of killing some people we have no quarrel with – innocent children, women, the elderly, and the fathers, brothers, and sons who have not taken up arms against us. We must accept that innocent people will get killed, or so we are told, in part because the enemy is adept at hiding and commingling among the civilians, who themselves are often unwitting accomplices. Collateral damage is thus unavoidable.
There are some things we rarely talk about as a nation. Our media outlets either do not care to discuss them, or are afraid to make waves. Corporate dollars are at stake, after all, and the media plays a large role in sustaining the military industrial complex and in exploiting the entertainment value of war. During the early days of the Iraq War, live television reports gave us a glimpse of the thrill of war and provided us with a sense of national purpose. But in these and other telecasts, we are protected from the bullets and shrapnel, the bombs and after-effects, the tank and artillery rounds. We are not shown the blood and ripped apart body fragments, exploding skulls, or the stench of death. As noted by journalist and former Harvard seminarian Chris Hedges in Death of the Liberal Class (Nation Books, 2010), “The wounded, the crippled, and the dead are, in this great charade, swiftly carted offstage. They are war’s refuse. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they tell is too painful for us to hear.”
The myth makers in Hollywood and the media have become war’s accomplices, romanticizing the true effects of war. “If we really saw war,” writes Hedges, “what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be impossible to embrace the myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan and listen to the wails of their parents, we would not be able to repeat clichés we use to justify war. This is why war is carefully sanitized. This is why we are given war’s perverse and dark thrill but are spared from seeing war’s consequences.”
The disparity between what we are told about war and what truly occurs on the battlefields is vast. It seems to me that most Americans do not pay attention. Many of our veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, grateful to be home with friends and family, are quickly taken aback at the gulf that exists between their military and civilian lives. The rate of suicide for returning vets is at an all-time high, with an epidemic of diagnosed cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. We train our soldiers to be efficient killers, to defend one nation by annihilating the "Other." But is it possible that, when we teach our soldiers to dehumanize the enemy, we corrupt their souls and destroy all that is beautiful and sacred about life? Is this not another tragic, yet ignored, consequence of war?
We care about our returning veterans, or at least I hope we do, but we have remained remarkably acquiescent and apathetic as a nation about the reasons, the causes, the consequences, and the effects of our military excursions. The churches are particularly disappointing. A Gallup poll in 2006 found that the more frequently an American attends church, the more likely he or she was to have supported the Iraq War. It reflects a remarkable failure of the institutional church to provide true moral guidance to its flock. As we enter the eleventh year of the War in Afghanistan, the institutional church remains strangely quiet. After all, Jesus was a pacifist and the core Christian principles of love and forgiveness are radically opposed to war and violence. Walk into most churches on Sunday morning, though, and you would hardly know it.
Meanwhile, the victims of our bombs and guns remain faceless and nameless. The destruction and violence committed in the name of American liberty remains unseen.
Take for example our growing use of drone missiles in places like Pakistan and Yemen, countries with which we are not officially at war. Shrouded in secrecy and lacking accountability, decisions of who to target are made by CIA officials in Langley, Virginia, often with direct input from the Pakistani military, a price we pay for Pakistan’s consent to allow us to kill within its borders. Despite Executive Orders barring the CIA from engaging in assassinations dating back to the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, and despite several key principles of international law, there has been almost no debate in this country over the use of drones in non-combat regions. The use of drone technology, of course, is very tempting, for it eliminates immediate risk to American forces while enhancing the precision to which they strike their intended targets. But does not their use in certain circumstances raise many troubling ethical concerns? When real life killing becomes strikingly similar to a video game -- the controls operated remotely in places like Nevada and California -- and when killing is perceived as “costless,” war becomes seductive. Should it not be at least a matter of moral deliberation and debate in a democracy?
In 2009, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker interviewed a former CIA officer who had witnessed live drone strikes while serving in Afghanistan. He described what it was like to watch from a small monitor in the field: “You could see these little figures scurrying, and the explosion going off, and when the smoke cleared there was just rubble and charred stuff.” It had become such a common sight to see human beings running for cover that a slang term was developed for the ant-like humans on the video screen: “squirters.”
If we killed only the bad guys, and we could be certain they were the right bad guys, and even more certain that the effects would not, in the long-run, be counter-productive, perhaps there would less need for moral angst over our actions abroad. But according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom, our first 309 drone strikes (257 of which have occurred under President Obama) have killed 175 children and up to 780 civilians. For family members of the innocent victims, it is small consolation that America means well. After all, we only wish to kill terrorists, those who would harm us. “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless,” asked Gandhi, “whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?” What we fail to consider is that, for every drone missile we fire into a distant landscape in Pakistan, every bomb we drop on a mountain village in Afghanistan, we create another “ground zero” for the people who live there.
According to the Iraq Body Count (IBC), which provides the most verifiable (and conservative) documentary record of civilian deaths resulting from the War in Iraq, over 114,000 innocent civilians died in Iraq during the eight years we engaged in that war. This figure is only of innocent civilians, and does not include the deaths of insurgents, armed combatants, the former forces of Saddam Hussein, or any other non-civilian Iraqi. U.S. led coalition forces were directly responsible for 14,704 of these civilian deaths, according to the IBC, nearly 30% of which were children. The actual figures are almost certainly higher, as additional deaths not counted in the IBC have been established in data released to WikiLeaks. We know as well that thousands of Afghan children have died during the war in Afghanistan, more than half of their deaths caused by U.S. and NATO forces. But whatever the total numbers, “before you support war,” says Chris Hedges, “especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, look into the hollow eyes of the men, women, and children who know it.”
Are we killing terrorists or creating them? I am not sure anyone really knows the answer to that question. But the moral and human consequences of our actions as a nation are too important to stand idly by without asking questions and demanding answers. For in the words of John F. Kennedy, “War will exist, until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”