The heartrending recent news coverage about the ghastly deaths of defenseless civilians, mostly children, in Qana, Lebanon, tells the real story of the mideast wars: random slaughter, and the relentless ruin of the loves, livelihoods, work, and hopes of thousands of innocent civilians on all sides. Nevertheless, true believers in the necessity, efficacy, and morality of war still churn out article after article arguing war's fairness and positive aspects (“Israeli Military Service Unites Generations;” “'Disproportionate' in What Moral Universe;'” “For Troops, A Sense of Moral Clarity.”) For, in order to sustain the important illusion that war is moral, and to divert public attention away from war's inevitably bloody means and ends, pro-war propagandists shamefully exploit every one of the heart-swelling, toe-tapping, chest-beating moments which arise in the midst of horrific wars—all the gentlemanly charitable acts, the selfless patriotism and bravery, the beauty and idealism of youth….
Although “might” cannot make right, fear and influence can be combined fairly successfully to shape public perception to thinking that “our” wars are primarily about camaraderie, adventure, skill, professionalism, physical prowess, pride, and masculinity…and to thinking that wars can be fought cleanly, judiciously, even kindly, in order to rescue the downtrodden, promote democracy, and protect our homes, families, and way of life.
Even well-intentioned efforts to ameliorate war’s devastating effects, such as banning nuclear weapons and landmines, and instituting war crimes trials, can be exploited, and held up as proof that war is just and humane.
But the fact that war has moments of fineness and decency should not lull us into deluding ourselves that repeated indiscriminate acts of violence against one’s fellow man are anything except wrong. As in Qana, ninety percent of the victims of modern wars are civilians. Soldiers, politicians, and private citizens alike must choose to abandon their consciences for the duration of wars, because war itself is a crime against humanity.
Although “wars of self-defense,” a highly ambiguous and arguable term, are still considered to be legal, all that is legal is not necessarily moral. Wars are fundamentally about the use of force to achieve political goals, not about morality. But moral or not, all fighting must relentlessly be made palatable to its funding and fighting public. Any politician or general worth his pay-grade knows well how to drape war in the colors and images of respectability and tradition. Yet no gallantly waving flag, no proud anthem, pledge, nor crisp salute can ever promise that war’s processes or outcomes will be representative, humane, or moral.
Every soldier who ever shot, tortured, or pushed a captive out of a plane in order to obtain information necessary to protect his own knows that the cruel reality of war makes a mockery of the prettified versions held up for public viewing, the ones giving lip service to human rights, morality, and a rule of law which rests on due process, presumption of innocence, the right to legal counsel, and a fair and speedy trial..
Any soldier who ever fought in a real shooting war knows that legal and moral niceties are suspended during the life-and-death situation that is war, hauled out only as convenient for public viewing. Snipers, for example, act instantaneously as judge, jury, and executioner to their random, anonymous suspects. Bombardiers, and missile and rocket launchers unleash hell, raining fire down equally upon all their anonymous, hapless victims.
To hear tell, war crimes are rare aberrations perpetrated by atypical rogues, stray criminal elements within otherwise pristine organizations. The truth is, crimes against humanity happen all the time, on both sides, during all wars, a direct result of the bloody training, means, conditions, and ends of war.
When top military leaders find themselves irrevocably trapped in the unwelcome spotlight of undeniable war crimes, they immediately stage a big show of fairness and due process. Military defenders make feeble attempts to drum up sympathy for the scapegoats, calling attention to inadequate training and terrible conditions of battlefield stress, while prosecutors demonize the poor sad crazy grunts who were so foolish as to get caught tarnishing the honor of their noble units, and promise harsh punishments for any freakish renegades who may have mysteriously insinuated themselves into their otherwise holier-than-everyone-else squeaky-clean corps.
Officers always protect themselves and one another, limiting, placing, and holding blame as far down the chain of command as possible, leaving a poor few marginalized dupes to twist publicly in the wind. In every war crime trial, the viewing public—soldiers especially—must be newly convinced once again that “our” wars are conducted honorably, that our soldiers are unusually fine and pure, and that the rights of all civilians and combatants alike are protected by doily-white-gloved military justice.
Anonymous military judges always announce shockingly lenient sentences, horrifying victims’ families and their countrymen, but comforting fellow-soldiers who require reassurance that they, too, when forced into similar or worse acts, will not be abandoned. Other leniencies are later quietly extended under the table to prisoners who gallantly lie, or who fall upon their own swords to protect the honor (and butts) of comrades and superiors.
Although soldiers' advocates repeatedly plead for clarity in Rules of Engagement, Geneva Conventions, and so on, top government and military officials prefer to keep all military rules as fuzzy and vague as possible, not wishing to be handcuffed during wartime. But no amount of “clarity” will ever change the fact that real war is always immorally indiscriminate in its victims. Generals don’t aspire to leading a band of ethicists; they want naïve, malleable young recruits, trainable into lock-step killers able to withstand the moral confusion necessary to blood-letting, troops who will follow any order, march into any hell, and do what they’re told, which is to win wars by remorselessly killing vast swaths of human beings. To prevail in war, soldiers must believe that all is fair, that anything goes, if necessary to accomplish their mission and protect their buddies.
Signatories of the Geneva Conventions hope to receive equivalent courtesies when their guys fall into enemy hands. But reciprocity has no value when rules are always discarded as inapplicable during every new war, just because this new latest incarnation of a monster-of-the-moment—whether Kraut, Jap, terrorist, whatever—is touted to be the coldest, least reasonable, most dangerous enemy ever to threaten anyone, deserving of torture, murder, in fact complete annihilation from the earth, along with their families and other similar scum, as quickly as possible by all available means including chemical, biological, and nuclear.
After war’s end, forgotten conventions prove once again useful in punishing the losing side and propping up the flagging resolve of a public weary from manning and funding the last war. War crimes trials help portray war’s most recent victors as the most legitimately aggrieved, gentlemanly, and honorable—and not just the most effectively brutal—while urging new spending on military rebuilding against the next, greater foe as once again sweet, necessary, and good.
Respect and support for the quality of human life everywhere is the highest value we can hold. This value reinforces every other precious value we may embrace—all conceptions of God, duty, honor, country, organization, mission, brotherhood, freedom, democracy, justice. The business of indiscriminately maiming and killing human beings for profit and power (under however many pretty guises) can never stand up to close moral scrutiny.
I would defend myself, my family, and neighbors from armed enemies breaking down our doors and coming in our windows, and would willingly fund armed local militias well-trained in peaceful conflict resolution for that purpose. Other than that, and rather than risk adding to the sum of injustice in the world by going to war, I would instead risk suffering a certain amount of injustice ourselves (a risk always taken in going to war) by devoting the rest of our current defense budget to building understanding and good will among all the earth’s peoples through proven peaceful and generous methods. My first step would be to pass the very specific and impressive proposed legislation (Bills H.R. 3760 and S. 1756) authorizing and funding a cabinet-level Department of Peace.
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