Could the dreadful murders of 16 civilians by a rogue American soldier in the Khandahar province of Afghanistan do some good? Perhaps it will finally sear into voters’ minds the awareness that whether you are with the good guys or the bad guys, war breeds a corruption that taints everyone.
“War is hell. These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place, they’ve taken place in any war. They’re terrible events. And this is not the first of those events, and it probably won’t be the last,” the US defense secretary, Leon Panetta, told reporters candidly.
American troops are superbly trained and disciplined, but in hellish conditions, terrible things are bound to happen. But, incredibly, it is still possible to deny that this happens to a side with good intentions. Today a Wall Street Journal editorial affirmed that “the striking fact is that nothing like this has happened over 10 years of difficult, counterinsurgency warfare.”
What? Nothing like this? Only last November the leader of a thrill-kill squad, a US Army sergeant was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing three civilians and three of his companions were jailed as well. These American gentlemen kept severed fingers and parts of the skulls of their Afghan victims as souvenirs.
And in January a video surfaced of four Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban. Over the decade-long conflict, out of sight of journalists, there have probably been hundreds of smaller incidents which are no less dishonourable.
The overwhelming majority of US soldiers are decent men and women doing a difficult job with great integrity and self-discipline. But war licences soldiers to kill people. Giving anyone powers of life and death risks drawing sane people into inhumane abuse and mad people deeper into their madness. War is not a video game.
One of the traditional conditions for a just war is proportionality: that the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.
Debates over proportionality surface whenever we consider collateral damage — the non-combatants who are displaced, dispossessed, traumatised, wounded and killed as an unintended result of military action. To justify the use of lethal force, a nation has to be convinced that the suffering of innocent civilians on the enemy’s side will somehow be outweighed by the removal of an aggressor, an oppressive government or a threat to international order.
But this is not the only evil and disorder which must be taken into account. To the cruelties inflicted indirectly, but knowingly, upon civilians must be added the brutalisation of one’s own soldiers. The growing increased rates of stress, mental illness, substance abuse and suicide in the US Army – reported earlier this month – may reflect this to some extent.
Some men enjoy the exhilaration and power that war involves – as General Patton’s famous speech to his men before the invasion of Sicily eloquently illustrates:
“Men, this stuff that some sources sling around about America wanting out of this war, not wanting to fight, is a crock of bullshit. Americans love to fight, traditionally. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle. You are here today for three reasons. First, because you are here to defend your homes and your loved ones. Second, you are here for your own self respect, because you would not want to be anywhere else. Third, you are here because you are real men and all real men like to fight.”
Perhaps real men, honourable men, do like to fight in a just war. But some of them are bound to turn rogue and commit depraved atrocities which could not even be countenanced by a commander as savagely realistic as Patton. The list of incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan is undoubtedly shorter than Russian abuses in Chechnya, but it is still far too long: Abu Graib, Haditha, Mahmudiyah, and now Panjwai.
The brutalisation of soldiers is paralleled by the brutalisation of the public. In other words, Us.
Statistics on the number of civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are hard to come by and scandalously under-reported. According to the respected website Iraqi Body Count, about 110,000 civilians have died as a result of the war since 2003. In Afghanistan, reporting on casualties of Afghans did not even begin until 2007. According to the Congressional Research Service about 12,000 have died since then, mostly at the hands of anti-government forces.
Coalition forces have not been responsible for most of these deaths, but they did occur as a result of the mayhem that erupted after the invasions of the two countries. Surely the tally of civilian casualties should be as familiar to Americans, British, Canadians and Australians as the 2,996 people who died as a result of the 911 attacks. They are an important element in the on-going cost of the war. As the numbers grow, the argument for the just war has to become more and more robust. If we citizens ignore them, isn’t that a sign that we, too, have been brutalised?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.