Painting a target on ourselves

A post of recent vintage (2006), though, sadly, still timely.

Imagine that you live in a nation whose armed forces kill the civilians of other nations — too many to maintain the illusion it’s “collateral damage.” Yet you’re untroubled. Why?

Because in your quiet assent to what was once considered butchery you know you’re not alone. These days, much of the public raises no objections when our combatants kill their non. After all, we’ve had plenty of time to get used to it. For instance, estimates of deaths for which Genghis Khan and his men were responsible in the thirteenth century run as high as 40 million, with only a fraction fighting men.

But, with the onset of the Age of Enlightenment in the West, the idea of confining warfare to the battlefield was, if not adhered to, at least given lip service.

Until the advent of aerial bombing.

The indiscriminate killing arising from a bombardier’s difficulty distinguishing between military and civilians demanded a cover story. Calling bombing, in conjunction with shelling, “total war” legitimized it and ensured that the military could continue to cast a wide net when it came to victims.

Here’s Wikipedia on RAF Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris: “… in a conflict where attacks on civilian targets had not only been initiated by the enemy but considered a largely acceptable aspect of ‘total war’… Harris’ strategy of carpet-bombing German cities was coherent and certainly dealt great damage to the Axis heartland.” I’m sure that, had they known, those who died in the Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo fire-bombings would have drawn consolation from going up in a blaze of “coherence.”

But what about enemy initiation of attacks on civilian targets? Use that as a justification to respond in kind if you want. Just remember that any righteousness equity a nation derived from its status as a victim is squandered when it retaliates many times over.

Another argument for killing civilians in WWII was that their industrial incorporation into the war effort made them as culpable as combatants. In fact, this was just another lame excuse to demoralize a country’s citizens by laying waste to large swaths of them. But, unless civilians are annihilated on the scale of a firestorm or a nuclear attack — almost nobody left to demoralize, in other words — bombing only serves to harden their resolve.

Meanwhile, the American public, still getting a lot of mileage from the American Revolution, subconsciously blames the Iraqi public, for example, because it lacked the gumption to overthrow a tyrant. Like we would have if, instead of just taxing to the max, George III had mass-murdered like Saddam Hussein.

It was under the guise of total war that we dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to kill Japan dead and put the fear of God into Russia. But we also wanted to find out if the thing worked in the field. In the process, we not only reduced Japanese civilians to the level of experimental animals, but subjected them to deaths more agonizing than any lab rats.

Why is it Americans don’t fear reciprocity for inflicting casualties on the civilians of other nations? Actually, since 9/11, we do. But, hey, we’re Americans and you can’t talk to us that way. Besides, despite a monumental terrorist attack on our soil, we still experience ourselves as invincible.

Worse, when we claim our military bears scant responsibility for civilian deaths, we reek of sanctimony. After Hiroshima, we were forced to wrap ourselves in denial to ward off the realization that America operates in, uh, broad strokes.

To be fair, “exceptionalism,” as Noam Chomsky wrote, “seems to be close to universal. I suspect if we had records from Genghis Khan, we might find the same thing.” In fact, Mongolia, apparently suffering a severe role-model deficiency thanks, no doubt, to their years as a communist state, has recently made the 40-million man a national hero.

When we accept targeting civilians, the American public signs a contract that it’s fair game as well. In effect, we’re all transformed into warriors. However brave and selfless that strikes us, our courage at this point is vestigial, just a legend based on the exploits of soldiers from wars long ago.

Tired of images of weeping and wailing Iraqi widows? Their mourning is dignified compared to what ours will look like. Bomb us and we’ll squeal like pigs.

4 replies »

  1. Nicely done, Russ. I’ve been fascinated by the topic of war, warfare, warriors, and culture for many years, and am now a somewhat-informed military historian, I suppose. You make a lot of good points, but I’d like to offer some perspective on some of them, if I may.

    1. The West did, indeed, have a very, very brief period when the practice of abusing civilians was frowned upon. I’m not talking about theory or papal pronouncements, but actual practice. The 18th century in Europe was probably the golden age of cultural recoil from killing, raping, and otherwise harming civilians, and the cultural memory of the 30 Years War was still relatively fresh (fresh enough to inspire the idea of freedom of religion in the US Bill of Rights too, for that matter). Armies were small, usually made up of professional soldiers who were considered “the scum of the earth” (Wellington’s words, not mine), and wars were perceived to be fought between kings and armies of low-class butchers, not between peoples.

    Napoleon changed all that with widespread conscription that turned the idea of “soldier” from hired butcher to guy next door. France became a nation at war instead of a government at war, and the notion caught on. Post-Napoleonic Europe recoiled from most non-colonial wars (Crimea and the Franco-Prussion Wars being exceptions), so the fruits of Napoleon really didn’t sink in until WWI, which was before the mass air bombing age, but was certainly quite brutal for the civilians caught up in it.

    2. I believe the term “total war” was coined by Clausewitz, the patron saint of 19th and early 20th century warfare and, not surprisingly, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars. The cultural idea, or meme if you prefer, that war is about total populations and total effort springs from him and his experience of Napoleon.

    3. The coming of the super-industrial age definintely gave rise to the idea that populations are fair game in war, but I would argue that the industrial rise simply crystalized a philosophical precept already well ensconsed in Western military thinking: fertilizer for the seed, if you will.

    4. Theory of war evolved until, today, I think most military thinkers would tell you there are two ways to win a war: destroy the enemy’s ability to resist or destroy his will to resist. Or both, if it can be done. Oddly, the US has gravitated towards destroying the ability to resist, putting its resources into training, force-multiplying technology, and C3I (command, control, communication, intelligence). The Cold War forced this approach, since no one thought the US could fight and win a war of attrition and will with the Soviet Union on the end of a 4,000 mile supply line when our forces would be badly outnumbered. So, in fact, a great deal of our difficulty in dealing with the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq stem from the fact that our military is specifically designed to destroy ability and not will, and that requires an enemy with which one can come to grips.

    5. Like you, I abhor the idea that it’s OK to drop a bomb on a house in a village, killing all the children and neighbors in a certain radius, in order to get some enemies who are meeting in that house. But I believe that the impetus to do this stems from more than cultural “acceptance” by some people. Frankly, it’s all we’ve got. We don’t have enough troops go after those individuals in all the houses where they meet.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to get at with this overlong response is that it’s not just rationalization stemming from WWII bombing that makes civilian casualties more acceptable now than they used to be. Total war has a firm intellectual basis in Clausewitz. And as for today’s wars, it is both the concept that collateral damage is acceptable and the fact that there is little other choice that contribute to the US’s tactics.

    Thanks for a great piece.

  2. Thanks, JSO. You obviously know more about this subject than I do. Regarding:

    collateral damage is acceptable

    It’s just that the American public has no concept of this. Suppose the leader of a US insurrection in the US were hiding in a small apartment building in an American city. An army missile takes out him and the building. Result: 20 civilians killed.

    Is that okay with Americans?

  3. Russ:

    I don’t disagree with you at all on this issue. To me, though, accepting collateral damage as a given is a miserable solution imposed on the US by its military structure. Until that structure changes (if it does), with more soldiers in our armed forces, we’re trying to fix a pipe with a screwdriver. We just have the wrong tool.

    But let’s not kid ourselves; the right tool will cost a lot more money.