If You Personalize War It's a Felony

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET
  • Philip Slater Former professor and chair, Brandeis Sociology Department

American soldiers are being tried and given long sentences for murdering Iraqi civilians. What hypocrisy! At least they had the courage to face up to the realities of their actions. Why should they be punished and not the pilots who cower behind a wall of distance and never have to see the children they've maimed, the families they've murdered, the homes they've destroyed? Or the missile launchers who merely press buttons, playing video games with the exploded bodies of pregnant mothers? (Right-to-Lifers seem to have no problem with these intrauterine deaths). And what about the officers who authorize the use of cluster bombs and land mines, which will still be killing children decades from now, when whatever pretext was used for this particular bit of homicide has been long forgotten?

Above all, what about the Bushes and Cheneys and Rummys who order these wholesale slaughters of civilians in small Third World countries? The Washingtonian power addicts who feed their brittle egos with the shattered bodies of poor people?

Not to mention those who manufacture cluster bombs and land mines, the primary purpose of which is to kill and maim poor people in Third World countries? Why aren't these people culpable?

The argument, of course, is that the soldiers being punished killed deliberately, while the rest "didn't mean to, it was just 'collateral damage'". Which, they then usually add, is "inevitable" in war. In other words, they did mean to.

Research studies have shown that, aside from a handful of sociopaths, soldiers confronted with the results of their killing are scarred by it. But most killing today is done at a distance, leaving the killers unmarked. Those few soldiers got punished because the face-to-face brutality of their personalized killings gave the game away for the killers-at-a-distance.

I realize that after 9/11 Americans had a strong need to take revenge on someone. I also realize that when it comes to revenge people sometimes aren't too particular who the victim of that revenge is, as long as someone gets hurt. But invading Iraq was particularly absurd since Osama bin Laden hated Saddam and called him Satan for Westernizing Iraq.

When it came to finding excuses for invading a helpless country, Bush made Hitler look like a greenhorn. First it was WMDs, although the UN had been doing away with Iraq's weaponry for years, sanctions had weakened its economy, and we'd been flying over it for years, bombing anything we didn't like the looks of. (The truth is, if he'd thought for a minute that Iraq posed any kind of threat to anyone, Bush never would have invaded.) Next it was "regime change"--getting rid of a brutal dictator--despite the fact that when Saddam was committing the crimes he was just tried for, we thought he was a lovely fellow, keeping order, just like Pinochet, Suharto, Somosa, the Shah, and all the rest of the brutal dictators the United States has nourished over the past several decades. Finally, the excuse was--so the 'realists' claimed--that we needed to end our dependence on foreign oil by getting control over Iraq's. We've seen how 'realistic that was.

The real reason for picking Iraq as a scapegoat is that the Iraqis couldn't fight back--militarily, at least. Iraq was just another patsy to bully around like Grenada and Panama. It would make Georgie the toy soldier feel like a big man, like his daddy.

Let's get real. War is not about "defense". The United States hasn't been attacked by another nation since Pearl Harbor, and never will be. And the only defense against an international terrorist network is counter-terrorism, not war. Presidents make war merely to increaser their power and look macho.

But of course when you invade any country and start telling people how to run things you provoke resistance, as the Germans found in Europe in World War II, The Israelis in Palestine, the Russians in Afghanistan, the United States in Vietnam, etc., etc. But power addicts never seem to learn from experience. Apparently they just like to pile up dead bodies to prove they're men. And to fill their inner emptiness. Little men who are dead inside find their only satisfaction in their ability to inflict suffering on multitudes. But no matter how high the bodies pile up, they'll never fill that inner void.