Thursday, August 30, 2007

Inside the charnel house

"Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals."
—Iraq Study Group report (2006)

Despite predictable but dubious claims that the surge has improved security for ordinary Iraqis, the slaughter of civilians continues at a high level, as most recently demonstrated by the death of more than 500 Yazidis in northern Iraq in concerted bombings that also wounded at least 1,500. During the last two days alone, ten separate incidents involving civilian deaths were reported around the country, including 51 pilgrims at a Shi'ite religious festival in Karbala. Another 247 pilgrims were injured. A million Shi'ite pilgrims were ordered to leave the city to avoid further bloodshed.

There is no reliable data on civilian casualties since the war began, with estimates ranging from 655,000 to 37,000. An accurate total would have to include everything from suicide bombings to "inadvertent" deaths and injuries caused by U.S. air attacks on Iraqi cities and "indirect fire" from artillery.

In an editorial on the Iraqi charnel house, The Economist states:
Faced with what looks from afar like a Hobbesian war of all against all, if not a descent into hell itself, the normal instinct of human beings to exercise their moral faculties grows numb. Often it is replaced by a more craven instinct: to avert the gaze from what has become too painful to look at straight.
The editorial notes that some insurgent groups apparently justify their direct assaults on civilians as part of the "resistance" to the U.S. occupation.

No problems so far: "killing innocents is wrong," as the editorial observes. But the author goes on:
Under all established norms and laws of war (and by most accounts under Islamic law, too) the deliberate targeting of civilians for no direct military purpose is just a crime. [My emphasis.]
When is the "deliberate targeting of civilians" for a "direct military purpose" acceptable? If five insurgents hole up in an apartment complex that houses a hundred civilians, is it morally acceptable (or even lawful) to bomb or shell it even with the absolute certainty that a substantial number of "innocents" will be killed? A "direct military purpose" could arguably be served by such an attack if the deaths of the insurgents would prevent planned attacks on other civilians. [1]

The established practice of the U.S. in Iraq (and the Israelis in Lebanon or Gaza) is to reflexively drop the bombs and then release a prepared statement about "regrettable" civilian casualties. Moral opprobrium is heaped, with some justification, on terrorists who deliberately use civilians as shields by concealing themselves in residential neighborhoods or homes.

Is there a moral distinction between the deliberate targeting of civilians and the "accidental" or "unintentional" killing of civilians in bombings, shellings or other applications of massive firepower?

In a review for New York Times Book Review, the estimable Samantha Power (photo above) argues that "there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective..."

There may not be a lot of difference to the affected civilians, but is there a significant moral difference?

Historian Howard Zinn (left), in a letter to the New York Times Book Review last week, gently challenges Power—a person whose work he clearly admires (as do I). Zinn writes:
In countless news briefings, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, responding to reporters’ questions about civilian deaths in bombing, would say those deaths were “unintentional” or “inadvertent” or “accidental,” as if that disposed of the problem. In the Vietnam War, the massive deaths of civilians by bombing were justified in the same way by Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon and various generals.

These words are misleading because they assume an action is either “deliberate” or “unintentional.” There is something in between, for which the word is “inevitable.” If you engage in an action, like aerial bombing, in which you cannot possibly distinguish between combatants and civilians (as a former Air Force bombardier, I will attest to that), the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if not “intentional.” Does that difference exonerate you morally?

The terrorism of the suicide bomber and the terrorism of aerial bombardment are indeed morally equivalent. To say otherwise (as either side might) is to give one moral superiority over the other, and thus serve to perpetuate the horrors of our time.
Still, it's difficult to agree that these actions are "morally equivalent." The legal system here in Oregon, as elsewhere, makes useful distinctions between degrees of homicide, and they provide a rough standard that clarifies some delicate moral distinctions. The deliberate killing of civilians, as in Karbala this week, is clearly a form of aggravated, premeditated murder. The "inadvertent" killing of civilians, by contrast, can be "manslaughter" when it is "committed recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life" [from Oregon Revised Statutes section 163.118; my emphasis].

Aggravated murder is the more serious crime, but manslaughter isn't to be taken lightly: it's a Class A felony here in Oregon, worth 20 years in the state prison.

Those who lead their country into war, of course, consider themselves exempt from the legal and moral standards that bind the rest of us. But they're not exempt from our judgments.


[1] As the U.S. Army's counterinsurgency manual recognizes: "Bombing, even air strikes, should be weighed against the risks, the primary danger being collateral damage that turns the population against the government and provides the insurgents with a major propaganda victory." Some might quibble, of course, that the "primary danger" is deaths and injuries among civilians. A "propaganda victory" would be farther down my list.

PHOTOS: Samantha Power (Swarthmore College) and Howard Zinn (Wikipedia Common)

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