Jul/Aug 2012 Salon

Thou Shalt Kill

by Thomas J. Hubschman

During a recent commemoration by the BBC of the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands-Malvinas war, the British commander, Lord Spithead [sic], expressed the opinion that if there had ever been a just war the campaign in the Falklands was surely such a one. The casualty count for British forces in that campaign was 255 dead. The casualty figures for the Argentinians was considerably larger, 649 dead, a large number of those occurring during the sinking of an Argentinian warship by the British navy. Three Falkland Islanders also died.

The notion of a just war goes back to Augustine of Hippo and has been a mainstay of Christian morality. A clergyman blessed the airplane that carried the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Cardinal Spellman blessed the troops in Vietnam and told them they were fighting a crusade. Neither the Jewish nor the Protestant traditions have held that war is always an evil, and both have engaged in it, usually against members of other faiths. Most of us find war appalling, especially when we are given the opportunity to see its consequences as we did on the nightly news during the Vietnam War and in photographs and newsreels during the second world war and Korean war. More recently we have been protected from those images except when a renegade reporter "leaks" them or someone puts them up on the Internet. George W. Bush was careful to conceal from us even the coffins of the dead soldiers returning to this country. And even during the Obama administration there has not been anything like the honors ceremonies that used to accompany the return of dead servicemen and -women.

We have become used to thinking of the dead, both dead military personnel and dead civilians, in numbers. And numbers always lie. There is really only one dead, and that is the person we have known as father, brother, sister, mother or child. It doesn't matter if there are ten or ten million. All a number does is give us a false sense of magnitude. But what I'm concerned with here is why we accept even one dead person as acceptable for the sake of changing some political or economic situation that doesn't suit us. Why do we accept the existence of an organization, the military, as a world apart with a legal code that is not the one enshrined in the constitution we believe to be the expression of our rights as given to us by an almighty creator? A military organization is something much more similar to a form of indentured servitude. It has its own courts, its own rules of discipline, its own freedoms or lack thereof. And, most important of all, its mission to do exactly that which is forbidden by civilian codes of law: kill people and destroy property with impunity. That's not my definition of the military, it's the military's own definition of its mission openly acknowledged.

How does it come about that we allow for this exception to "natural" and constitutional law, a kind of alternative universe that is so essentially alien to the one we claim to believe in? Why do we accept the imposition of violent death as an exception to the basic, God-given right to life, and even applaud such slaughter? Is it because we believe this life is but a prelude to an afterlife we experience after death? If so, I suppose inflicting death on an enemy or putting one's own soldiers at risk for it is not as catastrophic a prospect as it would be if we didn't hold a belief in the immortality of the soul. This was the argument made by the Catholic church and the Spanish conquistadors when they dispatched millions of indigenous people to that afterlife after duly baptizing them. They may even have sincerely believed they were doing those people a favor. Of course, if their own soldiers lost their lives they were not only going to continue living eternally but would do so with full honors and in a state of perfect bliss.

Many of us still believe this. But I don't think their belief allows them to value this current mortal existence as little as the great European empires did four or five hundred years ago. Even the most hidebound fundamentalists subscribe to the very American notion, or perhaps I should say the very 18th-century notion, that each human life is individually valuable, even infinitely valuable, and should be preserved with great care. In fact, we believe the state has an obligation to preserve that individual life, the life of the here and now, through a complicated system of laws and rights that would have seemed incomprehensible to a medieval mind, might even have been denounced then as dangerous and diabolical. It's well to keep in mind that the word "democracy" throughout the course of human history has had a pejorative meaning, something more like "mob rule" rather than the present understanding which makes even the most egregious dictators pay lip service to it.

So, I am perplexed by how we can still send our young women and men off to die, whether it is for the sake of preserving our freedom, as the politicians tell us, or for the purpose of defending our values, especially when we do so in places far away that are not immediately endangering us. The only other reason I can imagine why we seem able to justify and even sacralize the death of that young brother or son or sister or wife (usually not our own these days, but the kin of someone we'll never meet) and discount the deaths at his or her hands of the brother or sister she or he is going to kill directly or indirectly in our name, is that we must believe in a hierarchy of human life even as we insist otherwise. When General Schwarzkopf was asked about the eighty-seven American casualties that occurred during the first Gulf War, he became visibly upset. He seemed to take every one of those dead Americans as his responsibility, not a responsibility he shirked or to save whom he would not have fought that war, such as it was. He regretted their deaths because they occurred under his command and because they were Americans. No one asked him how he felt about the tens of thousands of Iraqi dead, killed in some instances by burying them alive or shooting them like ducks in a gallery. Those enemy dead, however numerous, were not worth what eighty-seven American lives were worth. The dead of the enemy deserved to be dead because they were killed trying to kill us, or would have if they had had the chance.

Again, this goes against our stated values about the value of every human life, which are supposedly at the heart of our social contract. The Declaration of Independence didn't say all Americans are created equal, it said all men—we would now say all human beings. That would seem to mean Iraqi Muslims, Panamanians, Chinese, Japanese, Germans.

It isn't that long ago that even well-meaning, intelligent people believed some human beings were naturally inferior, from which it follows that their lives are worth less. The so-called working classes, for instance. And, of course, in our American experience, African slaves. The ranks of what we might call second-class human beings have always been large and by their very inferiority more disposable than the lives of their betters. Even the ancient Greeks reserved immortality for those who had developed their minds and become educated people interested in philosophy and other superior preoccupations. Whatever we may say or think we believe to the contrary, there must still be some of this kind of thinking going on when we choose to go to war, i.e., delegate others to go to war for us.

This horrific practice called war must be based on at least one of those two outdated concepts of the immortality of the soul and the disparity between the value of some human beings versus others. Otherwise, how could we tolerate sending anyone to kill and be killed without offending the very bases of the values we purport to stand for? We must have inherited these assumptions and now accept them implicitly. We debate whether we should engage in this or that military adventure, but we accept that death to our brother or sister and other people's brothers and sisters is under certain circumstances a necessity, however regrettable.

I think it's remarkable this acceptance has survived despite all our fancy, well-intentioned speech about the value of human life and the rights that attach to it. Of all the brainwashing we endure as a result of living in this society, or any society, this contradiction between what we say we hold dear and self-evident and then what we periodically do—nowadays do continuously—has to rank right near the top in terms of tragic hypocrisy. Remember, we are less than a century away from a war in which we and our enemies obliterated each other with perfectly clear consciences on a scale never known before. And in case anyone believes we learned a lesson as a result of that war, millions of people died in the same way in Vietnam and hundreds of thousands have died in other wars just in the last ten years. Not to mention the results of adventures that fell short of war, such as the sanctions that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children—not my figures, the American secretary of state not only admitted those deaths publically but justified them for the sake of a greater cause—and our current adventures with drone aircraft in Yemen and Pakistan, the killing of an unarmed Osama bin Laden, etc., etc.

Am I missing something? Is there not a gross contradiction between the moral and legal status I can expect as a citizen of society that claims every human life is sacred and the no-holds-barred realpolitick that comes into play as soon as we hear the word "military" (or "terrorist")? Are there not laws that strictly constrain my ability to defend myself if attacked in my own neighborhood by a criminal? Hasn't the laxity that's crept into these laws in places like Florida caused a storm of protest when someone kills a fellow human without being in imminent danger of being killed themselves? Or are my impressions correct that our assumptions about the value of human life are entirely schizophrenic, on the one hand held up as an absolute in civic life but entirely—almost entirely—disposable when we are engaged in "military action"?

Heinrich Boell, or one of his fictional characters, has said that every death in every war is murder. I take that to mean that each of those deaths is as heinous and illegal and immoral as any killing done in a civilian context without justification. But even I, when I first read those words, was taken aback. How could every death in every war be murder? What about just wars, never mind "good" ones? But, of course Boell was stating not a legal position but a moral one. He had participated in a war, and summing things up afterwards from not only the losing side but the side that is pretty much universally agreed to be the wrong one, he nevertheless held there is never justification for the anonymous killing of another human being. We may do it individually if we are threatened with immediate lethal force. He didn't say every killing is murder. He said every death in every war is murder, a hard saying, as Jesus might put it, because it means there is never any justification for it.

But there has to be more than the devaluing of certain human life over other human life involved, because even when it is our kin dying we rationalize those deaths as being sacrificed for the sake of preserving our freedom or some other noble-sounding objective. Families have "sacrificed" two, three, even four members of their kin that way and spoken of those deaths as nobly given in the service of their country. Believing that those dead soldiers are alive and in heaven can certainly mitigate the pain. Believing that the soldiers and civilians those family members killed did not deserve to live can also help. But such wishful thinking would not be enough if we who never see war firsthand could get beyond the Hollywood and victory-parade versions we see in our propaganda. We catch glimpses of the reality here and there, and there is plenty of it available in novels and memoirs. But we have a way of wincing and feeling sick when we are exposed to those explicit descriptions and images, and then suppressing them, just as we suppress our memories of other unendurable experiences.

In that sense, we tolerate war as a consequence of the failure of our imaginations. In another way, though, we tolerate it because we have a genuine appetite for killing and mayhem. There is a part of us that enjoys killing and other kinds of violence. Leaving out any kind of moral consideration, it's probably hardwired into us for good reason as a survival mechanism. The difference, after all, between what goes on on a football gridiron or a hockey rink or, if you look closely enough, even on the baseball field or soccer pitch, is a kind of denatured, civilized parody of war. We cheer for our hometown and our home city the same way we cheer for our country when it is engaged in the great game where the stakes are the literal survival of us or them. Nations have escalated from sports events to shooting war, not frequently, but it has happened. We enjoy a contest, especially a physical contest where the stakes are big and the risks are great. Most of the time we keep that contest within the boundaries of nonlethal behavior, but athletes do still die sometimes playing their sport, and we consider those deaths regrettable, even "tragic," but apart from tinkering with the rules of the game, nothing changes.

And, lest we think we are making progress out of this way of thinking and into something more humane, consider the recent scandal involving the New Orleans Saints football team. They were, apparently, sent out onto the field with the object in mind of deliberately injuring members of the teams they played. And, a major-league baseball team has been using US military strike teams as mentors to get them into a "winning" frame of mind. We have a love affair with violence, and millions of us become pretty edgy when we can't consummate it on a regular basis.

I'm not sure, though, whether even this innate appetite for violence and even cruelty (consider what's involved in the slaughter, even the humane slaughter, of an animal we intend to use for food; could anyone strike the fatal blow unless it was in them somehow to do so? can anyone be good at anything they do if they don't enjoy doing it, including being "good at" killing and destruction?) would be enough to marshal a majority of any given population in favor of war if it knew what war is. It seems that some of our greatest pacifists, though they would wince at the appellation, are our veterans, both ex-soldiers and commanders who have fought in past wars. It's easy enough for that clergyman to bless the Enola Gay and then say his prayers and sleep with a clear conscience, but not so easy for the people who went into inspect the consequences of that bomb on the men, women and children of Hiroshima. And let's not forget the many more who were killed in the fire bombing of Tokyo and Dresden, though forget is exactly what we mostly prefer to do.

Telling the truth about war and hearing it from the mouths of those who know it firsthand is probably the best antidote to the lies and half-truths we are fed. But even if their voices were heard freely, changing our attitude and behavior is a very steep uphill climb. We seem to get our fill of death and destruction, but then a few years or a few decades later we go back to it, believing the same falsehoods and accepting the same horrors as if they were now entirely necessary in a way past horrors were not.


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