Thursday, April 22, 2010

Heresy? I think not

Sent the following to Common Dreams, but they didn't publish...I hope that they are not getting to the point where one cannot criticize "progressives" -- seems to run counter to progressive principles.

"Murder" in Iraq? A response

I, like many others, became aware of the military gunship video of the shooting of journalists, other civilians, and children in Iraq, released by Wiki-leaks earlier this week . I, too, was moved and horrified by the audio and video of the incident. I would hope that anyone with a conscience would have a similar response.

I differ with others, however, by characterizing this event as "murder" and by placing the blame for this incident solely on the shoulders of the men in the gunship and their superiors. Normally not one to buy the rhetoric of "it was taken out of context," I think this clearly applies in this instance. To be sure, people were killed who shouldn't have been and this is, of course, tragic. The issue of why they were killed can only be understood by orienting the actions of those who engaged in the killing within the proper context, however. Note that I am not attempting to deny the fact that the killings occurred, nor that someone should not be held accountable. Rather, I am saying that there should be someone (or rather some "ones") held accountable, but unfortunately, many are misidentifying who those are. My reasons for this claim follow.

First, it should be remembered that our soldiers are trained to successfully kill whomever has been identified as the enemy. Since the Vietnam war, they have been trained much more effectively to kill than ever before. This should come as no surprise to anyone as presumably, we have the armed forces to protect us and they do this by ensuring that when called upon, the threat is eradicated as efficiently and completely as possible. Put simply, they do this by being very good at killing. They are not more bloodthirsty than anyone else, they are better trained. As repugnant as this may sound, this is what we expect from our soldiers; we want them to be able to kill others at a higher rate than they are killed.

Second, they are trained to discriminate between the enemy and civilians, but since Vietnam, clear discrimination about who the enemy is has proven to be much more difficult. Why? Because many times the enemy does not wear a uniform. We are all familiar with the evidence that in most armed conflicts of recent memory, "the enemy," oftentimes are regular people who wear regular clothes. This is perhaps especially true in our conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Does incorrect discrimination occur, then? Absolutely. Should we simply accept that it does? That it is part of of war? No. We should continue to improve our soldiers' ability to discriminate. Easy to say, not easy to do. We should also, however, appreciate the tenuous situation that we place our soldiers in when we ask them to fight an enemy that is not easily identified.

Third, our soldiers are getting killed...daily. I have never been in an armed conflict, nor have I ever been in the military. I have read numerous accounts of those who have and as such, I understand that despite the fact that they have been trained to kill others, they are still human. They still feel fear, terror, frustration, powerlessness. They still experience these feelings (at rates and intensity levels most of us have never known) and yet they continue to do what we have asked them to do. To say we put our "troops in harms way" is nonsense. Our troops are commanded to fight and they are expected to continue to fight until they are ordered otherwise. And in addition to our expecting them to successfully dispatch the enemy, we expect our troops to die for us. We expect them to expose themselves to daily attempts to be killed. We expect them to witness the horrible destruction of their friends.

We expect them to do all of these things, while feeling fear, terror, frustration, powerlessness at levels that most of us could not withstand for a few moments, let alone for days on end, and then we hold them to a higher standard when they err. Of course the error is tragic; how can it not be given the situation? But are the women and men who make the error solely to blame for it? I don't think so, because they are not in control of the situation; they are only responding to the situation as they assess it (initial reports stated that the civilians had no weapons; more recent reports stated that several of the citizens were carrying AK-47's) and as they have been trained to respond...which is no different than anyone of us.

While it seems that some soldiers in the gunship were callous and devoid of empathy, I would suggest that really what occurred was that they simply had put their humanity on hold (In fact, I would argue that part of their training on how to effectively kill others required that they put their humanity on hold). I would suspect that when they return to civilian life, many of them will desperately regret this and perhaps other behavior they exhibited while on the battlefield. I have heard from many returning soldiers that they regret their mistakes, but they have to live with them, just like most of us do. Most of us, however, are fortunate enough to not have to make mistakes in such a hellish arena where the consequences are irrevocable, chilling, and tragic.

So, who is ultimately responsible for this? I strongly suggest it is the leaders who sent our troops to Iraq in the first place; the Bush administration and the feckless members of Congress who failed to stop them. They are the ones who commanded our troops to engage in this action, they are the ones who are responsible for all of the death in Iraq and they are the ones who will undoubtedly escape any consequence for any of it. Prosecuting the soldiers on the gunship for murder only serves to provide those whom are truly guilty more reason to sleep easier at night as they are not the ones who have to be held to account for their actions before the world.