January 26, 2009
From Liberty Street

Bombs Away

John Turner

The deaths in Masamut, a village in eastern Afghanistan, have set off the most recent controversy about whether U.S. forces in that country try as hard as they should to avoid civilian casualties. The accounts about such incidents are always conflicting. There's always going to be an investigation into what really happened, but the results of these investigations are seldom reported. And so it goes.

The lasting results, though, are not in doubt. The surviving victims of the attack, those who saw their loved ones slaughtered, are consumed with hatred which, more often than not, lasts a lifetime. Nobody bothers to report on the consequences of that hatred over the next quarter-century or so. They are left to the imagination.

The common explanation, and excuse, for killings of this kind is that they are regrettable but that in war, unintended casualties are inevitable. Whenever I hear someone say this, I wait, anticipating the next remark. But it doesn't come. That's it; in war the slaughter of uninvolved people just happens. Those who make the remark seem to think it's like saying that gravity causes people to die when they fall off tall buildings. But war and gravity are not the same sort of thing.

Why do we not take the next logical step and ask ourselves whether we should keep on doing war as it has been conceived up through the twentieth century? Knowing as we do that war causes hideous outcomes we say we wish it didn't cause, might it not be worthwhile to consider whether these outcomes overwhelm any successes we attribute to our war making?

We don't often think what happens when we send an armed force into a village to kill particular people who are reported to be there. We generally have a Hollywood myth in mind rather than actuality. The reality is we load a bunch of young men up with the most powerful weapons they can carry. Despite the tales we tell ourselves about their all being noble heroes, they are fairly ordinary young people. Some are arrogant; some are inept; some are stupid; and virtually all are scared. A villager hears a noise outside and opens his door to see what's going on. The soldiers kill him because, in their state of hyper-excitement, they are sure he poses some threat and is probably one of the bad guys their nation has sent them to Afghanistan to extinguish. In reality, he's just a father and husband who was curious about a noise. The military PR machine, in order to excuse itself, takes over and tries as mightily as it can to paint the dead man as being, at least, a sympathizer with bad people. But the villagers know it's not true. So it goes on, dead man after dead man, mounting to thousands.

There's no sense trying to pull the wool over our eyes. This is war; this is what it does. This is what it has to do. You can have all the training sessions you want, attempting to reduce the number of what we call unintended deaths. War doesn't care. It will keep on doing what it has always done.

You don't have to read far down the threads attached to various web sites to get the point that thousands of Americans -- probably a majority of Americans -- are not prepared to examine war critically. They believe, in a somewhat religious fashion, that war is a necessity of life and can never be stopped. As a consequence, war will continue and more uninvolved people, who want only to keep themselves and their families safe, will be killed or maimed. That's where we are right now in history.

Even so, there are some of us who have a fairly accurate assessment of war's nature. We know that the vast majority of wars in history have produced far more ill than good. Some of us have concluded that war is never justified. A greater number, and I include myself among them, think that though there may be some cases in which the use of military force in the midst of a civilian population makes sense, most of the time it does not. In virtually every case, there are alternatives to conventional military action.

We need to push our fellow citizens to recognize that when we and our leaders say that we use military force only as a last resort, we are lying. There are many of us who think of it before anything else when difficult situations arise.

Our first goal should be to insure that we use military force only when a rational case can be made that it is, indeed, a last resort. If we ever reach that point, I suspect that we would be a good way toward realizing that war, at least as it has been conceived up till now, never does any good.

The time will come when humanity -- if it survives -- will realize that it should put bombs away. The big question is how many will be slaughtered before that thought takes hold of the human psyche.


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