May 29, 2003
few weeks ago, during the Iraq war, I wrote about Ali Abbas, a
12-year-old boy who lost his entire family and both his arms when a U.S.
rocket struck his Baghdad home. His case has attracted international
attention and sympathy, though the American media have largely ignored
Now the Washington
Times reports that Ali is recovering about as well as could be
hoped for. Because of his injuries, including extensive burns, doctors
expected him to die. But after surgery and skin grafts, he is now walking
and even joking. He has received many offers of help; he will be equipped
with prosthetic arms and an Iraqi family in Canada wants
to adopt him.
Despite his agonizing losses, the
boy may learn to cope with what most of us would consider a bleak life.
Perhaps the worldwide outpouring of love and concern will be some
consolation to him.
How many other innocents were
killed and maimed by the American invasion? I have seen no figures or
even estimates. It doesnt seem to matter to most Americans, for
whom military victory seems to be sufficient justification for any
collateral damage, as we have learned to call it. Saddam
Husseins weapons of mass destruction the
chief pretext for the war appear to have been fictions, if not
The notion that Hussein ever
posed a serious threat to the United States, or even Israel, now sounds
like a paranoid crackpot theory. The Bush administration was merely
groping for excuses to crush him like a bug. Actually doing it turned out to
be easier than justifying it to the civilized world.
More to the point, how do you
justify what happened to people like Ali Abbas? It was quite foreseeable
that bombing and shelling Baghdad would have such results.
One reader, who usually agrees
with me, says that I set a standard for war that is virtually impossible to
meet. Dont all wars, he asks, claim innocent victims?
Well, yes. At least virtually all military invasions do. That is
why they are nearly always immoral.
Consider the U.S. war for
independence. Were any English children killed? Probably not, because the
British troops didnt bring their families over, and the war was
fought on American soil. Any collateral damage inflicted by
the American forces would have been freakishly exceptional.
In the U.S. War between the
States, the North caused many civilian deaths in the South, especially
during the Shenandoah Valley campaign and Shermans March to the
Sea. This was deliberate policy; it shocked Europe and left bitter
memories in the South for generations. How many Northern civilians were
killed by Southern troops? Few, if any. It was the North that invaded the
South, while accusing the South of aggression.
After that war, some of the
Northern generals waged a war of extermination
their word against the American Indian. Few distinctions were
made between Indian combatants and noncombatants, the guiding principle
being that the only good Indian is a dead Indian.
During World War II, the
Roosevelt administration deliberately targeted civilian populations in
Japan and Germany for aerial bombing, killing millions of noncombatants.
This too was strategic policy, by no means unintended collateral
Principles of just war and
civilized warfare were formulated many centuries ago, beginning, as far
as I know, with St. Augustine. But the modern state has reverted to
barbarism and the logic of total war. The U.S. Government has played a
large role in this development, and its no accident that this has
largely occurred under presidents who led the way in expanding the
domestic powers of the Federal Government and in destroying
constitutional limits on government action.
By now war has become an
American habit, a sort of tradition. Americans have come to regard war as
a more or less normal activity. Its not the hawks but the doves who
now have to offer justifications, and criticizing war is widely felt to be
nit-picking, if not unpatriotic.
As a young congressman,
Abraham Lincoln found his patriotism under severe attack when he
challenged President James Polks war on Mexico. Lincoln learned
his lesson. By the end of his life, he could justify his own war on the
South as part of Gods plan.
American presidents still find
lofty reasons for war. If only they could settle for modest excuses for