There is the old argument put forth by the National Rifle Association that it is not guns that kill, it is the people who pull the trigger. This, of course, is at best a half-truth. What does the NRA think guns are manufactured for? The downing of clay pigeons? Nonsense. They are made to kill and maim. Be the targets men or lesser animals, be they used in the course of defense or offense, guns are designed and manufactured to inflict deadly harm.
One can say the same thing for armies. They are not put together for marching in parades. They are designed to kill and maim on a large scale. You can change the name of that part of the government that manages professional carnage from the Department of War to the Department of Defense (as the U.S. government did in 1949) but it makes no real difference. Once the military is engaged, the inevitable consequence (and the consequence clearly known to those who run the show) is mayhem.
Ask anyone who has gone through basic training about the amount of effort given to learning how not to kill civilians. It will not be insignificant or irrelevant because, unless the fighting is in a desert or on the moon, it is virtually impossible within the framework of modern warfare not to kill non-combatants. Ask a platoon leader what priority he gives to assuring that his targets are not civilians. If the answer is an honest one it will be a rare event when such a consideration even approaches the standard priorities of achieving the mission while "taking care of your men." You might say that this is just how war is. Historically speaking this is true. In terms of ethics it is a flat out indefensible position.
Just how indefensible was revealed this week by the courageous work of Wikileaks, a website that has carried on the work began by Daniel Ellsberg when he leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Viet Nam war. This week saw the release of 92,000 records detailing the bloody savagery of American military action in Afghanistan. If one is old enough, this revelation brings on a disturbing episode of deja vu. For those who lived through Viet Nam know that what these records reveal are nothing new. It has all happened before. No doubt it will all happen again. In fact it must happen again and again as long as war is waged as it now is.
That is why one can only feel nausea when the professionals, from military spokesmen, to "embedded" journalists, to politicians talk of "collateral damage," as if the pulverized bodies of civilians that the U.S. military (and all similar armies the world over) leaves in its wake are somehow accidents. They are not. No matter what the so-called "rules of engagement," the nature of the weapons used and the training of the average enlistee (which emphasizes ever more ruthlessness as the one is brought into "special forces") guarantees these civilian deaths. In the modern age of warfare their fate follows like 2+2=4.
Thus, it is significant, and so revealing of our national mentality, that the savagery revealed in the leaked reports is not what most of our leaders are focusing on. Rather, it is the accusation that the reports suggest that the war is being lost. Thus from the White House to the Congress, to the media talkshows, their defense is that this is old data, reflecting the state of the war prior to the President’s introduction of a new strategy and a surge in troop strength. While I believe that the war in Afghanistan is, just like Viet Nam, an unwinnable affair, this sort of debate misses the point of these revelations. It is not about winning or losing. It is about utter destruction. About the tens of thousands of human beings who have already irredeemably lost this war.
In the United States war is a massive industry. We ignored Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the growing military-industrial complex and so this vast interlinked network is now one of the foundations of the U.S. economy. The vested interests involved here are of every class and every ethnicity. To rapidly dismantle this complex risks depression for the nation. To come to a clear recognition of this situation is like looking into the abyss. Indeed, the vast majority of people will refuse to look. And they will support the hunting down of those who have invited them to look (Julian Assange, co-founder of Wikileaks is now a wanted man). The government will label them traitors, put them in prison and throw away the key.
Frederic Nietzsche tells us the parable of the death of god. A madman shows up in a town one day and proclaims the death of god and identifies the murderers as we the people. The implication here is that the modern age is what really did god in. Moderns have ceased to pay anything but lip service to god and so he, she or it is really just a dead idol. We can extend the parable to ethics. The people at Wikileaks are the madmen who have come to town to tell us that we have no ethics. That our pitiful claim to be civilized is just an act of self-delusion because the nature of modern warfare has murdered ethics. By the way, in Nietzsche’s story the messenger is simply dismissed as insane. As noted above, the Wikileaks people will have a much rougher time of it.
Finally, on Armistice Day in 1948 a colleague of Dwight Eisenhower, General Omar Bradley, made a speech in which he said "the world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience...." It was not a particularly original observation for in one form or another it has been said many times before and many times since. The implication is that tomorrow will probably look very much like today. And so it will. As an wise swamp possum once observed, "We have met the enemy....and he is us."
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|Liaquat Ali Khan|