War and American Guilt

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I really like the game of Risk, and I really hate it.  You make all these plans and deployments, then Lady Luck laughs in your face as others who are not as well equipped or positioned find her favor.risk-board-game   It's frustrating to be a superior force and to lose.  Nevertheless, it's a game that makes sense, as larger armies have advantages over smaller ones, and the results, (theoretically) on average, should favor them.  If only real conflicts were so conventional and predictable.

Terrorism is neither.  It's usually a relatively small scale endeavor (compared with brigades and battalions) that is unexpected, particularly in the absence of declared hostilities.  Overall, we're at peace with taking our chances, but chance is the mathematical probability of known outcomes.  It's the unknown that frightens us.

When I think of terrorism, I usually think of Islamic suicide bombers on a market street...somewhat dispassionately in the context of a street in some far distant land.  Otherwise, I'd have to think of 9/11 or Oklahoma City, which are much nearer to the world I know and closer to my heart.   

There are occasionally undeniably just wars.  If it takes a politician to explain it, then a war declaration probably doesn't qualify as this, regardless of whether there are appealing benefits to it.  A Pearl Harbor, fortunately, doesn't happen often.  If a just military action requires an attack on the U.S., then it's not until the 9/11 terrorist attack (several embassies notwithstanding) that we find an unquestionable cause to act.  Somewhere.  Against somebody.

Which brings us 7 years later to Afghanistan, where this week we saw the replacement of one General for another to engender a more imaginative and flexible strategy to deal with the problematic Taliban.  This occurs just after an air raid that killed up to 100 civilians, if any accounting can be believed. 

Though the timing of this leadership change was reportedly coincidental, the use of an air strike would apparently fall within the category of "unimaginative and inflexible" as it occurred under the previous General's watch.  It makes me wonder if "new thinking and creative approaches" are equivalent to reducing the margin of error created by the blunt effect of our smart weapons.  Perhaps a General who served in Special Forces thinks in those terms.

There is a moral outrage when civilians are killed, and public reactions probably vary somewhere between "That's unfortunate" and "I'm ashamed to be American because we're terrorists too!"  There is no escaping the glare of the real-time media spotlight, and we seem to be increasingly conditioned to think the worse of ourselves. "They" kill civilians. "We" kill civilians.  It's all the same.  Right?


Do we really expect that any military endeavor can or should be free of civilian casualties?  It seems so, and news report imply that we not only have the technology to be completely sanitized and surgical in our strikes, but that we have the moral obligation to do so.

I disagree. 

The mission of a military force is to maximize damage to the enemy and minimize damage to itself.  If there is no military advantage in an attack, then certainly killing civilians is pointless and is in no case desirable.  I don't think the U.S. suffers from that, but a missile errantly fired into a wedding party can only feed our collective guilt. 

But at a deeper level, I think our fortitude for doing what we must has suffered from the comfort and ease of our lives, the liberty to think and express ourselves freely, and our idealistic hopes that mankind could become something better, if only a few specific and outwardly hostile men (here, there and seemingly everywhere if we look hard enough) wouldn't interfere.

My recollection of history may be failing me, but it seems the only means of concluding a war is to destroy the opponent's military and their will and ability to fight.  When a country is fully committed to winning, it does what it must to win. 

If my surface level understanding is correct that we may withdraw from remotely delivered blunt objects and insert our superbly trained soldiers into harm's way, then those with weak stomachs are just as guilty for the resulting U.S. casualties as those they would condemn for the collateral damage of our own attacks. 

War is ugly.  We shouldn't hope or expect that it would be otherwise, and we should commit ourselves to winning if we are undeniably just in our mission.

1 comment :

  1. I had a history teacher in high school that claimed that Pearl Harbor was allowed to happen to make the US citizens mad enough to allow the government to go to war. He stated that the US had broken the German and Japanese codes and knew that Japan was planning an attack. He showed us enough data and well thought out arguments that I went home and argued the point with my grandfather, who was actually in WWII and had lived through Pearl Harbor. Truth? Conspiracy Theory? I don't know.

    I have heard recent on NPR that the Taliban have existed in the middle east since the late 1800's. They were discussing a british account of a conflict that accurately named and described Taliban tactics. Do we seriously believe we can dismantle something that has been around for over 100 years?? Are we that arrogant or that foolish to think it just takes US troops heading over and putting someone else in power and the problem will go away?

    Finally, President Obama won, largely I believe, on his promise to end the war in Iraq and bring our young men and women home. And yet, as soon as they are starting to come home, they are being shipped right back out to Afganistan. Isn't that kind of cheating? They aren't really coming home, they are just moving into a different country. One with just as many problems, if not more, than Iraq has.

    Only time will tell if these strategies will work or cause more problems and unrest in the region. But for countries that have been fighting amongst themselves since before Jesus was born, I don't think we have a shot in Hell of this being over any time soon. Does this make me cynical or just a realist? Probably a lot of both.