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“You help me find the bad guy or we come back with our tanks and run over your fields and break down your house.”
US soldier to a northern Iraqi villager,
July 17, 2003, CNN news
The soldiers face sniping resistance and are attempting to root out the fighters who blend into the Iraqi village population. So they’re coercing information from the neighbors through the threat of ravage. This tactic is not exactly the same as the Israeli practice of destroying the land and homes of Palestinian suicide bombers’ families. That is deliberately punitive revenge and it’s also rationalized as deterrence. Our soldiers’ tactic is simply brutal coercion, guerilla warfare, extortion.
Should ‘good guys’ get ‘bad guys’ by coercing and ravaging neutral guys? Didn’t we disparage Saddam’s inhumanity by pointing out that he terrorized his own people in a reign of fear and retribution? Or does war suppress humanitarian questions and radicalize everyone into good guys who are with us and bad guys who are against us? The soldiers who mistakenly kill civilians they think are hostile are excused because fear is seen as a reasonable excuse. Alan Dershowitz, sometime defender of civil rights, thinks even torture is allowable. Everybody knows people do these things. Warrior types sneer at liberal squeamishness. Ann Coulter swashbuckles that we should ravage and kill and convert the Muslims. As Yeats puts it: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
One reason it’s so difficult to move from war to peace is that they’re different tactics. War forces and peace frees. U.S. Americans love both force and freedom-the tough guys who triumph and the high ideal. As Tony Blair so deftly demonstrated speaking to the US Congress, we thrill to freedom talk, stand up and clap for it, are willing to die for it, love the flag for it. My favorite revolutionary war headstone reads “When I heard freedom was the cause my heart was enlisted.”
But it’s hard to love the soldier who says get me the bad guy or I ruin your fields and house. When Saddam Hussein terrorized and threatened his people and punished them for criticizing him we said he was a monster worthy of death. Is the soldier that, or does he get a pass because it’s us against them and war is hell and any means possible is ok if it’s a bad guy you’re after?
The soldier is still in war mode, which is reasonable as he’s being shot at. He’s not a policeman or a peacemaker except in the war fantasy that killing and destroying will make all well in the end because we’ll get rid of evil. Our exorcisms fail for several reasons, including the obvious trouble we have catching demons. Like Khaddafi and Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, our Iraqi incarnation of evil, evaded our awesome decapitation campaign. This unnerves the Iraqis who are afraid he’ll come back and also punctures our apocalyptic pose. The day of reckoning George Bush promised Saddam Hussein is postponed due the sacrificial oblation’s sneaking away to escape smiting. Death comes to us all in course, but taking out bad guys gives us the illusion that we’re in charge and triumphal.
If we caught Saddam today and put his head on a pole as they did in 17th century Britain would all be well, would there be no more bad guys, would we be good guys because we killed the bad guy? The demons aren’t only out there. It’s a fantasy to think they can be packaged into regimes which can be changed like socks-the holy tossing the holey.
Is it a good guy tactic to destroy a person’s fields and home to force him to name his neighbor as a bad guy? Aren’t these tactics we’ve deplored in other regimes? Are they good because we do them and we’re good? What moral maelstrom do we descend to to delude ourselves so?
Most religious and moral teachings warn against thinking you’re good. Call no man good is the counsel. The wisdom is that if you think you’re good you’re dangerous because you won’t acknowledge where you’re bad. Contrary to popular appetite, it’s not all or nothing, good or bad forever fixed, but separate actions in time. You can be good today and bad tomorrow, bad yesterday and good today. If you’re free it’s an open option.
The only unforgivable sin Christ named is confusing good and evil, calling evil good and good evil.
The bad guy doesn’t define the good guy. Actions do.
DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org