“Dhuluaya, Iraq…US soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking US troops.”
Counterpunch, Oct. 14, 2003
Ruthlessness is conventionally condemned. To be without pity or mercy or feeling is thought cruel and inhuman. But in war the moral convention fades as men and women are licensed and charged to be ruthless. They must destroy and kill the enemy on behalf of their country which orders and sanctions it. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says the mode of war is apart from human time. A civil libertarian like Alan Dershowitz rationalizes ruthlessness and torture for the sake of one’s tribe.
Normally we would reproach the punitive killing of trees and razing of homes. But the United States and Israel right now uproot ancient date palms and olive trees to coerce informing on kin and to punish families related to fighters. Ruthlessly destroying trees and homes is sanctioned as necessary action-to punish the family of an enemy and thereby deter bombing and encourage informing. The Romans sowed salt to punish the land and people they particularly despised. That long-lasting warrior brutality taught the same imperial lesson.
Stopping war is hard. At the end of The Odyssey Odysseus returns home and kills the suitors who have been eating at his house and stalking his queen. Odysseus and his son and father stand and fight gloriously to defend their property. When the hall is drenched in blood they prepare for an onslaught of vengeance which must follow. The families of the suitors will have to revenge their dead. Athena, goddess of wisdom and war and Odysseus’ protector, asks Zeus to stop the fighting and he drops a pall of forgetfulness so that vengeance can fade. Even so Odysseus’ own blood lust is up and he doesn’t want to stop. Zeus has to hurl a thunderbolt at his feet to quell his fighting spirit. That works, and Athena in the guise of Mentor counsels Odysseus to have a nice life. Humans without divine help tend to go on fighting in the Greek story.
In our recent war on Iraq, the Pentagon spent great energy praising the stunning power of our military prowess and the kinder gentler attitude of our troops. They weren’t shouting kill kill kill. They were liberating, respecting Islam, loving the children. They weren’t ruthless. The pictures showed men cry at the loss of comrades and the wounding of children. One soldier in Dhuluaya reportedly broke down and cried when bulldozing the fruit trees.
How do you turn from ruthless to compassionate? How change the actions from destruction to construction? If you haven’t the power to make the conquered forget, nor the thunderbolt to check warrior passion, how does it happen? We tried proclamation. We announced that the time for shock and awe and forcing violence is over and we intend to make peace and rebuild civilization. But the way of force is not the way of freedom. Saying doesn’t make it so. We started fighting because we abandoned words, spurned diplomacy, and said the time for talk was over. We speak the language of force and find it hard to translate into peace talk.
Getting back to words, making peace, beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks takes mind, muscle, and a will to lose the weapons. It takes first the mastery of ruthlessness. We enter our own cloud of forgetfulness, ignore what we have done and do, call war peace and brutality liberation. The thunderbolts do not fall at our feet.
DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo. She can be reached at: email@example.com