How We Became Barbarians
People can get astonishingly sensitive when they discuss moral issues.
Someone who can scarf popcorn all through *both* Kill Bills will go hoarse about the killing of innocents in Israel or Iraq or anywhere suitably distant. Someone who’d cheer a B-52 strike on Baghdad will murmur feelingly about the perfect little hands of a second trimester fetus. And everyone hates terrorism with a passion because it victimizes innocent people: that’s so outrageous!
Really the claptrap about terrorism has gone far enough. Brutes should at least recognize their own brutality. None of us, left, right, or center, are all that bothered about the deliberate killing of innocents. Virtually none of us think it’s that big a deal to tear the flesh off a child.
I’m not being cynical. There are some things that most people genuinely, sincerely abhor, important things like genocide and torture. There has been real progress on these fronts. That’s just why we should notice that, on the matter of ripping the flesh off children, we have regressed. We weren’t always so vicious; at least we tried not to be. Perhaps we will try again–but not until we realize how low we have sunk.
A little history might help.
The slaughter of innocent civilians has deep roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The Bible is clear about this. In 1 Samuel 15:3, God says to Saul: "Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." (Saul gets into hot water with God for sparing the king and some livestock.) David, beloved of God, was no sissy about conquest: "And he brought forth the people that were therein, and put them under saws, and under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brick-kiln: and thus did he unto all the cities of the children of Ammon." (2 Samuel 12:31)
But sometime during the wars of religion in Europe (from 1618 to a bit after 1648), people started to think this was not so great. In 1625, Hugo Grotius’ The Law of War and Peace began to set different standards: Grotius ingeniously argued that the Hebrews’ practices, being a response to the direct command of God in a particular case, could not be held as a model for human decisions in wartime. Instead he suggested that "Though there may be circumstances, in which absolute justice will not condemn the sacrifice of lives in war, yet humanity will require that the greatest precaution should be used against involving the innocent in danger, except in cases of extreme urgency and utility." (III.11.8)
The phrasing is echoed in the pieties of today’s general staffs. The practitioners of ‘collateral damage’ love to tell you that they take "the greatest precaution …against involving the innocent in danger".
But when? in "cases of extreme urgency and utility"? or in cases not at all urgent, and of dubious utility? Grotius was most concerned, of course, about the lives of non-combatants, especially the aged, women, and children. What are our conventions and practices about taking innocent life?
From Grotius’ time until sometime after the First World War, there was a gradual, unsteady progress away from killing innocent civilians. Armies fought on battlefields; battlefields were more or less unpopulated. Navies fought on the ocean. Soldiers foraging for food and fuel might kill civilians, but this wasn’t considered acceptable.
Even great colonial atrocities like King Leopold’s rape of the Congo–not exactly warfare–were usually concealed. The general idea, the official story, was that civilians deserved humane treatment. If the notion that their destruction should be an essential and typical part of warfare was not explicitly rejected, it was also never entertained.
Wars were to be fought by and against soldiers.
The official story started to change with the introduction–even with the contemplation–of air power. H.G. Well’s The War in the Air (1908) predicted that Zeppelins would be used to bomb civilian populations and break their morale. The Germans tried this in World War I, when the tactic was so novel that the Imperial War Museum now comments that the raids "put civilians in the front line for the first time". (http://london.iwm.org.uk/)
These raids signaled a decay in the attempt to humanize warfare, but they did not quite succeed in changing ideas about destroying civilians. The world was shocked when, in 1937, Nazi aircraft dropped 100,000 pounds of bombs on the Spanish town of Guernica, killing 1,500 people, about a third of the population. This tender-heartedness did not survive the Second World War.
Britain and the US decided that maybe bombing civilian populations into despondency wasn’t such a bad idea. They bombed with enthusiasm. Whether or not the casualty counts in Hamburg and Dresden have been exaggerated, no one denies that innocent civilians were in fact targeted. This objective is implicit in the World War II distinction between ‘strategic bombings’, which aimed to destroy defense industries and other military-related objectives, and ‘saturation bombings’, intended to level whole cities. This was a decisive and fateful step away from Grotius’ not wholly unsuccessful attempts to humanize war.
The brutalization of attitudes towards attacks on civilians was and is quite universal. We may deplore some such attacks, but not all of them. We disagree, not about whether they are ever legitimate, but rather about whether they should be blatant. Some think it’s ok to kill civilians as long as they’re not really your target. Others think that they can be all or part of your target. It’s the difference between dropping bombs you know will kill civilians and dropping bombs to kill civilians.
It’s not a very important disagreement and it’s not very important to those involved. The victims’ suffering is just as great in either case, and the perpetrators seem able to live with their deeds. Even those who moralize about saturation bombings don’t seem too upset. Left-wing and liberal political writers sometimes speak of the stench of burning flesh in Dresden; they themselves give off more than a whiff of bad faith.
The bombing of Dresden has been in the public eye at least since Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five was published in 1969. This was twenty-four years after the event, a time-span not considered too long for punishing child molesters. If attack was so criminal, where were the loud calls for the prosecution of those responsible? Why didn’t we hear demands for a truth commission or day of atonement to commemorate the event? Why has this crime evolved into nothing more than a shocker for occasional use in polemics about something else? Only Nazi sympathizers have crusaded to bring the perpetrators to justice; others have kept their scruples to a murmur or a snide remark.
The plain truth is that there is, in our culture, no serious opposition to deliberate, direct mass killings of civilians. The enemy, of course, must not attack innocents. Our side must not do so if the attacks are ineffective or superfluous. But no one says: even if these attacks saved thousands of our soldiers’ lives, we must renounce them. And silence speaks volumes here: what we ignore, we permit.
Suppose, though, that some of us do genuinely abhor even our own side’s direct attacks on civilians. What then of indirect attacks, like the strategic bombings commonplace in World War II? Some have, with pointless indignation, questioned their effectiveness–as if anyone would deny that ineffective attacks are morally undesirable. These condemnations are just a way of avoiding the real issue: what about effective ones? The morality of *effective* strategic bombing in a justified war has never been questioned except by tiny minorities of hard-core pacifists. It apparently hasn’t occurred to anyone else that there might be something wrong with such tactics. The strategic air strikes of World War II taught us to defend them with a then-unnamed excuse, ‘collateral damage’.
Before the excuse had a name, it had universal acceptance. This cannot be understressed. Virtually everyone, right and left, East and West, North and South, Christian and Muslim, male and female, young and old, accepts that civilians, including innocent children, should be blown apart or horribly mutilated for the rest of their awful lives in the name of military convenience. To put it another way, virtually everyone approves of some wars. Virtually no one calls for an end to the use of air power in warfare–what? no strikes against munitions factories, shipyards, transportation links, war-related government buildings? As long as we approve of the war itself, such tactics raise hardly a ripple of doubt, let alone protest. Yet we all know with moral certainty, all of us, that innocent civilians, including children, will be killed in strategic air strikes. So we all accept that this should happen.
Do we think it should happen only in cases of what Grotius called "extreme urgency and utility"? No, not at all. Using air power against strategic targets is just something you do in warfare. It’s standard procedure. So the general strategy which is known to mutilate civilians isn’t even up for discussion. As for the specific decisions, no one suggests you need a really compelling reason to mount such attacks No one suggests that the decision to attack such targets is normally a choice between victory and defeat. It’s not as if someone says: we’ll lose unless we bomb this munitions complex. At both levels of decision-making, there is no anguished deliberation, and no good reason is required. A very mediocre reason will do fine. That’s all we require for the killing of innocent civilians. When the US or Israel offers the excuse of collateral damage, it’s not just their excuse. Whoever we are, it’s our excuse too, and it’s a bad one.
The sleight of hand in the collateral damage excuse comes from obliterating the distinction between the expected and the unexpected.
Unexpected collateral damage is a true accident. It is also the exception, not the rule, as an example will make clear. Suppose some naval battle in which a destroyer is sunk in shallow water. After the fighting is over, divers inspect the vessel and are horrified to discover it carried several dozen civilians–children, perhaps–who were being transported to safe exile in a nonbelligerent country. This is *unexpected* collateral damage: no one imagined, and no one should have imagined, this terrible but also terribly unusual circumstance.
But when the Americans or Israelis speak of collateral damage, they are not speaking of the unexpected kind. On the contrary they know with certainty–the commanders, the soldiers, the decision-makers–that civilians are in the firing line, and will be killed. To suppose, for example, that the attack on Iraq would not produce the death of innocent civilians would have been frivolous. This is *expected* collateral damage, innocent deaths that no reasonable person could fail to expect.
The distinction matters because the expected sort of collateral damage is, in ordinary contexts, criminal. Suppose, for example, Joanne decides she wants to kill Jack by running him over in her Nissan Pathfinder. She knows he goes to a movie at the Paramount every Friday night. She plans to drive into that movie line at high speed. She will hit him and, as she knows full well, some of the people standing behind and in front of him. She also knows full well that, when she hits them, they will be killed. She executes her plan. Well, guess what? She is guilty of homicide, not only of Jack, but of anyone else she kills. (Indeed, even if she were exonerated of homicide against Jack–perhaps he had abused her–she would not be exonerated of homicide against the other moviegoers.) It’s literally collateral damage, but it’s not accidental. Both morally and legally, it counts as deliberate, and that’s enough: desire to kill is not a necessary condition of murder.
We all, all of us, approve of such murders, whether of adults or children. We approve some wars, past, present or future. We approve of the ‘strategic’ use of air power (and artillery) in a justified war to attain military objectives. When we do so, we also approve of dropping bombs when it is known they will kill innocent civilians.
This is expected collateral damage, which is murder. We approve of that. And since the killing of innocent civilians is a war crime, we have no principled objection to war crimes, either. We love to formulate the laws of war, but our morality–not just our view of what is expedient–condones their violation.
What then? First, though terrorism may, for all I know, be outrageous and immoral, our objection to it is also outrageous: where do child-murderers like us get the nerve? We cannot help feeling that, damn it all, our intentions matter, and we don’t intend to kill children the way a terrorist does. It’s true that we intend to kill children in a somewhat different way, but it makes no moral difference. Our intentions are not innocent enough, and they do not matter enough, to make us any better than terrorists.
The tendency today, as the laws on murder demonstrate, is not to count good intentions as excuses, because the child ends up just as dead or mutilated regardless of what we intend. But it is not as if traditional morality would be significantly more indulgent in these cases. Christianity, which is where the older emphasis on intentions comes from, sometimes espouses doctrines like the ‘double effect’: if a doctor operates on a woman and knowingly causes the death of her unborn child, it is not sinful because the death of the child was intended only as an undesired consequence of the operation, not as its purpose. But we, or the Americans, or the Israelis, are not like the doctor. Neither high-level strategic decisions nor on-the-ground tactical decisions involving ‘expected collateral damage’ can appeal to some double effect argument.
High-level decisions to use strategic bombing are not made to attain some imminent, urgent goal, like saving a mother’s life. One could almost say they are never made at all; the bombing is more like a reflex. The real decision is to go to war, usually in the name of some grand, vague, general objective, like fighting for freedom or democracy, or against fascism or oppression. When we decide to bomb factories, airports and rail junctions, we almost always do so to win, not because we think it’s the only possible way to stop some Rwanda-like massacre.
We see ourselves as fighting for some good cause, but that, according to neo-Christian moralities of intention, is nothing but an arrogantly vague excuse. Most people who commit most atrocities think they’re fighting for some good cause. This no more exonerates them than it does the child molester who just wants love, or the murderer who wants to right the wrongs done to his family.
Particular tactical decisions to use air power may show *some* sort of concern for saving human lives, but not the sort required by the ‘double effect’ excuse. Unlike the decision *not* to use air power, the attackers’ decision to use it stems from concern, not for the lives of others, but for the lives of the attackers themselves. The doctor is concerned for another’s life, not his own.
But suppose the attackers do want to save lives other than their own. Still their situation is not like the doctor’s. They have a lot more room to maneuver.
If the doctor spares the child, he assures the death of the mother, and vice versa. He’s not, in any practical sense, calculating risks. He is faced with a simple, stark decision, a choice between certainties. He is doing the only thing he can to avert the immediate and certain death of the woman lying before him.
The decision to use air strikes, on the other hand, is usually a choice involving many alternatives. Some mean a slower advance, some are less certain, some more expensive, some riskier–but they’re there, and they introduce uncertainties. We don’t genuinely resolve these uncertainties. We don’t normally consider, much less weigh, all the viable alternatives. We therefore cannot be sure that air strikes are the best way to minimize the slaughter of innocents, or our losses. What’s more, our confidence that air strikes will reduce the risk to our own troops is invariably much greater than our confidence that air strikes will reduce the risk to innocent civilians. Our military men use air power largely because they fear that otherwise they’ll take considerably more casualties, and because they’d rather not test unproven alternatives.
At no level, then, is the use of strategic or tactical air attacks simply a desperate measure to spare civilian lives. By no stretch of the imagination can our situation be confused with the doctor’s, nor can it square our actions with the Christian morality of intentions. Our military calculations center on victory, not compassion, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous. Our intentions may not be as obviously savage as a terrorist’s, but what they lack in savagery they make up in dishonesty or self-deception. Perhaps terrorism offends us so because it refuses to stumble through the labyrinth of excuses we have tried so hard to maintain.
What, then, is left to us, if we have become so cruel? We cannot say that two wrongs don’t make a right, or that our hypocrisy doesn’t justify others’ savagery, because it is the very rules of morality that we have come to view differently. We really do believe that murdering innocents is, in the relevant cases, no sort of wrong at all. We cannot reproach others for terrorism, not because this would be hypocritical, but because it would be inconsistent. Our own standards allow what we might like to forbid.
But things are not so bad. They’re fine, in fact. We should never have been pious about terrorism in the first place. We never really found it so atrocious after all. Nor was it terror that crossed some moral line; that was crossed when we became addicted to the convenience of air power. This will not change until some less cruel yet more efficient technology emerges. Until then we have no choice but to work within the abysmally low standards we have adopted.
Terror, by our own standards, isn’t always wrong. Neither is the murder of innocent civilians, including children. Excoriating these practices is nothing more or less than a cynical or pointlessly moralistic diversion from any serious attempt to prevent them.
Such an attempt can’t attack the practices themselves for the excellent reason that we have no moral basis for attacking them. To the extent that they can be prevented, it is only through appeals to self-interest, not to compassion or a level of decency we quite obviously lack.
Indeed our somewhat more effective attacks on torture and genocide probably owe much of their success to the fact that such atrocities, unlike killing children, rarely do much to serve the interests of their practitioners. Self-interest is, after all, one value we all sincerely espouse. What makes atrocities criminal, even for barbarians like ourselves, is when they go beyond what self-interest commands.
This is why Israeli and American atrocities are so much worse than Iraqi or Palestinian atrocities. The Iraqis fight viciously because they have to convince very thick-headed invaders that no, they really shouldn’t be there. Against tanks and planes dropping huge bombs on urban targets, the resistance can be effective only if it thwarts every effort of the invaders to win support by rebuilding the country. Every collaborator and every do-gooder is therefore a target. Innocent people are the Iraqis’ ‘collateral damage’. The Palestinians too must fight viciously because they are being deprived of the very ground on which they stand by ever-encroaching settlements, and because they have so little to fight with. It may be that the Iraqi and Palestinian cruelties are not, in the end, the most efficient form of resistance. It may be that they are, for this if for no other reason, unjustified. But we do not demand of ourselves that our atrocities are really and certainly the only possible way to advance our vital interests; we cannot demand it of others.
On the other hand, Israeli and American atrocities are not merely scandalous but contemptible, because they serve either no purpose at all, or a purpose fit only for idiots. Israel has no need for the occupied territories except to humour spoilt-brat American ‘settlers’ who demand fortified playpens in which to spin out fantasies built on pseudo-Biblical nonsense. America has, as it well knows, no need to be in Iraq, nor does it have any need–quite the contrary–to support Israel. Not even self-interest justifies these crimes: they do the perpetrators far more harm than good. That is something which, even in the barbarous moral world we have created, we don’t need to accept.
MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, "What is Anti-Semitism", to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.