The Moral Calculus of Killing: Precision Bombing and the American Definition of Innocence

Published on ZNet,, 3/24/03

Imagine if you will that an enemy nation — for the sake of argument, let’s say North Korea, or China — were to attack the United States.

And let’s say they launched missiles and dropped bombs specifically on Washington D.C., having targeted the White House, Capitol Building, and Pentagon, and destroyed these facilities.

And let’s say that they took special care not to hit Georgetown, or Adams Morgan, or Tenleytown, or any of a number of residential areas surrounding the government installations that comprise an overwhelming share of the District’s real estate.

And let’s say they also bombed perhaps a dozen other military installations around the nation, seeking to destroy American weapons, our war-making capacity, and the soldiers themselves who make up the backbone of the nation’s defense capabilities.

And let’s say that in the process, only a small number (relatively speaking) of non-combatant and non-governmental employees were killed or injured.

Now ask yourself, if such a horrible tragedy were to transpire, would there be even one American citizen who would accept from the North Korean or Chinese government any of the following:

“We are going to extraordinary lengths to avoid the loss of innocent civilian life.”

“Never before have weapons been used in war that were so precise, allowing us to target military and government installations without harming residential areas.”

“We take very seriously the need to protect the innocent from harm.”

Somehow, I can’t imagine that any reader would answer yes; would say that it was alright to bomb and destroy government buildings, or soldiers, as if somehow such acts would constitute the height of combat morality. After all, on 9/11 the hijackers of al-Qaeda attacked the ultimate military target, the Pentagon, as well as a symbol of American economic power, not residential neighborhoods. Yet our anger was palpable, and no one was seeking to legitimize the horror of that day just because condos and two-car garages went largely if not completely unaffected.

Yet despite all of this, when U.S. Defense Department and military officials say these exact same things, we are to accept it without question. To hear American spokespersons tell it, the fact that our own military is focusing on destroying Iraqi government buildings, Presidential palaces and military installations (along with the troops serving in those installations), and being careful not to kill “innocent civilians” is evidence that our ethical superiority extends even to the way we make war.

To listen to Messrs Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush, or Generals like Tommy Franks, or retired Generals like the ones who have become special consultants to the media networks for the course of this war, any civilians who die are terrible tragedies, to be sure, but certainly not intentional. As if this makes their families feel any better. As if it would make the families of Americans feel better to know that the Chinese missile that landed in Rockville was meant for the State Department.

Likewise, the underlying and unquestioned assumption beneath all of the rhetoric about trying to protect innocent life, is that anyone working for the government (of Iraq, at least) is not innocent; and that anyone wearing an Iraqi military uniform is not innocent either; that their lives are expendable. This, even though we would never accept a standard of morality that placed such a low premium on the lives of our own soldiers, or even bureaucrats, despite how much we tend to resent the latter during peacetime.

And the reason we reject such a bifurcation of the innocent and the guilty for our own nation, despite being asked to accept it for others, is that we know that those soldiers and bureaucrats are human beings, with families, and histories, and homes, and hopes, and fears. They are our children, our parents, our cousins, our friends, our spouses and lovers. So too with their counterparts in Iraq, or any other nation, as much as we like to overlook this inconvenient reality.

Oh sure, some might say, they’re human beings too, but they are serving a brutal and corrupt leader, who was put in office without the support of most of his own citizens, and who ignores the plight of millions of his own people who do without adequate food or shelter, who live in abject poverty. As such, they are implicated in the leader’s actions, and thus become legitimate targets of our air campaign.

But of course other nations could say the same about our military and government officials too. To millions around the globe, whether one agrees with them or not, the President of the United States is a brutal and corrupt leader, most assuredly elevated to office without the support of most American citizens, and who does very little to address such issues as poverty, homelessness or hunger within his own nation. Does that mean that every soldier is an agent of Bush’s agenda? How about everyone in a government job? And what about those who are lifelong civil servants and have perhaps served several leaders through several different policy agendas?

Ironically, if anything, American soldiers and government officials would be more legitimate targets than those in Iraq, if for no other reason than the relative freedom enjoyed by those of us in the U.S., compared to those who live under Saddam’s brutal rule. Iraqi soldiers are largely conscripts, forced to serve irrespective of their own beliefs. Iraqi government officials are for the most part those who have sought out the only jobs in that nation with any real security or steady paycheck, again, not necessarily because they support the dictator but because their options are quite limited. And if they despised Saddam they certainly wouldn’t be able to say so.

On the other hand, there is no conscription in the United States, and opportunities outside of government are probably far more secure than those inside, given the general anti-government mood of the nation’s political leadership and the budget cuts they seek on a regular basis.

While it is true that there is something of an economic draft in this country, whereby poor and working class folks become soldiers in order to get a decent paycheck or education, or training, it is also the case that there is still more freedom to choose such a path (or not do so) here than in the place we are currently bombing. Yet still, we act as if their soldiers and bureaucrats are something other than innocent, while ours (even those who really wanted to “serve their country”) are the epitome of that same innocence.

We lost over 50,000 soldiers in Southeast Asia from the early 1960’s until 1975, not one of them an “innocent civilian,” and yet there is a black granite wall not far from the President’s back door that attests to just how precious we consider them to have been; how unacceptable most believe their deaths to have been.

So even if civilian deaths are kept to a minimum in Iraq — and this remains to be seen of course — the destruction of government and military officials and facilities will be viewed in that place no differently than the same kind of destruction would be viewed here. Just as Americans were furious at the airplane-bombing of the Pentagon on 9/11, and just as they would be incensed at the bombing of the White House or Capitol, so too will millions of Iraqis and Muslims throughout the Middle East be enraged by our cavalier destruction of Iraq’s state apparatus.

That we can’t understand that, or can’t recognize the fundamental double-standard at work in proclaiming our own official “officials” off limits to foreign adversaries, but insisting on our right to target the same elsewhere, bespeaks a certain arrogance, a certain supremacist mindset, and even a certain racism in a case such as this, making it impossible to believe that lives are equally innocent and worthy.

At the end of the day, the moral calculus used by the United States in this war is no better or worse than that employed by any other nation. We are not exceptional. We are not particularly more humane. We are not to be applauded for not intentionally targeting civilians, just as such applause would be inappropriate if extended to another nation attacking us. After all, it should be remembered that we didn’t necessarily target civilians in the first Gulf War either, but roughly 75,000 died anyway according to estimates made by U.S. Census officials, world health experts and the UN, largely due to destruction of water treatment facilities and electrical grids.

Oh, and it should probably be remembered that those facilities were targeted on purpose, according to Defense Department documents, even though it was known that their destruction would result in widespread suffering and epidemics.

So until we apologize for the slaughter of innocents (even using our very limited conception of the term) during the first Gulf War, we are hardly in a position to claim moral superiority during the second.

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