17 December, 2008

Cluster Bombs and Worldviews

I've been meaning to highlight this for some days now, but never quite found the words. Still haven't, so we'll go with what we've got.

George at Decrepit Old Fool recently had a post up about cluster bombs. He began it with a message of personal responsibility:
My dad taught me that when you fire a gun, you are responsible for everything the bullet does until it comes to a full stop.
So did mine. It made sense to me, and it makes sense to George, who goes on to ask why countries can't do the right thing. It's a damned good question.

One of the commenters answered thusly:
I take the opposite side of this argument. Cluster bombs are force multipliers. They keep us from having to put quite as many young Americans on the field. Moral leadership? Not killing sons and daughters by tying the hands of our armed forces IS moral leadership.
I wasn't the only one who piled on. You can read our smackdown there, but what I wanted to discuss here was the fact that this isn't by any means the first time I've noticed this line of thinking.

I hear it spilling from self-righteous conservative lips constantly, with only rare concurrences from lukewarm liberals. It's the thinking that led us into Iraq to "fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here." It's the thinking that leads to things such as this:

"We were walking, I was holding my grandson's hand, then there was a loud noise and everything went white. When I opened my eyes, everybody was screaming. I was lying metres from where I had been, I was still holding my grandson's hand but the rest of him was gone. I looked around and saw pieces of bodies everywhere. I couldn't make out which part was which."

That's the testimony of one man caught up in the disastrous airstrike on a Afghan bridal party wrongfully identified as a Taliban force back in July. The carnage was so complete they had to bury the 47 victims in 28 graves. US and NATO troops have denied the attack, but say they are investigating. In another similiar attack back in August they denied involvement at first too. Then investigated and found themselves blameless, only to finally admit their culpability and apologise once independent footage of the destruction surfaced. In a third such incident, in November, footage surfaced before the kabuki dance could begin. So far this year, such mistakes have cost over 600 Afghans their lives.

That is what is known among neocons, hawks and xenophobic fuckwits as "collateral damage." I have another word for it: tragedy. How anyone can read that without weeping is beyond my comprehension.

Dehumanizing the enemy has been a traditional past-time of governments at war and the patriots who cheer them on regardless of the merits. War is sometimes necessary. This callous disregard for its victims is not.

When we start thinking of hugely destructive weapons as mere sanitary "force multipliers" and moral leadership as "kill as many of their civilians as you like, as long as you excuse it by saying it was 'for our troops,'" all we manage to do is destroy our own humanity, lose sight of the real target, and create many more enemies to fight.

I don't understand why some people find it so fucking hard to recognize that the dead they are so callously dismissing as collateral damage were sons and daughters, too.

Neil Gaiman, viewing an exhibition of Robert Capa's war photographs shortly after September 11th, 2001, was struck by an epiphany:
...I found myself looking at the photos of combat, of wounded civilians, of people whose worlds had crumbled and fallen, without any sense of irony. These people were us. Whatever side they were on. They were us, and the images had a truth and an immediacy I couldn’t have imagined until recently.
Think of that, should you ever find yourself tempted to dismiss civilian dead, maimed children and grieving grandfathers as nothing more than an unpleasant side-effect of a supposedly just and glorious war.


One Fly said...

By far the majority wants us out of the two wars.

Those on the other side are not with us but against us.

Mike at The Big Stick said...

While I don't think we should ever ignore civillian casualties and I think we should always be striving to do better in that regard, it's a tricky line to walk when we're talking about war tactics.

We've come a very long way just since Vietnam, but it's also important to remember that war is war. We can debate the righteousness of these wars forever but even if we're talking about a scenario where the use of force is 100% approved by all Americans, civillian casualties are inevitable. It's a sad, sad fact of warfare.

Cujo359 said...

I hadn't read Gaiman's comment before, but wrote something similar on Pearl Harbor Day. A lot of us are doing some soul searching, I guess.

Longo05 said...

Hey, I literally stumbled onto this blog via stumbledupon and thought I would articulate with you on this issue.

Background: I am a current college student and former Marine Sergeant. I helped facilitate communication for combat operations in an infantry regiment. I am generally liberal and a fierce individualist. I don’t believe in nationalism, but do believe in military service. I say this mostly because I feel that the speaker is as integral to what is spoken, and whom it is spoken to.

I couldn’t agree more with you about accountability, and the individual accountability that a person is responsible when he or she fires a weapon. I think that the same goes for any munitions fired, generally. How can you not qualify a statement like that?

When it comes to cluster bombs, they are indeed force multipliers, but were also designed for a certain type of warfare. It is important to clarify that cluster bombs were not designed for urban operations; they were designed to engage large-scale, regular forces on a field of battle. These weapons are used in what we typically call a ‘force-centric’ battle, meaning that the battle is fought in an attempt to reduce the number of enemy combatants. This is also known as conventional warfare, if there are such things as conventions on a battlefield. I am afraid this is an oxymoronic term.

The current operations in Afghanistan are considered non-conventional in nature, or asymmetric, or ‘population-centric.’ These are terms generally used to describe counter-insurgency, or COIN operations. It is the goal, ideally, to subordinate ‘hard power’ (military operations) to ‘soft power’ operations, such as: political means, stability operations, reconstruction, or any other operations that help to secure the local population and make the populations feel secure and safe. (A significant portion of these concepts and terms are explained in the U.S. Army Counter-Insurgency Manual, or can be found in a historical and contextual book called “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife” by John Nagal )

The best way to achieve these operational goals is to place enough security on the ground to achieve an overt and trustworthy relationship among the local populace. This is why most people agree that the ‘surge’ in troops, which Gen. Petraeus instituted, in Iraq was instrumental in quelling, at least the last portion, of the insurgency.

These operations call for exactly the opposite of what the person you cited described. In fact, the best way to attempt to achieve victory in Afghanistan is too indeed place more troops in potential danger and then to place them in more danger by subordinating military operations to stability operations. In fact, tying our, if I may, hands is exactly what needs to be done.

As a matter of fact, many NYTimes article actually attributed a significant number of Afghani civilian deaths to targets of opportunity, i.e. unplanned missions on suspected combatants, and most notably to a lack of proper ground troops to monitor and ensure enemy status. This is something that military commanders are realizing more and more every day.


There are countless articles that show that Defense Secretary Gates wants to reduce the military operations and budget in order to generate more Dept. of State responsibility and personnel, to better facilitate the ‘soft power’ function.

I think that whoever may have said that information that you cited was misinformed and had no right to speak on the matter. I also think that the term collateral damage is a term popularized by under sensitive and over stimulated Hollywood commandos ravaged by an antiquated machismo, bravado culture. I have never heard the term collateral damage in any military operation. I have heard civilian casualties and accidental, but I will note that they are usually attached to unfortunate, and senseless.

I think you might be surprised in how much caution is taken, how much regard for human life is honored, as it rightfully should. A friend, and subordinate, of mine was in Iraq during Operation Phantom Fury during OIF III, when they surrounded Fallujah and after a forced evacuation, considered anything left in the city a combatant. During house-to-house sweeps, they discovered a family that had not evacuated, and under those military parameters were within their jurisdiction to fire upon them.

Rightfully so, they identified the family and took the initiative to facilitate the families evacuation. They even ensured that they were attended by a medical staff and properly fed and hydrated (as they were under blockade-type siege for days). This situation cost them time and resources that were taken away from the conflict, but they did the right thing. They didn’t just level houses to save their own Asses.

I don’t think that service members go out and dehumanize their enemies. It has been my experience that we don’t dehumanize the enemy because we don’t want to take lightly our responsibility. It’s easy to picture service members as systematic robots, if you watch enough bullshit television. I hope that people don’t, just as I have always explained to my Marines that the people we face are brothers, fathers, and sons as well. I explain that we need to treat the enemy as humanly as possible when they surrender, just as I was explained to and honored. I think it commonly known that service members, on both sides, are just trying to do right by our respective countries. We’re just trying to get home too, and will willingly get enemy combatants home as best we can, especially if they don’t want to fight.

I would also disagree that war is sometimes necessary. I think that it is intelligently agreeable that war is the worse possible event and the biggest tragedy of politics. War is not a sport, it is not a pastime, it is not romantic, and it is not necessary. No one person’s life is more valuable than another’s. No one country’s troops are more valuable than another’s. We’re all equal, and equally fucked and wrong when war is declared (or not in this instance).

I think that if we are going to blame people, we should start with our democratic constituency, politicians, and the media, every American that started the war, or sat by idly as it began. Militaries are coercive tools of diplomacy; so much as guns are tools of shooters. We believe that a shooter is responsible for the rounds they fire, and I believe that politicians are responsible for militaries they deploy. There is nothing natural about killing, and nothing normal about dehumanizing killing, not even for glittering generalities, like Democracy and Freedom.

I have heard that ‘it is better to fight them over there, than over here’ and that ‘with us or against us’ rhetoric too and I think that all those generalities are as idiotic as the people they work on. Generalities on subject matter as multifaceted and complex as these issues are cannon fodder for the simple-minded and should be dismissed with equally generalized sayings, with starkly opposing views such as: “Fighting for peace, is as productive as screwing for virginity.”