A fair fight?…

Paul Krugman’s latest NY Times Column is a hum dinger. I particularly like this quote: “Did top officials order the use of torture? It depends on the meaning of the words ‘order’ and ‘torture.'” Good point.

I’ve blathered about this subject on a couple of mailing lists I subscribe to, to a few friends and some coworkers, but I realized that I hadn’t really addressed it here. I’m far from shocked by the pictures that everyone else on the planet seems to have their undies in a twist over. William Tecumseh Sherman is famous for a lot of things. He’s famous in most folks’ minds for one of our nation’s most common misquotes. He’s misquoted as saying, “War is hell.” What he actually said was, “War is all hell.”

My point? Simple. In that little, compact phrase Sherman gave us volumes of wisdom. There are no good bits about war. Even victory is bitter. The triumphant conquering General standing over the hard-won field of battle is all too aware of the price paid for the plot of land he now claims. The battlefield is won at the cost of the lives of young people on both sides of the conflict. Every participant in a war is its victim.

What Sherman also knew was that there really is no such thing as fair play in war. The object of war is to defeat and kill as many of the enemy as possible while suffering as few casualties on your side as possible. In Sherman’s view that meant that you do anything within your power and resources to either deliver a crippling blow to the enemy or destroy his resolve to continue fighting you. Sherman’s army’s famous march to the sea through Georgia was a perfect example of this philosophy put into action. Instead of simply meeting his foes on the battlefield, Sherman’s forces pillaged their way across Confederate territory, either consuming or destroying any food, buildings, railroads or any other potential resources that the enemy could use either against him or to resupply themselves. As an added bonus, Sherman’s march so terrified the civilian population in his path that support for the Confederate cause evaporated into thin air.

Now before you have a complete conniption fit, I’m well aware that the Sherman philosophy of warfare is essentially identical to what is now regarded as war crimes by the international community. It is actually little more than a complicated way of saying that the ends justify the means. I sincerely believe, after years of studying the history of state vs. state conflict and warfare that this is, in fact, the overriding philosophy of all warfare and that the 20th century notion that one can classify some acts of of war as legal and others as illegal it patently ridiculous. It’s as ridiculous as the notion of a fair fight. If someone twice my size picks a fight with me in a bar winning that fight may mean the difference between life and death for me. Am I being unfair if I punch my opponent in the windpipe or kick him in the nads? Isn’t the very situation I’m in unfair to begin with? Given a choice I’d always choose not to fight at all. But if I’m not given that choice, and am forced to fight for my survival I’ll use whatever means are at my disposal to reach that goal.

Where things get more complex is when you have a situation like the one the U.S. is in now in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. is the aggressor nation. They’re also capable of bringing to bear overwhelming force to achieve victory. Instead of the little guy in the bar fighting dirty to ensure his survival with minimal damage, it’s the big guy, who, given a so-called fair fight, is going to win anyway. But instead of fighting fair he’s biting, clawing, suckerpunching and going straight for the groin and other soft bits. The assembled onlookers are horrified, and the recipient of these low blows is righteously indignant about the whole thing. The little guy is saying, “Cripes man, I knew you were going to kick my ass halfway to Sunday anyway. Couldn’t you have left me my dignity?”

So what am I saying? I guess my point is that it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are atrocities committed during war. War isn’t, regardless of 19th and 20th century attempts to make it so, a game. War is coordinated, calculated, relentless murder on a massive scale. Armies in the midst of war are like hungry predators who’ve had their first taste of blood. They’re like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Once the blood is drawn the blood fever of the predator takes over. Once you’ve gotten up in the morning knowing that you’re going to kill someone, possibly many someones, your sense of right and wrong gets all fucked up. Once you’ve murdered someone you never met simply because you were told to I think your ability to resist the sadist we all carry inside of ourselves wilts away.

History proves me right again and again. Every war has featured brutal atrocities inflicted on opposing armies and on civilian non-combantants. And this is equally true regardless of how noble the cause of the nations prosecuting the war. Hitler sent millions to death camps. The Japanese raped and murdered their way across Manchuria and much of the rest of Southeast Asia. The Americans and British firebombed Dresden, causing more death and destruction on a non-military target than was caused by all of the German air raids over Britain combined. The U.S. leveled two Japanese cities in minutes with atomic bombs, claiming it was the only way to get the Japanese to surrender, in spite of the fact that the Japanese were petitioning for terms of surrender non-stop in the days before the bombs were dropped. History is filled with tales of horror during war.

The only reason the great powers convened their Geneva Conventions (There is, actually, no one Geneva Convention. There have been several since 1864 when the first Geneva Convention was convened.) in the first place was that they were realizing the technology of war had made it much more broad in scale and horrific in the casualties it caused. By the start of the First World War civilian tolerance for warfare had about run out. By the end of that war the political entities of the great powers saw that if they didn’t confine themselves with some strict rules the option of going to war to resolve political disputes might well be taken away from them entirely. The Nuremberg Trials at the close of WWII purported to set the bar for what the civilized nations of the world would tolerate from combatants in war. The lie is put to that assertion by the fact that a similar trial that was supposed to deal with so-called war criminals in the Pacific Theater was shelved due to divisions between the U.S. and USSR. Humiliation of Japanese leaders was seen as politically unfeasible due to a desire on the part of the U.S. to ensure that Japan came down squarely on its side against the USSR and the spread of Communism. Ultimately these trials have been little more than the modern equivalent to the Triumphs celebrated by Rome after a foe had been conquered in war. The victor dictates who the criminals are and only the defeated are subjected to prosecution for war crimes.

If all parties in a war were subjected to impartial and fair judgment regarding war crimes there’d likely be equal numbers of conquerors and conquered sitting in the dock awaiting judgment. And soon after that war would be something only backward states engaged in to resolve their political disputes. Perhaps this is the reason the U.S. refuses to sign the treaty establishing the World Court in the Hague, and has forced all of its trading partners and allies to sign treaties committing themselves to never bring charges against any U.S. military personnel or political leaders before that court.

So not only am I not surprised or shocked by what has been revealed to have happened to prisoners in U.S. military care in Iraq and Afghanistan, I expect that the longer this conflict goes on the more we will see of this sort of thing, and possibly even worse. If we hope to never see this sort of thing again we have to recognize the futility and counter productive nature of war. We cannot speak of legal and illegal warfare. There has to be a worldwide recognition that war makes victims of all participants in it. War is not, as Clausewitz said, “… not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means.” As General Sherman tried to tell us, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.”

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