A Stupid War

The Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who was wounded by American soldiers as her car approached the Baghdad Airport, believes she was shot at deliberately. I doubt that is true. Of course, our government would kill an Italian journalist if it had a reason to do so, but I can’t think of one.

I don’t use the term "friendly fire." If ever there were a stupid euphemism, friendly fire is it. There is nothing friendly about getting shot or bombed or rocketed, no matter whose hand is on the trigger or the fire button.

Sgrena had been taken hostage and had just been rescued by an Italian police officer, Nicola Calipari. He tried to shield her with his own body when the Americans opened fire on their car, and he was killed. He is now hailed as a hero in Italy.

What happened is easy to explain. American soldiers are scared. They are in a bad place. Death is all around them and wears a thousand disguises. They don’t know if a car contains a car bomb or innocent people. Quite sensibly, they have adopted the practice of "when in doubt, shoot." In a situation where somebody will end up dead and somebody will end up sorry, it is better to be the one who is sorry. Most people, though not all, can get over being sorry. Nobody can get over being dead.

Many innocent people have been killed at American checkpoints, and some American soldiers at checkpoints have been killed by people who were not innocent. It is the nature of guerrilla warfare. The enemy doesn’t wear a uniform. Therefore, everyone is a suspect.

No one can blame an American soldier for wanting to come home in one piece. No one can blame him for doing whatever he, on the spot, thinks is necessary for his own survival. You can blame politicians for putting him in the situation, but once there, he has no choice but to concentrate on survival and to kill anybody who appears to be a threat.

This is far too stupid a war to get killed in if you can avoid it. Nearly all wars are stupid, but this one is close to the top. It was sold to the American people on false premises, and when the false premises were exposed, the slicksters didn’t bat an eye and just changed the script. We went to war to spread democracy, not to disarm Saddam Hussein, they said. It is all for the benefit of the Iraqi people, excluding, of course, those who are killed, maimed or impoverished in the process. A majority of Americans bought it.

Of course, the American people don’t have to go to Iraq. They don’t have to pay any extra taxes. They don’t have to suffer any inconveniences. They can just put little stickers and decals on their cars. That’s their contribution to the war effort. They do not have to peer into the darkness of Baghdad and try to spot Death before he snatches you. They do not have to look at the dead or hear the screams of the wounded. They do not have to endure the heat or the cold or the dust. They do not have to stare at a landscape so bleak you wonder why anyone would want to live there.

In the end, though, after all the dead, all the maimed, all the psychologically blighted, all the expense, it won’t make a rat’s toenail’s worth of difference. Iraq will end up with another dictatorship in one form or another. It is too fractious a country to be ruled by the wobbly hand of democracy.

But the price paid by the soldiers and their families will ache forever. The Italian journalist should consider herself lucky. She was wounded, but she got home without making the trip in a box. She will have the chance to taste more of life than many young men half her age who, as the Spanish say, died with their illusions.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.