People Die in War

Before long in any discussion with an apologist for the warfare state one will hear this simple rejoinder to all talk of the devastation, calamity, and bloodshed wrought by the latest military intervention: "Well, yes, people die in war."

It is spoken as though it should shut off all concern for the innocent life expended in war’s barbaric cruelty. The mere fact that "people die in war" is supposed to make us all realize that we have been utterly unrealistic and juvenile in denouncing or even mentioning the deaths in war. The proponents of war speak as though all costs in human life have already been stipulated and thoroughly considered, and it would be a waste of time for us ever to mention the dead again. Indeed, only a childish mind would have brought it up in the first place. We all know that people die in war.

When the beheading of Nick Berg dominated the news, effectively overshadowing all news of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal for a week or two, an acquaintance of mine with pro-war leanings was horrified, as was I, but she was also at a loss for words that anyone could do anything so savage to any other human being. The idea that the "Islamofascists" could be humanly capable of such atrocious evil must have been the worst shock to many Americans since 9/11. And, certainly, no one worthy of human sympathy could ever do such a thing as what the Islamic fanatics had done.

I told my pro-war friend that, in fact, the U.S. government has committed enormities just as evil and inhumane, and done so casually and with impunity, for the better part of its existence. Asked to name an example, I simply said, "Shock and Awe" — an act of mass terror bombing in which innocent Iraqis were torn apart limb by limb, and an atrocity that certainly left a number of children dying slow, horrible deaths.

"Well, people die in war," was her response. Yes, and Nick Berg was one of them. So too were the 3,000 Americans who died on 9/11 — an event, by the way, considered by both the terrorist perpetrators of that attack, as well as most members of the American War Party, to have been an "act of war." Indeed, America has been at war with Middle Easterners since the 1950s, and of the millions who have died directly and indirectly from the conflict, the vast majority have not been Americans.

But to shrug off the 3,000 Americans whose lives were stolen on 9/11 with the crude adage, "people die in war," does seem a bit insensitive, does it not? People do die in war, and when we consider that a good number of those people are ones like you and me, who lived and worked in our own country, it is a little harder for us to dismiss their deaths as uneventful "collateral damage."

On the other hand, as a war continues, the more devoted hawks among us do begin to treat even their own countrymen and women as disposable heroes whose steadily growing number of fatalities is simply an inevitable, albeit unfortunate, component of maintaining global order. At first we hear about the threats to the American homeland, in patriotic rhetoric adorned with appeals to the sanctity and preciousness of every single American life. In the case of Iraq, we heard the memories of 9/11 invoked constantly to remind us of the frailty of life and the urgency to do something — anything — to prevent more irreplaceable American lives from being prematurely and violently destroyed. Foreign lives, too, got a fair hearing, for we all knew that Saddam Hussein was a mass murderer, who had gassed the Kurds in the 1980s and whose insatiable bloodlust had led him to seek the destruction of America, one city at a time with one of his supposed weapons of mass destruction at a time. And, as Bush said only a few months before launching the second Gulf War, "Either you’re with us, or you’re with the enemy; either you’re with those who love freedom, or you’re with those who hate innocent life." Saddam hated innocent life, and the U.S. government had to do something about it — for the sake of innocent life, of course.

But now, with the war still raging, with more than 1,700 American military troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, the apologists for the war machine say that "people die in war" and nonchalantly go about their day — shopping at the mall, watching reality television, or, if they’re truly committed to the cause, participating in online discussion forums that glorify war and the testosterone-heavy celebrations that apparently coincide with rolling into towns with tanks, shooting resisters to foreign occupation like stray dogs and waving the American flag every time someone who speaks a different language and practices a different faith in a remote country is blown to bits by hi-tech, multi-million-dollar precision ordnance made in the good ol’ USA.

And so now, even the Americans who have died in Iraq are a taboo subject, if not approached with careful politically correct patriotic fervor. To bring them up in a negative tone, rather than as a toast to the war effort, is in fact to aid the enemy. Seventeen hundred American lives is suddenly something we should regard, if not with accolades, then with casual acknowledgement. We living Americans are overly squeamish about American wartime deaths, we are told by the manlier among us, for they are trivial when compared to the glory of the U.S. nation-state itself. Now that the main selling point of the war as an act to protect American lives has been completely demolished, the continued sacrifice of American lives by the government is still defended, but on more tenuous grounds: people die in war, and this war to dispose of the brutally murderous Saddam and establish democracy in Iraq will certainly be proved to have been worth it.

Aside from the fact that Iraq is hardly better off, a theocratic regime being its likely new government, electricity not working, violence everywhere and sewage in the streets, the issue of Saddam’s crimes against innocent life has rarely gotten a sober assessment amidst the jingoistic war propaganda. Almost never mentioned is the fact that he had U.S. assistance during his worst war crimes. However, looking back to the 1980s, we see a familiar sentiment surrounding America’s relationship with the dictator: at the time, Saddam’s use of chemical weapons was regrettable, his atrocities a bit gauche by American standards, but, after all, it was war against the Ayatollah Khomeini, and in war people die. Saddam was essentially a hero of the 1980s realists, even if his forgivable excesses would later be cited as a principal reason for ousting him from power at the cost of so many dollars and so many lives.

So it goes and so it has gone with all U.S. interventions. The millions the U.S. killed in World War II were unfortunate victims of tragic circumstance, but not victims of any sort of crime. People die in war, and a war against totalitarians certainly justified an alliance with Stalin and actively assisting him in slaughtering two million of his subjects. The millions that the U.S dropped bombs on in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and all the lesser excursions since 1945 were simply millions of those people — you know, the ones who die in war. For years the American government has poisoned crops in Latin America, propped up genocidal dictators in Asia, waged economic warfare in the form of trade sanctions and blockades on people in third-world tyrannies all over the planet, and left behind landmines and cluster bombs that still kill people, long after the wars that inspired their use have supposedly ended, in the far reaches and in all corners of the American empire. But to keep the sun from setting on that empire, we must wage war. And people must die. But that’s hardly a surprise, nor is it something with which we’re supposed to worry our pretty little heads or “beautiful minds” too much.

And yet, we hardly hear this line of reasoning when smaller, more private acts of aggression come up. When we hear of a gang slaying, a brutal rape, a serial killing or kidnapping in the news, I doubt many among us would have the temerity to say dismissively, "Well, yeah, people are hurt in rapes. People die in murders. That’s what happens." Few people have the heart to consider the victims of private crime to be less than worthy of our deepest sympathies. And practically no one but the most shameless sociopath would ever cheer or applaud upon reading the news of the latest private slaughter or ravaging. The apparent inevitability of crime in the modern world makes it no less worthy of our denunciation and remorse. For the millions of people murdered, raped, ripped apart and brutally assaulted in war, however, all we hear is that we’re acting childish and petty by bringing it up. That there is such a distinction in the way innocents killed by private criminals and innocents laid to waste by bombings and military shootings are perceived by the average person reveals a deep and dark disparity in the way people regard the State’s actions and those of ordinary individuals. This disparity is most dangerous and indeed most depraved and perverse with war, as people come to praise and rejoice in the very worst possible acts that humans are physically capable of committing against one another. The sociological phenomena that have fostered such a twisted and pervasive outlook on life and death, peace and war, are complicated and well entrenched in our culture, but we must do all we can to combat the intellectual error and failure in empathy that wartime encourages and thrives on.

People die in war. They are killed. The greater peace that is promised never comes, the greater freedom guaranteed is never delivered. Next time someone shrugs off your concern for those who have died in any given war at hand, and says, "people die in war," perhaps you should ask why it is, considering the horrific effect wars apparently have on people’s respect for life, that they think war is an acceptable thing to support.

June 18, 2005