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The Promotion of War and the Dissolution of the Conscience

April 1, 2010

Several comments made recently by public figures, but gone mostly unanswered as far as I can tell, serve well to demonstrate the extent of the perversity of thought that exists around the topic of war in elite circles.

The first comment comes from Israel “Defense” Minster Ehud Barak’s interview on the Charlie Rose show last week. However, the comment actually closely echoes one made by Senator Chuck Schumer at a pro-Israel rally held in New York at the start of Israel’s savage assault on Gaza last winter.

Seeking to somehow prove the benevolence of Israel’s military onslaught against the small ramshackle territory of the Gaza Strip, Schumer emphatically proclaimed, “Israel has sent phone text messages to Palestinians in Gaza saying, ‘Leave your homes because there are weapons inside them.’ What other country would do that?”

Leaving aside the absurd afterthought that Israel was sending messages to actual combatants and telegraphing a planned military assault on them, the next most plausible thing that Schumer could be referring to is Israel sending text messages to non-combatants, non-military targets, before knowingly dropping bombs on their locations.

“What other country would do that?”, Schumer asks. Clearly, unless one regarded it as a morally reprehensible thing to bomb civilians, then no one would think it a morally commendable thing to notify them before their possible impending doom. So the question Schumer should be asking is: What country, knowing that it is going to bomb civilians, knowing that it is wrong to do so, would go ahead and do it anyways?

A year later, still attempting to defend Israel’s ferocious bombardment of Gaza, we hear the same argument from Ehud Barak:

EHUD BARAK:  I don’t know if any other armed forces before it enters

into the —

CHARLIE ROSE:  Warns the people? 

EHUD BARAK:  — asks the people to leave, leave them millions of

droplets, of placards to tell them what is going to happen, what they

expected to do. 

Calling people — you know, when we have to hit a house that we

suspected some civilians were living in it, we called the owner of the

house through the telephone and asked them please leave your place.  It’s

under danger.  We have to destroy it, and we ask you to leave.

Barak has dropped Schumer’s absurd pretense that the reason for knowingly bombing these civilians—and that it was not, as one might think, a bad thing to bomb these civilians, because they were also somehow combatants who had weapons in their homes and yet were also somehow innocent civilians whom the benevolent Israeli government warned of its decision to bomb them—but the same idea remains: there is nothing wrong about Israel dropping bombs on non-military targets; and to boot, Israel even warned its victims before it undertook its vile actions against them.

There is one other thing to say about Schumer and Barak’s shared conceit that there was necessarily something noble behind Israel’s broadcasting to its victims what it was going to do to them, namely that the idea of its exceptionality and meaning is contradicted by the history of such practice. The fact is, whether or not one interprets it as a sincere warning to the people that one is about do harm to, many nations have done such things as dropping leaflets on civilian populations telling them such things as that they are about to be bombed or to quote one of those leaflets Israel dropped on Gaza: “[W]e have other methods that are still harsher…. If [we] uses them, the toll will be very painful.” I suppose, being charitable, one could interpret this as a warning to the the people of Gaza; but it could much more easily be interpreted as a method of terrorizing those same people.

I now come to the last set of comments I would like to examine. They come from two of the speakers at a discussion panel held by the Peter Jennings Project for Journalists and the Constitution on the subject of “The Constitution and ‘The Long War’”.

The first comment, from retired General Jack Keane, continues the theme of whether or not a “modern” military should knowingly cause harm to civilians. Seeking to present the great strides and innovations that the military has made over some unspecified time period, as well as a reason the U.S. will now finally be able to achieve victory in the “war on terror”, Keane mentions that he and other past and present military leaders have bravely come to the conclusion that it will not do to wantonly kill civilians in the course of the U.S. conducting itself militarily in Afghanistan. Rather,

The counterinsurgency strategy does not make the enemy the center of gravity, which the previous strategy did. It makes the people the center of gravity so that every operation that you’re going to conduct is through the prism of what is its effect on the people? Which means the military commander at a low company commander level or at a general officer level will at times decide not even to execute the operation because it’s too much risk in terms of its adverse impact on the people. And that is driving fundamental change in Afghanistan….

If it is true the U.S. military, from this day forward, will try harder not to adopt measures that will kill scores of civilians (in the case of Iraq, many more civilians than combatants of any stripe, whether the few last defenders of Saddam Hussein or the non-Saddam aligned parties which emerged and to a significant extent migrated to Iraq after the U.S. seized control of the country)[1] that should be given our full support.  Nevertheless, it is a telling and disturbing fact that only now are U.S. leaders figuring out that they should, at the very least, seek to minimize casualties amongst non-combatant populations.

Dishonesty and a bad conscience run through the above comments from powerful officials on the justness of their military ventures. The final comment, also from the panel talk, gets even closer, I believe, to the dishonesty that exists within the officially sanctioned thought on the use of military force.

Brigadier General H.R. McMaster tells his audience that war is waged to achieve policy objectives, or, to quote him in full, he says:

[W]ar is waged to achieve policy goals and objectives. I think there is a tendency sometimes to equate war to just military operations, and this was one of the problems going into Afghanistan and Iraq…. [T]he idea was that because of America’s technological capabilities and significant advantages, especially in the area of surveillance, technical intelligence, and precision-guided munition [sic] technologies, that we could wage future wars cheaply, quickly, low-cost, mainly at standoff range, and it had reduced war to kind of a targeting exercise. But what it did is it depoliticized war. It considered war outside of the political goals and objectives you have to achieve in war, and it also dehumanized war and neglected the enduring psychological and cultural dimensions of conflict. And so that misunderstanding, I think, really helps explain the lack of planning in certain areas, integrated civil-military planning, for those wars.

Before moving onto the main point I would like to make in regard to McMaster’s statement that “war is waged to achieve policy goals or objectives”, as a corollary to my earlier point about official views on civilian casualties in war, it’s worth pointing out a contradiction in McMaster’s story about shifts in thinking within the military on how to wage war.

First he seems to say that for a while some in the U.S. establishment were just going along waging wars because they had greater capacities to do so in an efficient manner, capacities which include “precision-guided munition [sic] technologies”. But then he says, when you realize that war shouldn’t just be done because it’s so easy for the U.S. to do it and that it’s actually part of a political scheme, you realize that there are human lives involved in it. To which I reply with the question: Is it then that you both begin to vaunt the wonders of your precision-guided munitions technologies and cease waging war merely to see how few civilians you can kill, that is, as a “targeting exercise”?

Now we come to this enlightened idea that “war is waged to achieve policy goals or objectives”. But, again, my response to this wisdom is a bit of puzzlement.

The old meaning of the word “war” is: armed conflict between two or more parties. And so this is the sense of the word from which modern aberrations presumably fall down.

So what if we try to substitute that original meaning of “war” into McMaster’s statement? We get: “[armed conflict between two or more parties] is waged to achieve policy goals and objectives”. Well, that clearly doesn’t make any sense. For one thing, it doesn’t explain what one party, say, the U.S., is doing or whose or what policy objectives are being aimed at or how they are being aimed at. So McMaster must mean something else by “war” which it is somehow uncouth to say in public. But let’s first give him the benefit of the doubt and suppose that by “war” he in fact means something more couth, more just, namely defense. So he might have said, “[Defense] is waged to achieve policy goals and objectives.” Defense, however, is necessarily reactionary; so to be a justified military endeavor, it cannot have any active policy objectives in advance of itself.

There go the niceties. We are only left with the uncouth ideas of what war might stand for; they are: military aggression, slaughter, bombing, invasion. These are what are done to achieve a nation’s “political” objectives. But we can be thankful that now our slightly more enlightened sense of national self-interest realizes that such prima facie unjust acts as killing the unarmed and harmless is not wise. Perhaps one day our benevolent and wise leaders will be brought to recognize that it is not wise to perpetually run their military around the world killing any and all obstacles to their power.


[1] For the betterment of our own knowledge and awareness it is worth comparing the number of combatant causalities to the number of civilian causalities caused by the U.S. and its allies in a handful of wars.

  Combatant casualties by U.S. and its allies Civilian casualties by U.S. and its allies
World War II  >8,000,000 dead  >4,000,000 dead
Vietnam War 1, 781,662 ~2,750,000
Afghanistan/Pakistan War ??? (Maybe ~28,000-~25,000) 23,265
Iraq War ~68,500-~100,000 95,158-103,819
  (Combatant casualties by Israel) (Civilian casualties by Israel)
(2007-2008 Israeli Assault on Gaza) (190 deaths) (1078 deaths)

For the first two wars, I have simply relied on data exhibited on Wikipedia. For the second two wars, I consulted several sources. The numbers for the Iraq war are primarily from my adding together numbers exhibited on Wikipedia. Looking at other sources, however, they appear to be exceptionally conservative. Lancet, for instance, puts civilian deaths at 1,366,350 and unknownnews.net, which purports to only add up lower bound estimates, puts Iraqi civilians killed at 815, 411 and Iraqi civilians “seriously injured” at 1,467,740, both numbers far above the Iraqi civilian casualty numbers listed in the above table.

Figures for the Afghanistan War are by far the hardest to come by of the four wars listed above. The number for civilian casualties is the sum of the numbers listed on unknownnews.net for civilians killed and civilians seriously injured. However, the number is merely an extrapolation of figures recorded for 2001-2003.

The number of combatants killed is very unclear. Some years in the war, the number that one can ascertain was less than 300, other years it was more than 7,000. Based on rough estimates, there were 9,000 in 2001, 1,000  in 2001, 230 in 2003, 300 in 2004, 1,700 in 2005, 2,200 in 2006, 7,000 in 2007, 7,000 in 2008, 1,100 in 2009, and 250 in 2010. The total number, then, of combatant deaths is about 28,000. But based on the fact that the high 7,000 numbers of 2007 and 2008, compared to the number of no more than 2,000 the preceding and following years, are based solely on enthusiastic claims by coalition forces, compared to numbers added together from individual news reports all other years, and that mixed throughout the numbers for all of the years are both self-inflicted deaths due to suicide attacks and uncontrolled blasts from IEDs, as well as “Taliban”, whether or not they were combatant Taliban, the number should be revised downward by some hard to determine amount, probably by at least 2,000. Still the number may be higher, as may any of the numbers I have given. But the number I am willing to state unless someone else has more reliable figures than I have been able to find, is ~25,000-~28,000.

The other thing to bear in mind about the Afghanistan figures is that they do not contain casualties from the related and illegal war in Pakistan, where drone strikes, for instance, have been attended by a high number of civilian deaths relative to combatant deaths.

(The numbers for the 2007-2008 Israeli Assault on Gaza come from a BBC article which discusses differing estimates; the final number in the article, the most recently tabulated and the closest in accordance with the numbers given by several other organizations, is the one I use.)

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