June 24, 2006
Honoring Just WarriorsBy Randall Smith
Three squadrons of American Marines are picking their way carefully down a Baghdad street, headed for a meeting with the mayor. The warriors are anxious because attacks in that area have been frequent, and they know that today would be a perfect opportunity for an ambush, not only on them, but on the mayor and his entourage. They would prefer to clear the streets, but this is not possible in a busy urban environment. People pass frequently talking on their cell phones. Although these Marines don't know Farsi or Arabic, they have to try to distinguish between conversations that are potentially threatening and those that are not. They know the consequences if they can't tell the difference between a man calling his wife to tell her where he is, and a terrorist who is calling in their position to other Fedayeen fighters.
On this particular day, they are becoming anxious because of one particular Iraqi man in the street who has been talking intently on his phone. They can't be sure what he is saying, although it looks as though he is giving directions. Just as they are about to reach their rendezvous point — a particularly vulnerable spot — one of the soldiers sees something he doesn't like and cries out: 'He's calling out our position! He's calling out our position!'
In an instant, he has fired his weapon, and the Iraqi man lies dead. Just at this moment, the mayor and his bodyguards emerge from the City Hall. Seeing the Americans gun down an unarmed Iraqi, assume the mayor is in danger and commence firing on the Marines. Although the commanding officer tries his best to seek cover, calm his troops, and make an orderly retreat, in the firefight that ensues, the mayor is hit by a stray bullet and killed. As the troops withdraw, taking several casualties of their own, they know with dread certainty that very soon there is going to be hell to pay for that split—second decision by one anxious, apprehensive Marine.
Fortunately for these Marines, however, they aren't actually in Iraq. They are doing a live—simulation in a full—scale mock—up of a Baghdad street at a Marine training facility in Virginia. But there is still hell to pay for these Marines. When they get back to their barracks, they receive the tongue—lashing of their lives. And after they have been forced to analyze their mistakes, they know from painful, past experience that there will be, quite literally, 'miles to go before they sleep.'
Welcome to the front lines in the war on terror. Welcome as well to our last, best hope in the struggle to preserve the centuries—long tradition of just war. There is a lot of talk these days about 'smart weapons' and 'smart bombs,' 'precision—guided munitions' and 'surgical strikes.' But in this war, as in every war, the responsibility for doing the fighting falls mostly upon the grunt on the ground with a gun who has little to trust in but his own instincts and training. And if there is to be justice in carrying out the war, it must begin in the hearts and minds of those who have to do the fighting.
Thus it is important to remind ourselves again and again that, if a 'just war' is going to be possible, then this is how it must begin: by training soldiers over and over again — indeed, pushing them to the limits of their abilities and beyond — to distinguish between combatants and non—combatants, even in circumstances where the enemy hides behind innocent civilians. But when they go to Iraq, these Marines will be ready — as ready as limited, fallible human beings can be — not only to fight and fight effectively, but to carry out the dictates of the just war tradition to spare non—combatant civilians.
This is no easy task. And some will pay with their own lives for their willingness to show restraint in circumstances of extreme danger that most of us can barely imagine. If there are any in this world who are truly making what pacifists sometimes call 'heroic sacrifices for peace,' it is these courageous men and women, who put their lives on the line every day to fight against wanton murderers, while doing everything humanly possible to preserve the lives of the innocent.
In the classic just war tradition, there has always been an important distinction between the justice needed for going to war (ad bellum) and the justice that must be maintained in carrying out a war (in bello). Although some Americans remain unconvinced by President Bush's reasons for going to war in Iraq, we must not fail to acknowledge the heroic attempts of our soldiers to preserve justice in the war. If we fail to accord the proper respect for those carrying out justice in the war (even if we disagree with the reasons for going to war), then we will afford no benefit for observing the kind of restraint the just war criteria demands. And in the end, we will succeed only in making war more horrific, not less.
It is certainly right and good to hope that war will never occur any more and to pray for that intention daily. It may even be commendable for pacifists to oppose all wars. But not to praise those whose actions in the war remain morally upright and who are risking their own lives in an attempt to protect the lives of non—combatants (particularly given the tremendous temptations to do otherwise in the dangerous circumstances of a war) is, I believe, to court disaster and incite even further the horrors of war.
If we insist on drawing a moral equivalency between the terrorists who care nothing for innocent life, and the Marines who risk their own lives to preserve innocent life — if we lump both groups together under the titles 'butchers' and 'baby—killers,' unwilling to make any distinction between them — then we can hardly expect troops either now or in the future to exhibit the sort of restraint needed to preserve non—combatant civilians. I consider it not only reasonable, therefore, but entirely appropriate for pacifists to make clear that, although they abhor the war, they admire the restraint and sacrifices of the warriors fighting in combat. This is to think rightly and distinguish properly between the justice needed to go to war (ad bellum) and the justice needed in a war (in bello).
If, on the other hand, it becomes clear to everyone that there is simply no public benefit to be gained from observing this kind of heroic restraint, then there will be greater and greater pressure to give in to those who advocate 'total war' and 'victory at any cost.' I fear that pacifists who oppose any use of the traditional just war criteria as a 'sell out' to war are forgetting just how powerful the pressure is on the military to give in to just such proponents of a 'quick victory' at any cost.
We have all seen the images of the U.S. soldier who appeared to be shooting an unarmed Iraqi man lying on the floor of a mosque. More recently, we have the question of whether Marines killed twenty—four innocent civilians in a house after an improvised explosive device (IED) went off near their convoy. It is important that we force ourselves to watch such images of the war being waged in our name.
But it is also important that we understand such images and not merely be manipulated by them. To this end, there are two extremes to be avoided. The first mistake is to insist stubbornly that 'this is war, and a lot of bad things happen.' This is to deny the dignity and humanity of both the soldier and the man he kills. A 'bad thing' didn't just 'happen': a human being acted — he made a moral choice — and there were real—world effects of those choices. We do justice to the dead man and the living when we take that fact seriously. There are, in fact, as numerous studies have shown, dire results for our own soldiers — spiritually, morally, and emotionally — when we don't. In the long run, our soldiers are not well—served by the gung—ho militarism of the adherents of 'victory at any cost.'
The other extreme to be avoided, however, is to succumb to the designs of those who relish showing such images again and again in order to suggest that our troops and the tactics they use are morally no different from those of the enemy. There is much evidence to the contrary. No other fighting force in history has been trained as extensively, nor disciplined as severely, to ensure that they have the ability in complex situations to distinguish between combatants and non—combatants. So if someday (heaven forbid) we see pictures of a Marine or a soldier shooting a man in the street who appears to have nothing in his hand but a cell phone, we should remember that, just as in the case of that soldier in that mosque who had learned of the deaths earlier in the day of two fellow soldiers at the hands of suicide bombers who appeared to be lying helpless on the ground, these soldiers may know something we don't about the tactics of ambush.
And though, in the end, given the fallibility of human judgment and character, we may be forced to conclude (from the safety of our houses, offices, and television studios) that particular Marines or soldiers made the wrong judgment, and we may be forced to punish them accordingly. This is to treat them with the moral seriousness they (and our enemies) deserve. But we should also keep in mind that, given what we know about the training our men and women in the military receive, every effort was made to prepare them to preserve the lives of the innocent in circumstances of fear and danger that few of us could even begin to endure. And in the end, that makes a world of difference between that military and the enemy who has no such scruple.
Randall Smith is a writer and university professor living in Houston.