And The Conscience Of A Nation
Growing up in a military family, I was exposed to all that is military, including the history of America's wars. One of the things I was led to believe was that American soldiers didn't kill prisoners of war or civilians. The Japanese and Germans killed prisoners and civilians, but not Americans. The Communists killed prisoners and civilians, but not Americans.
Later, the Vietnam War disabused me of the misconception that Americans did not kill prisoners or civilians. But the Vietnam War was, supposedly, an aberration; an unusual situation, where it was hard to know who the enemy was, and even women and children were a potential threat.
Since the Vietnam War, books have been written by veterans of World War II that openly describe the killing of prisoners or the accidental killing of civilians by American soldiers. These descriptions usually include the caveat that, while American soldiers did sometimes kill prisoners and accidentally kill civilians, unlike with the Germans and Japanese, it was not official policy to do so. The killing of prisoners and civilians by Americans was attributed to the fog, heat, and chaos of war. (Now we know that the fire-bombings of Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo, were intended to kill and terrorize the civilian, not just the military, population.)
Since this "new" attitude has prevailed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world, we have all been subjected to an increasingly steady trickle of images of the brutal abuse, killing, and injuring of soldiers and civilians by, not just the "new" enemy, but our own soldiers. The Abu Graib's, and now the Haditha's, are beginning to become common-knowledge to the American public. And it appears that what is now becoming common-knowledge to the American public, has not only been common-knowledge but common-place to the Iraqi people.
More and more American soldiers are relaying stories of the abuse and murder of Iraqi insurgents and civilians at the hands of an overstretched, ethically challenged, and, increasingly, morally exhausted, occupation force. A force which was thrown into a legally questionable, morally dubious, ill conceived, and ill equipped, military adventure by the Bush administration.
All of this reminds me of a Hollywood movie that spoke to the conscience of a nation in a very American way.
In 1943, a movie entitled "The Ox-Bow Incident" entered American theaters. In it, three men are caught by a posse that is trying to catch some cattle thieves. The men are in possession of the stolen cattle, but claim that they bought them from someone else. The posse is impatient for "justice" and wants to hang them right away.The men plead for their lives, and two of the posse try to make the rest wait to give the men a proper trial. But, the other men in the posse, for corrupt and personal reasons, refuse to wait and the men are hanged. After the hanging, the posse runs into the sheriff, who tells them that the real thieves had been caught and that they had confessed to their crime. Later, back in town, one of the posse, who had wanted to wait for a proper trial, reads the shamed posse a letter that one of the wrongly accused men had written to his wife just before he was hanged:
My Dear Wife:
Mr. Davies will tell you what's happening here tonight. He's a good man, and he's done everything he can for me. I suppose there's some other good men here too, only they don't seem to realize what they are doing. They're the ones I feel sorry for, cause it'll be over for me in a little while, but they'll have to go on rememberin' for the rest of their lives. A man just naturally can't take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin' everybody in the world, 'cause then he's not just breakin' one law, but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It's everything people have ever found out about justice and what's right and wrong. It's the very conscience of humanity. There can't be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it accept through their conscience? And what is anybody's conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived? I guess that's all I've got to say except - kiss the babies for me and God bless you.
Your husband, Donald
In Iraq young Americans are fighting an enemy that is determined and brutal. This enemy kills prisoners, kidnaps the innocent, cuts off heads, and blows up civilians, including women and children. For some, it is convenient to excuse, and even justify, similar actions by our troops, in order to win this kind of war, against this kind of enemy. But the main problems with this argument are obvious. The Iraqi insurgents are resisters on their own turf, and we are occupiers far from home. They will use whatever means necessary to win. If they win, by forcing us to leave, they will justify their brutal actions to each other by the fact of our departure. If they lose, by not being able to force us to leave, they will continue to fight for years, and the longer they must fight, the more justification they will find for their increasingly brutal behavior. If we use whatever means necessary to win, and we lose, by having to leave, we will suffer all the shameful moral and physical effects of losing, including the fact that we brutalized a population that we said we were there to help. If we win, by staying indefinitely, we will be forced to continue an increasing brutal occupation, that will continue to sap our physical strength and moral standing in the world, as well as further alienate a population that we said we were there to help.
We are in a lose/lose situation. Like the posse in the "Ox-Bow Incident" we have rushed into a situation where, in our zeal to catch the bad guys, and for corrupt and selfish reasons, we have grabbed the wrong people, rushed to judgement, and abused and killed them. There are real bad guys, but, because of our actions, they are now beside the point.
Now, we are stuck with the consequences, and the shame, of what we have done.