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Bomb Them Into Submission

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The other night at dinner my female guest, wife of my male guest, grandmother of my granddaughter guest, spoke quietly most of the evening until, perforce, the conversations delicately wended its way toward national security, 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Ayatollahs of Iran, and al Qaeda, whose radical minions are probably among us, it was quietly said, waiting for the right moment to strike terror into the hearts and minds. We were talking about targets and the site of YK1 was mentioned, not Chicago where YK2 is winding up. The male guest thought that Vegas was a good spot because it has an incompetent police force when it comes to terror ... allowing for a certain amount of responsiveness if Hoover Dam is attacked. The femme guest finally broke into the male dominated commiserating about vulnerability and the theoretical pervasiveness of the threat and said, "well, I think we should just bomb the hell out of them until they stop all of this."

We have heard this often enough that there should be a smart, snappy, and completely disabling response from those of us who know that "bombing the hell out of them" cannot possibly work, unless we actually kill all of them and everyone they talk to, and everyone who reads newspapers and watches television broadcasts of news like that. The question is: Is there a snappy response, and if not why not?

Granddaughter chimed in ... bless her nearly 16 year old heart ... at this point and said something like this: "We really need to know why we are over there. What are we doing?" Remember, this is a war that has been going since this young woman was only 12 and just putting her Barbies into storage shoeboxes. The war has been going so long that the anger and frustration that led a majority of Americans to say, "Hell Yes!," to the idea of killing off Saddam Hussein ... (removing the evidence, by the way, of our complicity in mid-eastern turmoil and our complicity in the deaths of hundreds of thousands Iraqis and Iranians) ... is now so old and frayed that we barely understand the fervor that got us there in the first place. Certainly the younger generation doesn't.

The key to the question is the logic of the "bomb them to hell" statement. The statement reveals the near total frustration with conventional means of persuasion, lumps the whole country into the group of people who we call "enemy," and says you have betrayed our belief that individuals will act for the good when the chips are down. Accordingly, my female guest has in effect given up even while she complains that others who want to draw down our troops and get out of the war slant occupation have treasonously "given up."

It is almost a movie storyboard frame: they (the Iraqis) do not understand conventional attempts using troops to civilize them, so we will show them that behind the troops, (actually above them), is a force that can utterly decimate, perhaps obliterate their country ... if they don't wise up. So, the statement assumes that individuals in Iraq are less important than the apparent "group think" in Iraq that produces IEDs and kills our troops. After all, how can Iraqi insurgents, including those who say they owe allegiance to al Qaeda, operate if it is not with the complicity of the general public? My femme guest fails to recognize that the good citizens of Chicago in the 20's and 30's were not complicit with Al Capone, but they were wary of sticking their heads up too high. My female guest has no experience being terrorized from within, except 9/11 and that was done from the sky, surgically as it were, so why not respond in kind.

The error is in all the assumptions that what 10% of Iraqis do is representative of all Iraqis. Those who want to respond to the "bomb them to hell" statement should start from that premise and demolish it. The best way to do this is to think of a scene in Iraq containing individuals. You begin with mothers and fathers and children. You begin with a specific mother, invented for the purpose, but iconic of any individual mother in Iraq (or Iran ... when we get around to bombing them back into the 10th century). Begin with a child who goes to school to learn history and arithmetic and Arabic and English. Begin with individuals, for then the "bomb them to hell" strategy has a human face, an innocent human face.

I leave it to your judgment how best to enter the conversation with this riposte, but enter you must, because the "bomb them to hell" statement is the clear evidence that the speaker has given up. They are anxious about losing face, of course. They are worried about the consequences of drawing down the troops and leaving Iraqis to shoot it out in their own OK corral. All they need to know at the response point to their statement is that bombing kills thousands and tens and hundreds of thousands more innocent individuals. Watch the speakers face, watch their shoulders, listen for the last ditch statement that says: okay, so be it, we will have to kill them all.

This is the point where not only have they given up trying to understand them (the Iraqis), but are now showing signs of having given up understand ourselves. Remember the old Vietnam statement: "We had to destroy the country to save it from Communism." Remember how well this idea was derided by all political stripes. To believe that we have the right to utterly destroy a civilization is to accept the idea of genocide, to accept the idea that it is not a questions of ends or means, but a question of some hideous principle that says we are not only right but we are powerful and we can do what we want.

The vulnerability of people who say "bomb them to hell" is precarious. They may retreat slowly through various stages that got them to that ridiculous statement, or they may collapse in complete frustration and bewilderment. I suspect that most basically non-political people will collapse and having just been through the embarrassment of being revealed as essentially a genocide, a mass murderer, they will be emotionally vulnerable and tractible to a reasonable argument about what is obvious to all of us: the Iraqi War is a civil war and we, as an occupation force, are not part of the solution, moreover, we are attracting all the dissident elements from all over the world to train in the open laboratory of that civil war as terrorist insurgents. The time to get them to understand that is in this window of emotional vulnerability.

The other thing to remember is that the ability to make the "bomb them to hell" statement is in us all, and moreover, we may have said it ourselves at one time or another. It is not a sign of moral decay; it is a sign of emotional frustration and fear of the unknown consequences of our actions over the past four or forty years. Remember that the killing of Saddam was not just the removal of a terrible dictator, but it was also to shut him up.


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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