Immoral: Ignoring the Routine Killings of Civilians in Terror Wars
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The recent killing of six Iraqis by a U.S. helicopter calls into question, yet again, our policy of killing suspected insurgents from the air. Our military has admitted that those killed were members of a U.S.-funded group and that it was "a mistake." Air strikes such as these are often the safest way for a military force to strike a possible enemy, but the routine nature of these actions has another insidious and ultimately self-defeating consequence: the unintended but frequent killing and maiming of an innocent populace.
A suspected terrorist link -- especially when officials try to establish an Al-Qaeda affiliation -- seems to be a sufficient justification for any military action, however immoral it might otherwise be.
The most disturbing aspect of this news is that most American journalists, political analysts, and politicians do not dare to question the morality of dropping bombs or missiles on the hideouts of suspected -- but not demonstrated -- terrorists. It has become routine; it is the norm in Iraq. The U.S. arsenal of so-called "precision weapons" creates an impression that the bombs kill only terrorists, but the number of civilian deaths in these "precise" actions usually exceeds by many multiples the number of actual terrorists killed. And, on not a few occasions, the whole thing has turned out to be a disastrous mistake. American apologies for those civilian deaths begin to sound hollow when these actions are repeated again and again.
Israel's systematic use of "targeted assassinations" by dropping missiles and bombs on civilian homes has not resolved its current crisis; instead, the anger whipped up by the deaths of 120 Gazans in late February and early March resulted in a repugnant bloodbath in a Jerusalem seminary. In a Fox News report about the incident, the accused killer was described "as being transfixed in recent days by the news of bloodshed in Gaza," by his sister who said he was unable to sleep as a result of his grief. A lack of morality breeds more acts of immorality, in an endless and bloody cycle.
We rightly condemn suicide bombings that specifically target civilians. But while American forces do not specifically target civilians, we accept their killing in large numbers as a routine event in our military actions. It is the "routine" nature of this killing that fuels the perception that the United States and its closest allies are fighting a war against the entire Muslim world.
The number of civilians killed in proportion to those targeted is astounding. For each intended "target," many more innocents are killed and maimed. The number of Iraqi deaths since the invasion in March 2003 is staggering no matter whose numbers you believe. The Iraqi Body Count gives the low estimate of nearly 100,000 Iraqi deaths while the British Opinion Research Business gives the estimate of about 1 million Iraqi deaths since the beginning of the war. The World Health Organization and the Iraqi Ministry of Health estimates 151,000 deaths. The original study from Johns Hopkins University published by Lancet gave the estimate of 600,000 deaths. Reviewing these numbers, it would be fair to estimate deaths in the hundreds of thousands.
How has this become morally acceptable? We are a nation with a long history of taking the high moral ground. The terrible loss of 3,000 Americans is being used to justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who were not even involved in 9/11. And what of our ally Israel? Should we accept Israel's justification for its recent acts of targeting suspected terrorists as moral? In the end, we must also determine if these actions are actually helping our countries achieve the peace they seek.
This lack of concern for the high "enemy" civilian casualties began after the Vietnam War in 1972. Our political and military leaders saw the reaction of Americans to our own casualties and decided to endorse an all-volunteer army, which was embraced by most liberal Democrats. Yet, an all-volunteer army is less likely to ensure such military conflicts are conducted with the assent of the American people. Mechanization of war in order to reduce human involvement has had the unintended consequence of removing Americans from some of the cruelty and horror of the deaths we cause in some military actions.
Some will use the old adage that "war is hell." But those who advance that logic forget and dismiss that even wars have moral standards. Those who are powerful and militarily dominant have even more of a moral obligation toward humanity. We can not condemn suicide bombings as immoral and reprehensible and then turn around and routinely dismiss the killings of innocents as "collateral damage." Moreover, the large number of civilian deaths is counterproductive in that it creates many more insurgents in an unending cycle.
We must ensure that our actions are not based on bigotry. Current policies present an uncomfortable possibility: The lives of Iraqis, Palestinians and others are not equivalent to American or Israeli lives in the Western world. How else can you explain the acceptance and silence for each report of so many innocents killed? Imagine the news coverage and world reaction if Palestinians had killed 120 Israelis, or if the Iraqi "insurgents" had killed 120 Americans.
We are eternal optimists. Eventually, the goodness of humanity will reject the killings of civilians and the bigotry that devalues one life compared to another. Peace will prevail when everyone accepts the parity of human value whether they are Iraqis, Palestinians, Israelis, Americans or anyone else across the globe.
Adil E. Shamoo, born and raised in Baghdad, is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus . Bonnie Bricker is a teacher and freelance writer.