Stop Apologizing for Civilian Casualties

by | Apr 4, 2003

In war, a country convinced of the rightness of its course expects its forces to subordinate all considerations to the objective of military victory. Our government, however, has adopted the indecisive policy of “balancing” the goal of defeating the enemy in Iraq with the goal of avoiding harm to civilians. When General Richard Myers, chairman […]

In war, a country convinced of the rightness of its course expects its forces to subordinate all considerations to the objective of military victory. Our government, however, has adopted the indecisive policy of “balancing” the goal of defeating the enemy in Iraq with the goal of avoiding harm to civilians.

When General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declares that great care is being taken to prevent civilian casualties, he is not referring to the random shooting of Iraqis; a free nation’s military does not engage in such wanton behavior. Rather, he explains: “We’re more likely to take a little bit more risk ourselves than to bring the population in harm’s way.”

Thus our forces refrained from destroying Baghdad’s vital power plants, phone exchanges and television transmission towers. Even outright military equipment was spared if it was near what the United Nations deems a “historic site.” As one military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank, puts it: “We decided we would restrain the use of air power for reasons of humanity and world image.”

Here is the stark, daily meaning of this restraint, as described by a New York Times reporter who interviewed two marines: “They were most frustrated by the practice of some Iraqi soldiers to use unarmed women and children as shields against American bullets. They called the tactic cowardly but agreed that it had been effective. Both Sergeant [Eric] Schrumpf and Corporal [Mikael] McIntosh said they had declined several times to shoot at Iraqi soldiers out of fear they might hit civilians.”

Hussein is saying, in effect, “Let me keep shooting at you, or I will shoot my civilians”–and we’re complying. Why? What right does anyone have to demand that these marines let enemy soldiers go, in order to avoid harming innocent civilians? Aren’t the marines innocent victims? Aren’t all Americans, who have to worry about Hussein’s criminal-state, innocent victims?

Clearly, administration officials feel guilty for giving primacy to our lives and our interests in waging this war. They believe that a policy of using whatever force is necessary to win is morally tainted–it is too “selfish.” So we “balance” this by sacrificing our safety for that of the civilians, or by diverting major resources and manpower to feeding them, or by officially naming the campaign “Operation Iraqi Freedom” rather than “Operation American Security,” or by promising to rebuild their country at our expense.

And when Iraqis shoot at our troops from inside a mosque, our troops refuse to return fire. And even when they do target civilian structures, or civilian personnel, our military authorities are very defensive in justifying such action.

By any rational standard of morality, any wartime harm to the most innocent of Iraqis is entirely the responsibility of their government. Our moral right, and responsibility, is to do everything possible to safeguard American lives, however many civilian casualties that goal may require. We may lament the loss of innocent Iraqis during the war, just as we lament the loss of innocent Americans. But we should not apologize, since the blame, in both cases, rests entirely with the enemy, who made it necessary for us to wage war to defend ourselves against his threat.

President Bush thinks he can mollify our detractors, particularly in the Muslim world, by showing how “humanitarian” we are. But his policy simply reinforces their view of America as immoral for launching a “selfish,” imperialistic war. It is an open confession of guilt, and an offer to atone by protecting the Iraqis at the cost of American lives. By accepting responsibility for civilian casualties, President Bush is announcing that a war fought solely to make Americans secure is morally dubious.

And if moral legitimacy during the war comes from sacrificing our interests to the needs of the civilians, then moral legitimacy after the war may come from sacrificing our interests to the demands of the U.N. Consider the views of Colin Powell, as described by the New York Times: “Mr. Powell said that to counter global antiwar sentiments, the United States would seek a major role for the United Nations in a democratic postwar Iraq. . . . He said the United Nations was needed to provide ‘international legitimacy’ to the occupation.” So he is willing to have a postwar Iraq molded by the anti-American despots who dominate the United Nations–a process that will undo politically everything that we will have accomplished in Iraq militarily.

Like his father before him, a morally uncertain President Bush may end up permitting “world opinion” to prevent America from eliminating the Iraqi threat. He can avoid that path if his administration stops feeling guilty for civilian casualties and stops undermining the justness of a war waged strictly to protect America.

Peter Schwartz is author of "In Defense of Selfishness: Why The Code of Self-Sacrifice Is Unjust and Destructive" which seeks to answer the fascinating and controversial question "What if the central idea we’re all taught about morality is wrong?" Visit his website at www.peterschwartz.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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