The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Enough BS About “I can’t judge because I’ve never been a soldier”

Seriously, Sean-Paul’s my friend, but this sort of thing (which is hardly unique to him) in reference to the video of the killing of reporters and other civilians is waffling of the highest order:

As for the actions of the soldiers? At first, I wasn’t sure how to feel, but I know enough about war to know I know nothing of war, so I reserve judgment. Alas, I can’t help but to think that the rules of engagement were violated here in some fashion. But again, I cannot say with any certainty and so withhold judgment.

Waffle irons have nothing on this.

No, the fact that you haven’t been to war doesn’t mean you can’t judge, and especially the fact that you aren’t a civilian doesn’t mean you can’t judge.   This constant mantra of “oh, the troops aren’t to blame” excuses acts of barbarity.

And as a civilian, it’s in your best interest to not brush aside acts of barbarity by militaries.

Somehow the argument “I don’t understand” never gets applied in reverse.  It gets applied to American soldiers, but not to say, Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters.  They commit atrocities and we have no hesitation in condemning them.

Imagine you did understand.  What possible reason could these soldiers have for their actions which would excuse them?  That they’re under pressure?  So what?  That may make it understandable, it doesn’t make it excusable.  Any more than if I think I understand why some terrorist kills a bunch of civilians, that understanding makes it acceptable.

The knee-jerk “support the troops! Never say anything bad about our boys” stuff is noxious.  A proper functioning military in a civilized society court-martials people who do things like this.

And this is not an isolated incident.  As Siun notes:

At the time the New York Times reported that “the military has paid more than $32 million to Iraqi and Afghan civilians for noncombat-related killings, injuries and property damage, an Army spokeswoman said. That figure does not include condolence payments made at a unit commander’s discretion.” And given that the average payment for a dead adult civilian was $3,000, you begin to get some sense of the scale of devastation we have brought to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

You do the math…  And that’s just deaths where they felt they had to pay someone off, where payments are on the record.

This is military policy.  The reason it was covered up is that it’s not an aberation, it’s policy.  As Greenwald notes, this is what the US military does. The rot goes all the way to the top.

And no, “following orders” is not an excuse.

Enough waffling.  What happened in that video was wrong.  What’s even worse is that there’s no reason to believe it was an isolated incident.


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  1. i’ve been in combat. there’s really no way to describe so that someone who hasn’t been can understand.

    thing is though. on this, i agree with you completely. those who fight need to be told by those who haven’t, or don’t, or what the fuck ever, that there are still standards of civilization that must be held.

    without that we descend rapidly into simple barbarism. in my service one of the things i strived mightily to keep was that sense of decency.

    i could be brutal, war truly demands that of us. i could be violent, which is also demanded. i handled the long rifle and took enough shots to know that i am completely capable of ruthlessness.

    i tried to not be cruel.

    shooting kids, and people incapable of fighting back from your multimillion dollar platform up there in the sky isn’t war. it’s plain and bog simple murder.

    there is no exuse, no explanation. this is exactly the type of thing that ronald reagan described the russians doing to the afghans from their ferocious hind helicopters that made him obsessed with funding their fight against them.

    it’s a crime. we shouldn’t be doing this.

  2. Formerly T-Bear

    In reading the comments at Juan Cole’s Tuesday post, one commentator stuck out as egregiously callous:

    This sort of scene has undoubtedly been repeated hundreds of times in Iraq and Af/Pak. The only thing notable about this ugly incident is that 2 Reuters reports were murdered.

    whereas the “ONLY NOTABLE were that 2 Reuters reporters were murdered”. Please play that video again and count how many HUMAN BEINGS were MURDERED! Sending the wounded children to a local hospital WAS ATTEMPTED MURDER, the intent clearly was for their deaths, silenced witnesses do not testify. Not one act against the observing helicopter was made, no attempt was undertaken to hide from observation until the group was fired upon, without warning, without mercy. How remarkably callous the commentator’s “… only notable about this ugly incident …” reflects upon the POV being held as well as the realization that this is what “the military” has been doing in their illegal “wars” since day one. This has gotten beyond words the abhorrent bestial degradation of the country’s public. The United States has become a cancer upon the world, deal with that.

  3. Celsius 233

    I’ll say the same thing I posted on the Agonist;

    You don’t like this? You bought it! Lock, stock, and barrel.
    Welcome to the new normal. You allowed it; you change it! Dead simple.

    Everything else is just bullshit!

  4. Lex

    I’ll repeat what i wrote on a list, which could be construed as implying that i’m ok with this (and all the other times it happens).

    I’ve not been in combat, so i do not understand. And while this isn’t right…when it happens to reporters or just civilians…the focus of the blame should not be on the soldiers who perpetrate the act, though they’re guilty of inhumanity, but on the people who sent them into the situation. That includes the generals, the politicians, and especially the public.

    Celsius is right. We bought it. We cheered it on. And in the case of the other war, many on the left still support it to some degree (or at least the initial action). I never did, because while i don’t understand what it’s like to be in combat, i sure as shit understand that combat in situations like these will certainly lead to situations like the one causing this uproar.

    It’s not about excusing the actions, Ian. It’s about understanding that the people on both sides of all these firefights are human within an inhumane situation. The blame needs to rest most squarely on the inhumane bastards who cook this stuff up without ever having to deal with the reality. Focusing the blame on the actual combatants let’s the real criminals off the hook, and if anything comes of this particular situation i’d be willing to bet that the only people punished will be way down on the food chain.

    It’s like Abu Ghraib, sure, the enlisted people doing the dirty deeds got punished and deserved it…but they were the only ones who got punished even though they weren’t the only ones who deserved punishment.

    The soldiers will live with what they see and did for the rest of their lives, many of them will never get another full night’s sleep. (Yes, maybe they should all say, “No.”) And the most guilty will sleep peacefully between silk sheets in mansions till the end of their days.

    And for the record, when “the enemy” commits horrific acts of war i’m one of those who says, “What the fuck do you except? It’s a war.”

  5. Lex

    I’m also part of the lonely group that agrees with F T-Bear. This is us. Every American citizen is just as responsible for this as they guy pulling the trigger on the Bushmaster. It doesn’t matter if you were for or against the action. Those people and all the others died in our name.

    I’m more disgusted by the people willing to say “Bush’s War” than the guys in that Apache.

    We the People are the cancer that T-Bear describes…every last one of us.

  6. bayville

    FWIW, Sean Paul has come to his senses. Credit to him for cutting through the MSM propoganda fog.
    Mass murder is mass murder.
    There’s no honor in gunning down unarmed men from 1,000 feet in the air. Anyone who says otherwise is crazed…and a coward.

  7. John B.

    One has to speak out aginst what is done in our name and with our money.
    We passed through the looking glass a long time ago. Honor and valor are not just slogans at an individual level, but as a country we lost that right to cloak our actions in the common good.

  8. Cloud

    Every American citizen is just as responsible for this as they guy pulling the trigger on the Bushmaster.

    Meh, I don’t think so. By that logic, it would be as acceptable for me to join the military (knowing what I know) as it would be to pay taxes. And I’m unemployed, so for a while I seriously did try to convince myself, using that very logic, that joining the military would be okay. I would then have money, but be no more guilty than a typical civilian.

    But no. The level of culpability must depend on what would happen if you refuse.
    If the president hadn’t ordered/okayed the war, it wouldn’t have happened.
    If the helicopter pilot had not pulled the trigger, the war would go on, but those people would not have died at that time. He has culpability, but not as much as the president.
    If the civilian refuses to pay taxes, he is fined or goes to jail, but the war goes on, and the helicopter still fires.

    I’m perfectly willing to admit that taxpayers are culpable, and if I ever do get a job, I’m seriously considering the path of the refusenik. But they’re not on the same level as him that pulled the trigger on that gunship, or on a missile drone. No way.

  9. Jenny

    Greenwald actually agrees with Lex et al:
    “I don’t agree at all. The citizens of a state bear responsibility for what their government does. That’s particularly true in a democracy, where citizens elect their government.

    It’s your tax dollars that pay for it. It’s your right to vote (whether exercised or not) that allows it to happen. Throughout history, citizens have found ways to change their government when sufficiently horrified by what was being done.

    It’s easy and soothing — but, I think, misleading and irresponsible — to disclaim all responsibility for it.”

  10. b.

    It took Germany a good 50 years after the end of WW2 to drop the dinstinction between “Bad SS” and “Good Wehrmacht” – the latter were just defending the homeland, natch, while the former were in charge of all the war crimes.

    Ironically, this contortionist approach to history was necessary partially because of the US push to re-arm and re-militarize Germany (West) against the Soviet Union before “de-nazification” had even started. You really cannot have a Bundeswehr composed of draftees around a “hard core” of experienced Wehrmacht officers while denouncing the same Wehrmacht for its war crimes.

    Hence July 20th – Wehrmacht leaders celebrated for their too-little-too-late “resistance” in a futile attempt to save the homeland from the consequences of Wehrmacht-facilitated Nazi conquest.

    From the Murderer-In-Chief to the trailer park heroes remote-controlling assasination UAVs, it all looks familiar, except for the new “telepresence”. It raises the interesting question: If the Nazi leader had been able to participate from home in their extermination campaigns, would they have wanted the live feed and the trigger button? Or would they have preferred to stick to “Executive Orders”? Maybe there should be a law that the Commander-In-Chief has to push the button himself, just to make it clear. We did it for nukes, maybe we should do it for drones.

    If you are not willing to die for your cause, you have no right to kill for it. Force protection at all cost combined with illegal occupation has turned the IDF into a Wehrmacht of the Middle East; it is not alltogether surprising that the US military is following the same devolution. There is no justice in war, just plenty of depravity to go around. Entropy wins, just not fast enough for the victims.

  11. Ian Welsh

    Lex: sure the primary blame is higher up the chain. But it also rests with the specific soldiers. “Just following orders” is not an excuse.

    And I have, in the past, told Americans as a group that in a democratic society they are all to blame.

    Just as I, as a Canadian, must take my share of blame for deaths in Afghanistan.

  12. Remind me again who said this was a democracy? (I agree that ultimately the people are responsible for what is done in their name, but we can’t argue that we don’t have a functioning democracy when we talk about finance (and I don’t think we do) and then argue that we do when we talk about war.

  13. BDBlue

    I wonder what effect the lack of a draft has had on the modern military. There have always been atrocities (hell, war is an atrocity), but I think the acceptance of it in the military has gotten worse. And I wonder if part of that isn’t because we don’t have a less “professional” military. There’s got to be a psychological difference between people who get drafted into a war and those who volunteer to go (which is not to say all of the volunteers are bloodthirsty or immoral, just that it limits the range of people who are involved in the wars).

  14. Jenny

    The interpretaion of soldier’s actions by soldiers is rather sad:

  15. b.

    I do not see draft vs. “volunteer” as a significant aspect of the problem. Look at the casualty figures in WW2, e.g. here:

    Compare US-Japanese figures. Even in WW2 (even before the sedition of the US Army Air Force), and even ignoring civilian casualties for a moment, you can see the discrepancy.

    The only war the continentual US experienced directly from 1812 onwards was self-inflicted, and ended 1865. For the “homeland”, WW2 was hysteria, not devastation. If a nation suffers comparatively few battelfield casualties, it is either because it does not wage war very often and not on a large scale, or it is because it wages war in a way that minimizes its own losses in disregard of the consequences for the enemy and the non-combattants. If you look at the US record since WW1, the answer seems pretty obvious.

    US military forces claim to have high professional standards, and not without some justification. Professional standards, however, are not the issue – it is a “secondary virtue”, to paraphrase the German quip about the benefits of punctuality and thoroughness in concentration camp guards. The problem is that even the most professional – in some ways, especially the most professional – execution of US military doctrine guarantees execessive casualties, because the flaw is in that very US military doctrine, which is based on the twin pillars of maximizing profits (emphasis on materiel) and minimizing “friendly” casualties (to ensure domestic disinterest).

    Putting – presumably “less professional” – draftees into a machinery governed by this doctrine is unlikely to improve the “interface”, and likely to add “unprofessional” mayhem to the professionally implemented atrocities. To think otherwise is to cling to the illusion that warfare can somehow be “reformed” by “noble warriors”.

    A truly random draft might make a major difference with respect to that most nauseating of phrases, “skin in the game”, and “bring home” the war in a way that closes the “democratic” feedback loop. But in a polity as corrupt as this one, no such draft is likely to be implemented, and “the People” are already acquiescing to many a rip-off without protest beyond the occasional tea party. Automation (and remotely operated war machines) are further decreasing the “impact” of any exposure of the voting public to the real war. I am reminded of Jackson’s Lottery (or LeGuin’s Omelas) – we are talking sacrificial proxies, not citizen soldier.

    A dedicated “war tax” (in addition to an IRS-collected dedicated “defense” tax) would possibly have more impact, given the mental energy the average American can expend on the issue of taxation. The DoD is the ultimate Big Government, and the self-licking National Security Racket the ultimate threat to any open society, but somehow that fact never seems to penetrate the glibertarian mind.

  16. Ken Hoop

    Obviously the blame is proportionately shared by degrees.
    But all soldiers know of dissenting vet groups,active since the wars’ inception.

    Just one example. There would also be some indefinite blame
    according to willing refusal to support in some fashion or join one, would there not?

  17. b.

    “Remind me again who said this was a democracy?”

    In flagrant (repeat) violation of the Godwin Prohibition, let me mention the notion of “collective guilt”. That was a phrase very much en vogue after WW2, addressing the responsibility of the German public for the atrocioties committed “in their name”.

    Democracy is not measured by the apathy of its people or the dysfunction of its institutions, it is measured by the cost exacted on the individual if the invidual chooses to “stand up” against the gonverment, or even the majority, and thus ultimately against “the law” (the whole point of Nuremberg was that Nazi Germany acted in compliance with its own, malleable, law, but violated a higher law regarding aggressive war).

    If there can be a concept of “collective guilt” for Germans that faced the immediate threat of detention, incarceration, or execution for “sedition” and “treason”, then I propose that, in comparison, even the global leader in imprisonment still qualifies as more or less “democractic”.

    On a more mundane level, I cannot take serious somebody who complains over copyright and DRM, yet purchases a Kindle or iPad. For example, middle class US citizens might be able to derail the system by voluntarily refusing to consume any and all non-essential goods for just a few weeks – and reduce their debt in the bargain. But of course, that would require a large number of us to deny ourselves some “comforts” we are “accustomed” to. Comforts such as “being represented”: If you never vote for a politician who supported a war, then you might have to live with a Repug representative for an election cycle or two, but if the only way to actually compete for a seat is to oppose war, eventually there will be a candidate, and unless a single term in the House can pay off every single fraud for life, eventually some of them will not default on their promises.

    If you really want to do something about finance, you can – move your accounts to credit unions, borrow less, refuse to use a credit card. Does your definition of “democracy” include “convenience”?

  18. b.

    Aside: Here is a must read:

    The new wunderwaffe: “no footprint assassination”. Surely, if we restrain ourselves to launch just the occasional missile from above in perpetual, undeclared war, collateral damage will cease to be an issue for our victims, our laws, or anybody who has detained basic decency.

    I am blown away by the penetrating reasoning behind this “piece”.

  19. Formerly T-Bear

    @ b

    IIRC the history, this was the Lincoln addendum to the constitution, that the payment for citizens blood shed in the Civil War was “universal” suffrage (male) in the Republic. This and the Homestead Acts spread participation which has been conflated (and confused) with Democracy by succeeding generations.

    A thorough reading and understanding of Niccolò Machiavelli’s “Discourses on Livy” should be a requisite barrier to exercising the vote in any Republic.

  20. Lex

    Ian: Please don’t mistake my argument for excusing the actions of the soldiers. It’s not. They’re guilty. It should be clear from my statements on the shared responsibility of all Americans that i’m not much for the Nuremburg defense or similar arguments.

    It’s about focus. If the anger is focused primarily on the soldiers, then the greater guilt (and it is greater since it involves major decision making) is likely to go unpunished.

  21. JustPlainDave

    Let’s try this again. Article 15 reports and associated docs can be found here

  22. Suspenders

    “What possible reason could these soldiers have for their actions which would excuse them?”

    They we’re trained and indoctrinated, by America, to “kill the enemy”. They’re sent over to some godforsaken place where everybody (rightly) hates them, given a big-ass gun and told to do their duty, and kill “the enemy”. Unfortunately for Iraqis, “the enemy” is more or less them, as the people America would most like to kill aren’t walking around with uniforms on and flags patches on their shoulders, and look exactly like your typical Iraqi. So, the troops fly around, find what they believe is the “enemy”. Watch the video, about three minutes in ( ) “Have individuals with weapons”, “We got a guy with an RPG”, etc. Context matters. So they blow them away, they did their “job” as best they could. And it was a horrible failure.

    This is what happens when you send a bunch of guys who were trained with Apache helicopters to take out Russian tanks and expect them to identify insurgents (from the skies no less!) and kill them. It’s an impossible task for them. You can’t set someone up to fail then castigate them for failing miserably.

    Now, with that said, shooting that van afterward while it was picking up survivors, that I can’t understand and that was pretty clearly wrong in my eyes. That was inexcusable, but the first part there, I don’t think it’s that easy to say the pilot was clearly to blame in what he did. That excuses barbarity, but f**k, we do it all the time based on what that barbarity is supposed to accomplish. That is implicit even in your own worldview when you say things like “And as a civilian, it’s in your best interest to not brush aside acts of barbarity by militaries”. Barbarity is the military’s business!

    I wanted to add that this sort of thing happening is really no surprise. When you start a war, this is what you get. The idea that you can somehow have a war that doesn’t involve mass civilian deaths is so ludicrous. Most people in our societies are just too far removed from it to realize it’s impact. Starting a war is signing the death warrants of thousands of civilians right from the beginning. Ohh, look how shocked we are! What the hell did you expect!!!! Sheesh.

    And also, I have to say that “Just following orders” IS a valid defence, as long as countries like my own (Canada) can claim that Iraq war resistors like Jeremy Hinzman aren’t allowed to escape fighting an illegal war because “An individual must be involved at the policy-making level to be culpable for a crime against peace … the ordinary foot soldier is not expected to make his or her own personal assessment as to the legality of a conflict. Similarly, such an individual cannot be held criminally responsible for fighting in support of an illegal war, assuming that his or her personal war-time conduct is otherwise proper.” ( Try not kill anyone “illegally” while you’re there! *Sigh*. Just following orders, Sir!

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