I grew up believing that war was glorious. I read a lot of history and loved what I read. It was about strategy and bravery. It was about men taking risks to do great things for great causes.
For part of my childhood, the Vietnam war was also raging, but I was too wrapped up in my patriotic “war is glorious” narrative to look at the evidence that was becoming available. As a little boy, I cared about the United States winning that war and “stopping communism.” If some people had to die along the way, that was just a price to be paid to achieve a necessary victory.
I didn’t know anything about 9-year-old Kim Phuc Phan Thi, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me if I had. I was sure that the cause of national greatness was more important than the lives of any individuals. In 1972, Kim was a victim of a napalm attack in Vietnam by U.S.-trained and equipped South Vietnamese aircraft.
The pilot saw some people coming out of a temple and he assumed they were North Vietnamese or Viet Cong soldiers and he dropped this terrible chemical on them. Instead, he killed and maimed innocent people, including Kim. She’s the naked one in the famous photo above, running away with her family after she had stripped off her burning clothes. The use of napalm to drop on human beings was a standard operating procedure for Americans and their South Vietnamese allies.
I’ve been thinking a lot about war recently. We like to think of ourselves as living in an enlightened age, yet we still believe that it’s moral and legal for people from one country to kill masses of people in another country, even if many of those murdered people are completely innocent. That’s nothing short of barbaric.
The idea that it’s moral and “legal” for people of one country to kill people of another country as long as they use certain methods of killing — and avoid certain other methods of killing — is one of the most irrational and immoral ideas that’s ever been widely accepted by humans.
We think war is so acceptable that we even have international laws of war. (Can you imagine having laws of murder? Laws of rape? Laws of bribery?) If you think a country is somehow a threat to you, it’s OK to kill thousands and thousands of innocent people who live there — even millions of them — as long as you follow the rules.
You’re not supposed to use certain weapons, though. You can drop bombs on them and blow their bodies into a million pieces. You can blow their brains out with bullets. But you can’t use certain kinds of chemicals to kill them. (We reserve killing people with chemical for criminals in our own country.) And if someone attacks you, you can fight back with the kinds of weapons that the rules allow, but you’re a “terrorist” if you don’t wear a uniform as you’re defending your home against invaders and if you fight in unconventional ways. Got it?
Right now, there are innocent people who are being murdered by U.S. drone attacks in various countries. Someone in the U.S. government decides that there might be a “terrorist” in a particular house, so an unmanned aircraft is sent to drop weapons on the house and kill whoever happens to be there. Bad guys are sometimes killed, but many innocent people are being killed in places such as Pakistan and Yemen. Is it any wonder that those countries are producing new enemies for us?
Let’s say that another country had a complaint against people who lived among us. Let’s say, for instance, that there are Russians who have immigrated to this country seeking political asylum because of oppression by Vladimir Putin’s government. Or let’s even say that Putin and Co. object to things certain Americans have done, said or written. Let’s say that the Russian government called those people terrorists.
Now let’s say that the Russians send aircraft over your neighborhood and blow up a few houses, seemingly at random. They might kill one of the people they claim were bad, but they also kill some of your innocent neighbors or maybe some of your family. And it happens again and again. Do you say, “Well, that’s sad, but they shouldn’t have been nearby when there might have been some bad people around”? Or do you angrily say, “My government refuses to stop you, but I’ll find a way to get revenge”? Can you see why these attacks are creating more future people to hate us and want to kill us?
As for the laws of war, let’s take another example. Let’s say that someone has come into your house and is threatening you and your family with bodily harm. You believe he intends to kill you. Now let’s say you have the chance to kill him. So you shoot him and he’s dead. Nobody blames you, because he was attacking you and you were innocent. But let’s say that your only way to stop him was to throw some nasty chemical at him that would cause him to violently choke to death. Would you stop and say, “No, I can’t protect my family with this, because that would violate the laws of murder”?
The weapon you choose to use wouldn’t be an issue. The only issue would be whether someone had violated your home. We don’t have laws of murder or laws of defense. An attacker is always in the wrong. A defender is almost always in the right.
When Barack Obama was threatening to attack Syria over its government’s alleged use of chemical weapons in a civil war there, I thought a lot about the bizarreness of declaring most ways of killing people to be acceptable, if regrettable, but a few specific ways to be so unacceptable that a country on the other side of the world was justified in intervening to kill people who hadn’t attacked it. That made no sense to me.
The bigger question, though, is why we consider war to be legal and moral under any circumstances. It’s murder on a large scale — and innocent people die by the tens of thousands or more in many “small” wars.
Even though I grew up believing that war was glorious, I know now that it’s one of the most vile activities that human beings engage in. There are times when people have to defend their homes — individually or collectively — but attacking other countries which haven’t attacked you isn’t defending yourself. It’s committing murder on a large scale.
I am willing to support any tactic to defend my home or country from invaders. If it involves using chemical weapons on invaders, I’m perfectly willing. But I’m completely opposed to allowing a government claiming to represent me to make up excuses to kill others in foreign lands in my name. Whether you call it war or “police action” or “liberating the people of Iraq,” it’s murder.
We need to call murder by its name, not give it the dignity of seeing it as moral or legal — much less glorious.