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Our Wars, Our Victims

Giovanni di Matteo.jpg
Siena Cathedral
Matteo di Giovanni: Massacre of the Innocents (detail), inlaid marble mosaic, 1481-1482

Jon Stewart: “Right now, the Middle East is spiraling out of control. What should America do about this?”
Bassem Youssef, Egyptian comedian and satirist: “Well, how about… nothing.”
                     —The Daily Show, February 9, 2015

Since we rarely see real images of our wars today and have to fall back on simulated ones in Hollywood movies that make us look good, I wonder what Americans would say if they were shown graphic footage of the results of US drone attacks, some of the many wedding parties or funerals we mistook for gatherings of terrorists and reduced to “bug splats,” in the parlance of those dispatching our missiles. The idea that wiping out a bunch of innocents along with a few bad guys will make us safer at home and not make us more enemies everywhere is nuts, and so is the argument that the atrocities we find appalling in others are acceptable when perpetrated by us.

All this ought to be obvious to our leaders in Washington, but apparently it isn’t. President Obama’s new request for war authorization, now pending before Congress, to fight ISIS over the next three years with further airstrikes and “limited” combat operations, despite the complete failure of all our previous attempts in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to do any good, may make our wars legal, but no less foolish.

What Czeslaw Milosz said of the last century is unfortunately already true of this one: Woe to those who think they can save themselves without taking part in a tragedy. Millions of Americans certainly continue to think so, even after September 11 and all the wars we have fought since and are still fighting. Television footage and newspaper photographs do not convey the scale of destruction and death in New York City on that day. One needed to have stood at least once under the twin towers to grasp their immense height and magnitude. Although I did, it took me days and months to comprehend fully what had occurred. Even after the second airliner struck the towers, it didn’t cross my mind that they might collapse. When they did, my mind had trouble accepting what my eyes were seeing. It was like a movie, people said afterward. We’d exit the dark movie theater with a shudder and go back to our lives. I thought Americans would finally begin to understand what being bombed is like.

What has always amazed me about countries at war is the way the killing of the innocent in foreign lands is ignored. People who wouldn’t step on an ant at home have no interest in finding out what horrors their country is perpetrating abroad. This heartless attitude becomes even more offensive when one thinks back to those terrified people in New York running through fire and smoke from the collapsing towers. In the days after the attacks, our pundits and politicians clamored for a quick and brutal retaliation that would not be overly concerned with distinguishing the innocent from the guilty. In other words, let’s just start bombing the bastards and not worry about who gets killed—or about the likelihood that the bombed might want to have their own revenge one day.

Things will never be the same in this country people kept saying after September 11, and that has proved to be true. What hasn’t changed is our belief that we can eradicate evil in the world. We’re more likely to see the Taliban shave their beards and let their wives and daughters wear miniskirts than our own leaders break their addiction to militarism. Accordingly, there is no thought given in Washington to the harm our engagement in the Middle East and elsewhere has done to the societies and countries we have attacked, nor to what has caused the hatred and the desire for vengeance against us in the Muslim world. In our version of history, the September 11 hijackers who brought so much tragedy to so many people did what they did and went to their deaths because they loathed our freedoms and our values, while the tragedies we have caused in other countries are nothing more than the collateral damage of our sincere effort to liberate those countries. It’s lucky we Americans have learned to close our eyes to what we do to others; otherwise we’d be in danger of losing our cherished view of ourselves as exceptionally virtuous and innocent people and instead begin to think of ourselves as vile hypocrites.

I recall in the days after September 11 seeing on lampposts, public telephone booths, and walls downtown the quickly improvised posters of the missing, with their photographs, brief physicals descriptions, and bits of additional information that Henry or Mary was last spotted on floor 101, and even more heartbreakingly—if that were possible—encountering frantic women in the street carrying pictures of their missing husbands and sons and asking everyone they met if they had seen them. With the stench of carnage in the air and so many distraught people milling around, I was reminded of what the streets in Belgrade looked and smelled like after Allied bombing raids in World War II. The most horrifying thing about the killings of innocent people is that they never stop. Watching our airstrikes on Baghdad in March 2003, I knew that those likely to be killed were not Saddam and his generals, but luckless ordinary Iraqis who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time as the bombs fell.

Forget about the trillions spent already on these wars, the thousands of Americans dead and maimed, the many more dead and tens of millions displaced in these countries we had no business destroying and in whose theological and territorial disputes we had no business meddling, let’s see if our bombs and our soldiers succeed this time around and are greeted at last as liberators all across the Middle East. Don’t hold your breath. But since our corrupt political class loves war because it fills their coffers with money and makes them look both righteous and tough, we shall have more of these counterproductive wars, even if they lead sooner or later to our ruin.