The Ethics of Dropping Bunker Busters on Neighborhoods

the news is full of speculation about whether Saddam Hussein was killed in a bombing or not. Four 2,000-pound “bunker buster” bombs were used to turn a hunk of the neighborhood near a popular restaurant into a crater. As of now, there’s still no consensus as to whether the hoped target was one of the victims.

The English-language media, with uncharacteristic forthrightness, is describing the other victims of this bombing — in one case, describing how the head and torso of a twenty-year-old woman was pulled from the rubble, and was recognized by her mother, who collapsed sobbing and was carried away by other relatives.

Which got me thinking about how such things get justified. It was no surprise to anyone in-the-loop that dropping a bunch of “bunker busters” on a residential neighborhood was going to cause civilian casualties. There was of course no attempt to warn people that bombs were on the way, and no way to minimize damage (indeed, the intent was to cause enough damage to collapse even an underground, fortified room).

So it must have been a utilitarian calculation along the lines of: “yes, of course innocent civilians will die, but if we succeed in killing Saddam Hussein and some of his henchmen, the rest of his military will give up and this will end the war much more quickly, causing fewer civilian deaths over all.”

That’s not quite the same as the Hiroshima calculus — in which the intent was to cause massive civilian casualties as a way of demonstrating to Japan as a whole the costs of continuing to fight.

But it should still put an end to the whole “we’re doing everything we can to minimize civilian casualties” line. If the best you can do for an excuse for killing civilians in one place is so that you won’t have to keep killing civilians elsewhere, that’s a bit like saying to the judge “I had to beat my daughter — she was making me so angry that I kept beating my son!”

It’s interesting to play with some thought experiments. Imagine Saddam Hussein in a desk chair suspended by a rope above a volcano. He’s up there, directing his regime via fax and email, safe in the knowledge that this is the last place the invaders will look for him. But you’ve found him. And you’ve got a pair of scissors. And you see where the rope is tied off.

You go to drop the bastard, but you notice he’s got somebody else tied up and dangling from the bottom of the desk chair. You don’t recognize this other person. Maybe s/he’s a complete innocent — or maybe a P.O.W. Maybe there are five people dangling there — or fifty. Maybe you do recognize this person and it’s someone you know. Maybe it’s 1,000 uniformed draftees in Saddam’s army. Maybe it’s your mom. Maybe she’s holding a kitten.

Every minute he’s still dangling up there free to do his thing the war drags on, the victims of his regime continue to suffer, U.S. troops continue to launch missiles at neighborhoods and fire rounds at journalists, and his evil goes unpunished.

Drop him, and you’re deliberately causing the suffering of the innocent. What’s dangling from the rope when your decision changes from “cut” to “don’t cut?” Would it matter if you knew them or not? Would it matter if they’re from the same country that you’re from? That they speak the same language? That you might meet their relatives some day? Under what circumstances would you make the decision to cut the rope if that would throw you in as well?

Russell Brown, of Hard News, writes :

“We share sacrifices. We share grief. We pray for those families who mourn the loss of life; American families, British families…” George W. Bush let the sentence hang in the air. I genuinely thought he was about to say “Iraqi families”. It would have been a decent and thoughtful thing to do. But he didn’t.

Instead, Bush and Blair got through the whole of their press conference in Belfast yesterday, each paying tribute to coalition dead, without acknowledging that any Iraqi citizen has suffered so much as a paper cut in the past two weeks. As an exercise in denial, it was right up there with the daily briefings from the Iraqi information minister.

Both men are often described by their supporters as “courageous”. But real courage would dictate that they tackled the consequences of their actions head-on. Contend that the deaths of civilians — or, let’s face it, the poor Iraqi conscripts — have been a regrettable consequence of the pursuit of a greater goal of liberation. They might even be right. But they didn’t try. It was like nobody had really died.