In How We Became Barbarians, Michael Neumann discusses the popularity of terrorism and how practices as barbaric as “ripping the flesh off children” for political or military aims have become so widely accepted in the civilized world.
Someone who can scarf popcorn all through both Kill Bills will go hoarse about the killing of innocents in Israel or Iraq or anywhere suitably distant. Someone who’d cheer a B-52 strike on Baghdad will murmur feelingly about the perfect little hands of a second trimester fetus. And everyone hates terrorism with a passion because it victimizes innocent people: that’s so outrageous!
Really the claptrap about terrorism has gone far enough. Brutes should at least recognize their own brutality. None of us, left, right, or center, are all that bothered about the deliberate killing of innocents. Virtually none of us think it’s that big a deal to tear the flesh off a child.
I’m not being cynical. There are some things that most people genuinely, sincerely abhor, important things like genocide and torture. There has been real progress on these fronts. That’s just why we should notice that, on the matter of ripping the flesh off children, we have regressed. We weren’t always so vicious; at least we tried not to be. Perhaps we will try again — but not until we realize how low we have sunk.
Neumann goes on to describe how reformers like Hugo Grotius started to develop standards that would protect the innocent during war. “From Grotius’ time until sometime after the First World War, there was a gradual, unsteady progress away from killing innocent civilians. Armies fought on battlefields; battlefields were more or less unpopulated. Navies fought on the ocean. Soldiers foraging for food and fuel might kill civilians, but this wasn’t considered acceptable.”
These standards were never universally accepted, but they did have some force, and became yardsticks by which a nation’s behavior (or the behavior of its rivals) was judged. And we inherit some of this today. The members of Saddam Hussein’s regime will be going on trial charged with violation of these standards.
But in fact, Neumann says, these codes of behavior more-or-less disintegrated with the evolution of aerial warfare. “The world was shocked when, in , Nazi aircraft dropped 100,000 pounds of bombs on the Spanish town of Guernica, killing 1,500 people, about a third of the population. This tender-heartedness did not survive the Second World War.”
Britain and the US decided that maybe bombing civilian populations into despondency wasn’t such a bad idea. They bombed with enthusiasm. Whether or not the casualty counts in Hamburg and Dresden have been exaggerated, no one denies that innocent civilians were in fact targeted. This objective is implicit in the World War Ⅱ distinction between “strategic bombings,” which aimed to destroy defense industries and other military-related objectives, and “saturation bombings,” intended to level whole cities. This was a decisive and fateful step away from Grotius’ not wholly unsuccessful attempts to humanize war.
The brutalization of attitudes towards attacks on civilians was and is quite universal. We may deplore some such attacks, but not all of them. We disagree, not about whether they are ever legitimate, but rather about whether they should be blatant. Some think it’s ok to kill civilians as long as they’re not really your target. Others think that they can be all or part of your target. It’s the difference between dropping bombs you know will kill civilians and dropping bombs to kill civilians.
It’s not a very important disagreement and it’s not very important to those involved. The victims’ suffering is just as great in either case, and the perpetrators seem able to live with their deeds. Even those who moralize about saturation bombings don’t seem too upset. Left-wing and liberal political writers sometimes speak of the stench of burning flesh in Dresden; they themselves give off more than a whiff of bad faith.
The bombing of Dresden has been in the public eye at least since Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five was published in . This was twenty-four years after , a time-span not considered too long for punishing child molesters. If [that] attack was so criminal, where were the loud calls for the prosecution of those responsible? Why didn’t we hear demands for a truth commission or day of atonement to commemorate the event? Why has this crime evolved into nothing more than a shocker for occasional use in polemics about something else? Only Nazi sympathizers have crusaded to bring the perpetrators to justice; others have kept their scruples to a murmur or a snide remark.
The plain truth is that there is, in our culture, no serious opposition to deliberate, direct mass killings of civilians. The enemy, of course, must not attack innocents. Our side must not do so if the attacks are ineffective or superfluous. But no one says: even if these attacks saved thousands of our soldiers’ lives, we must renounce them. And silence speaks volumes here: what we ignore, we permit.
I bring this up not as a war reformer, not as someone who thinks we need to adopt some code of conduct for engaging in war humanely. I bring this up because so many Americans seem to feel that there is a code of conduct that prohibits the killing of civilians (which is what makes terrorism so evil in comparison) and that we do follow it. They hear about civilian casualties and think they’re tangential mistakes, when in fact they’re an essential part of the package deal you get when you buy a war.
I wish there were a way to convince people of this truth: that when they say they’re in favor of the U.S. going to war over something that they’re saying they’re in favor of ripping the flesh off of children over it.