Tuesday, 6 April 2010

War - Why Not? That's Why!

The film showing how an US military helicopter without any prior warning guns down a number of journalists, other civilians, eventual rescuers and - perhaps - some armed individuals in Iraq in 2007 has been waltzing around the world's news-desks this day. We can hear the heli-crew's jovial chatting over the radio as they identify the carrying of bags, cameras and phones as the equivalent of being "armed" and jolly reactions to the result of their own response to this observation: "Right through the windshield!" the gunner exclaims happily as he has just massacred some people coming to rescue in a car. Here is the video (from the NBC news website, since the youtube posting has been blocked unless you log in):


The reactions I have seen in commentaries are all about outrage, horror and amazement. I, for my part, is not at all surprised at what the video shows, but actually by this reaction. I've touched on this subject before in relation to the Swedish public reaction to the fact that Swedish soldiers are in fact being killed in Afghanistan. But this time, then, it is about the killing being done by soldiers in a war. Why, I ask, be surprised or amazed?

Not that I believe the US armed forces to be particularly sinister or evil - not at all. The behavior of the crew is what we should expect of any military unit in a similar situation. This is what war is about. This is what soldiers are for. Making war and engaging the military is when we lay to a side all normal hesitations and restrictions in the pursuit of our political goals. In a soldier's logic there is only the objective: balancing benefits and burdens, cost-benefit analyses, weighing of ends and means - all that is for the jujumen higher up to do before they choose to send the soldiers to war. For a soldier, to speak in technical terms, there is no such thing as efficiency, there is only efficacy (although the end pursued may not seem valuable to others when considering the costs). If the objective is to engage and exterminate "enemy combatants", this is what the soldier does, accepting that there will be masses of "collateral damage". This is what we spend all those tax money in the defense budget on: to teach our soldiers that lesson; to make them able to execute its practical implications on the battlefield.

This is also why war so seldom (if anytime) solve any problems, although military objectives may be accomplished. For, as Iraq so saliently illustrates, all that collateral damage inevitably invites new aggression as well as social chaos. Unless, of course, the war ends in the way that colonel Kurtz in Coppola's Apocalypse Now realised that it has to end if there is to be an end: "We have to exterminate them! Village after village, pig after pig, cow after cow" - "Drop the bomb, destroy them all!", as the final scribble in Kurtz's journal reads, echoing his namesake's "Exterminate all the brutes!". Not that this has to mean actual physical slaughter of every single human being, but the people, the nation, the culture, the group - the very institution that is attacked - has to be finally broken into total defeat and to accomplish that (as the WW2 defeat of Germany showed) takes a lot of killing - a lot. Wars with such objectives can indeed be won! But if we want a war with moderation, with human restraint, with moral consideration - forget it! This is why Apocalypse Now is the greatest anti-war movie ever made. This is why the very idea of a just war - while logically conceivable - is a practical misnomer, unless you accept the military logic that achievement of the objective - whatever it is - is worth just about any cost.

Admittedly, in very rare, extreme circumstances, even a winnable war may seem worth it to a decent person. In that case, we may accept that we have to lay off our normal cloak of decency and restraint in order to prevent the worst. This is why politicians keen of attaining a legacy as leaders in times of war and conflict always do their best to create the public image of such circumstances being the actual situation before taking action. Knowing or sensing that people, even under the influence of such manipulation, are normally quite unwilling to have masses of uncontrollable violence and destruction unleashed, our leaders most often also convey messages about the war being undertaken in a controlled, moderated, restrained and considerate manner. Also this is a part of the idea of the just war and when preaching this doctrine they lie. Of course, they lie. This is why the US army tried to cover up the event shown in the 2007 film: it exposes their and their leaders lies.

But back to the Iraq-footage from 2007. My simple point is: you went to war, what the heck did you expect? If you go to war, it is perfectly normal to have people gun each other down for no better reason than that they assemble in a group, wear certain clothes or carry cameras, phones or handbags. For all those things might be what that soldier in the film reports over the radio: firearms, bombs, grenades, scouts, infiltrators, you name it! He did his job, he assumed the worst and acted accordingly. If you still feel that there is some wrong that has been committed here, you need to look further; to the original decision to make war in the first place.