Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Insurgent and the Aid Worker

Slate is running a well-written piece by Owen West and Phillip Carter defending the actions of the now famous marine in Fallujah who executed an apparently defenseless insurgent. Their arguments are sound, and I agree with them that the case for charging and convicting this marine is far from clear. They move on from there to draw comparisons to brutal killing of Margaret Hassan. Again they reach some valid and important conclusions. Margaret Hassan was a noncombatant aid worker. The man shot by the marine appears to have been an insurgent combatant. The insurgents kill indiscriminately, the U.S. takes care to try and limit civilian deaths. The American soldiers are generally honorable. The insurgents are not.

These are good points. And yet I can't help but feel that something is lost in this discussion. The arguments advanced by Carter and West feel very familiar from the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians go out and intentionally kill score of civilians. The Israeli military is only trying to engage militants, and if a few civilians are collaterally killed, well they tried their best to avoid it. But at the end of the day, everybody is just as dead as everybody else. And at the end of the day there are more than twice as many dead Palestinians (approximately half of them noncombatants) as there are Israelis, and orders of magnitude more dead Iraqis than Westerners. When some Israeli kid shoots somebody in self defense who turns out to be a noncombatant, surely his action is more morally defensible than the action of a Palestinian suicide bomber. But who sent a scared 18 year-old into a Palestinian neighborhood armed with the most powerful weaponry money can buy? Can Westerners disavow the impact of widespread slaughter of civilians with the defense that our military personnel try to conduct themselves honorably? Is there no moral culpability for manufacturing a situation where it is highly probable that innocent civilians will be gunned down? And isn't it a bit trite to hold comparisons of the honorable conduct of the world's mightiest military against the conduct of desperate rag-tag insurgents? Honor is a luxury afforded by superior firepower. Did we expect them to line up in formation like a Napoleonic army so that we can massacre them with a single daisy cutter? Of course they use stealth and blend in the population. Of course they like to attack soft targets. How could we have expected otherwise?

None of this is to attempt to draw a conclusion that the Iraqi insurgents are morally equivalent to the U.S. occupiers, or even to the Palestinian militants for that matter. Clearly no good would come of the Iraqi insurgents prevailing against the occupation. The U.S., however ham-handed the effort has been, is really trying to create a functional democracy and improve the lot of Iraqis. Ultimately (not passing judgment on the decision to invade in the first place), the U.S. has the right of this conflict. But that's not my point. The point is that it is foolish to view this conflict and actors in the conflict by falling back on these notions of honorable conduct to justify and defend U.S. actions and to prove our moral superiority. These terms miss the point of what is happening on the ground and wall-paper over decisions which predictably lead to the deaths of many innocent civilians. And it causes us to see events in a distinctly different light than they are seen by Iraqis and other arabs. They are painfully aware of what we are not: that we made the choice to put thousands of scared soldiers with itchy trigger fingers into the places where they live, where they work, where their children go to school. Until we can see things from this perspective we will be forever perplexed by how our actions are being interpreted by the Iraqi public.

This perspective sheer hurts us by leaving the U.S. unable to effectively communicate a meaningful response to Iraqis when an event occurs like the killing in Fallujah. The arguments advanced by West and Carter probably resonate strongly with Americans, but, I think, much less so with Iraqis. What they want to hear is that we understand what a burden it is for them to have all these troops wandering around blowing things up, the checkpoints, the nighttime raids, the airstrikes, the mass detentions. They want to know that we feel their pain and are doing everything in our power to put an end to the chaos, give them a functional country, and get the hell out. The point is not that the marine was probably justified in shooting the insurgent, the point is that it's regrettable that the marine had to be there in the first place.

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