My internet service has finally been restored and I’m catching up a bit on what’s been happening, particularly in the Middle East. With no internet connection and no daily paper, one could almost get the idea that what’s happening in the Middle East is really none of our business — or perhaps none of our business yet.
But I’m not writing about Israel today, because I’m still catching up and I want to call attention to a couple of interesting pieces in last week’s Washington Post Outlook section. In What’s An Iraqi Life Worth?, Andrew J. Bacevich points out that while attrocities like Abu Ghraib and Haditha grab the lion’s share of the press coverage, the far more numerous civilian deaths that we classify as accidental or unavoidable may ultimately do more to undermine support for the U.S. in Iraq. Bacevich criticizes the DoD policy of not counting Iraqi civilian deaths and claims it shows that we care less about Iraqi civilian lives than we do about the lives of U.S. military personnel, a claim that strikes me as basically true even though (as Bacevich might have acknowledged) we care more about Iraqi civilian lives than the jihadists seem to. Certainly, I have often read press commentary or had private conversations in which the cost of the U.S. mission has been defended as acceptable because the number of U.S. military casualties were X, without taking into account Iraqi civilian casualties of Y.
Still, I think Bacevich is probably wrong to suggest that there is anything conscious or deliberate in our differential concern for U.S. and Iraqi lives. This is probably a blind spot that is endemic to all nations, or at least all nations at war. But if so, then that is all the more reason why the scales must be weighted very heavily against war when the initial policy choices are made.
There is a passage in “1984” in which O’Brien, posing as a co-conspirator, asks Winston and Julia whether they would be willing to murder, even to throw acid in an infant’s face, in order to fight Big Brother. They respond that they would, and the tape is played back to Winston after he is arrested. I’ve always thought it a brilliant stroke on Orwell’s part, highlighting the moral ambiguities of freedom fighting (and perhaps of consequentialist crusades more generally). We might ask ourselves, before the next invasion, whether the goals we are pursuing are so important that we are willing to set in motion a chain of events that will lead to the unintentional killing of tens of thousands of innocents. Some will say yes, some will say no, but one response we should not take seriously is, “That won’t happen.”