Monday, June 12, 2006

Honor and Death

Just in case you didn’t hear me say this before, I’ll repeat. Killing civilians is wrong. Always. To be avoided at all costs. Killing civilians may not be a criminal act (in the context of war) but it is always wrong. War is bad enough without harming non-combatants–often the very people we are protecting–so it’s never right to kill them. Unavoidable perhaps but still wrong.

That’s why the Washington Post account of the Haditha killings as described by the Marine squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich disturbs me. Sgt. Wuterich says he followed the rules of engagement in describing his actions in Haditha November 19. If so, those rules authorize tossing grenades and firing indiscriminately into rooms full of people, “running and gunning” in Marine parlance. Reading the account, I got the sense of cold. methodical procedure: kick door open, toss grenade, enter with guns firing. And it works, few will survive such an assault. One Marine says “It may be bad tactics, but it works. It keeps you alive.”

Following Sgt. Wuterich’s logic, he did his job which, on that day, had tragic consequences, recognized at the time by his commanders but appropriate for the situation. There lies the crux of the debate. Under the circumstances, what should the Marines have done differently? I, for one, want them to verify targets before shooting but that hesitation may offer the enemy an opportunity to kill or escape. Do we put our soldiers at risk to spare civilians?

That’s rarely the choice, though. In Haditha the rooms were full of civilians. The Marines were at minimal risk. But in the heat of battle, after an attack that killed one of your men, how much risk will I ask the Marines to take?. My answer is, as little as possible. I want to draw the line at tossing a grenade into a room of people without verifying who they are but it’s hard to do if I think they may be prepared to kill me. In the end if anyone must take more risk, it’s the Marines, not the civilians.

I know that sounds like I want Americans to die but hear me out. Soldiers are combatants, “citizens of Death’s gray land”. Their job is to close with and kill an enemy. They are trained in death’s procedures and tactics. Every soldier risks death, that’s the nature of the job. A civilian is simply living in his home, defenseless. That the enemy hides among the civilian population does not give license to kill civilians. If the Marines followed rules of engagement clearing the area where they were attacked, the sergeant, he may be free of criminal responsibility but the country that approved the rules will be guilty of the civilian deaths.

The risk to the combatant is part of what gives combat–organized murder–a what little honor it possesses. Making the extra effort to spare civilians, even at risk to oneself or his men, redeems some of the savagery of combat. In battle, we honor those who risk their lives for their buddies. That is acceptable, but doing the same for innocent civilians is little recognized. Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who put himself between American soldiers and civilians at My Lai was ignored and shunned for 30 years before his country recognized and honored his bravery ().

As I began this essay, I stipulated that killing civilians is wrong. Inevitable in war but still wrong. Honor lies in recognizing and acting on this moral imperative. The higher the civilian death toll due to America’s actions in Iraq, the greater our nation’s dishonor and shame.

for the record

As a combatant would I give my life to save a civilian? Would I be willing to be the first Marine to enter a room of unknown persons without first rendering them incapable of harming me? My answer, from the entirely safe vantage of my keyboard, is “yes”. If the rules call for me to verify a target before shooting, I would. That’s my job. I should be sufficiently trained and disciplined to do that job. If the rules allow me to assault unknown persons with grenade and rifle, I would do that, too.

I know because that’s how I went to Vietnam: with a great deal of fatalism and moral neutrality. The fatalism numbed my fear and helped me survive each day of combat. The neutrality allowed me to do my job. I was mercifully spared the dilemmas faced by the Americans in Vietnam then or Americans now in Iraq but the neutrality has haunted me ever since. That’s how I know killing civilians is wrong.


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