Referring to the beheading of Nicholas Berg, one U.S. senator said, “I think it highlights the differences between the way we do business and, so frequently, our adversaries do business.” Islamic terrorists have since beheaded another American and a South Korean.
Moral self-congratulation is an addiction in our nation. That we believe in “the American way,” whatever that phrase may mean at any given time, signals our narcissistic satisfaction over the way we “do business.” These depraved murders offer another occasion to pat ourselves on the back, another distraction from the true business of the Iraq war and all war: killing.
But then, it’s an article of faith in our public discourse that we wage war differently from our enemies. At present, we luxuriate in our moral superiority over thugs who behead the innocent, but all along we have deemed ourselves civilized warriors in Iraq. We have based that opinion on our methods, which permit us to deny the death we have wrought, and our motives, which let us justify it.
At the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, we marveled at our miraculous weapons, “smart bombs” that pinpointed what the president called “targets of military significance” -- not only military facilities but government buildings, power stations, communications towers. During the war’s “major combat phase,” March 19 through May 1, 2003, we fired several thousand of these guided weapons into crowded Iraqi cities. Had we stopped to think about it, we might have acknowledged that our brave new technology had not in fact made civilian casualties a thing of the past.
But as we thrilled to the fireworks over Baghdad, it was easy to forget that smart bombs were not smart enough to kill the defense minister and spare the defense ministry’s janitor -- or the schoolchildren across the street.
Lest we imagine that we overthrew Saddam Hussein with smart weapons alone, we must note that as our ground troops advanced, they defended themselves with weapons just as dumb as those their grandfathers fired in France. Artillery and tank shells are aimed, not guided; in dense urban areas, they land who knows where. Machine-gun bullets can penetrate thick walls, behind which may be enemy soldiers or cowering families.
And since the major combat period, Iraqi civilians have continued to die -- not only those caught in the cross-fire between our forces and insurgents but also those felled by disease due to the damage we have done to Iraq’s water supply. Terrorist bombs have killed many others. Our hands are unclean in those deaths too, which were enabled by the chaos we unleashed then failed to control.
Our government doesn’t track civilian deaths, but according to the independent organization Iraq Body Count, as many as 11,000 Iraqi civilians have died since we first struck Baghdad in March 2003. When we mourn the 3,000 innocent Americans murdered on 9/11, do any of us also recognize that over three times that number of innocent Iraqis have died because we have made war on their country?
Still, as World War II teaches us, a just cause can make killing not merely moral but morally imperative. But Iraq is no World War II. Though Hussein may have been a Hitler to his own people, his army was no Wehrmacht. Try as they might, President Bush and his advisors have not proved that the former Iraqi regime posed a danger to anyone outside its own borders.
And our government’s larger aim -- remaking the wretched Middle East, thus strangling terrorism by depriving it of its cradle -- was from the beginning a scheme well suited to the chessboards of Washington think tanks but utterly disconnected from the real world in which soldiers fight and people die.
The president continues to paint his Iraq adventure in the moral palette of the Good War, and, despite the hollowness of the comparison, we have been susceptible to its appeal. We are right to honor the brave Americans who helped win World War II, but our celebration of the war against fascism has trapped us in a moral time warp.
We forget what we learned in our war against communism in Vietnam: that death dealt by an aircraft displaying the flag of Jefferson is just as final as that caused by a gunshot fired under the banner of Lenin; that noble aims do not redeem killing in a war ignorantly conceived and incompetently executed; that having been right in one war does not make us right in all wars.
We want to believe that it is the American way never to make war except on the side of the angels. But we trouble the angels with the killing and dying we have practiced in Iraq. Righteous intentions do not guarantee righteousness; justifications for war based in deceit and delusion are no justification at all.
And so, if we are people of conscience, we must admit that the killing of an unknown Iraqi child by the push of a button miles away is no less immoral than the televised slaughter of an American adult by a butcher’s knife.
Our troops have performed admirably in Iraq, with honor and courage. We who have sent them there, however, should feel not satisfaction but shame. We dare not brandish the evil of those who killed Nicholas Berg, Paul Johnson and Kim Sun-il as cover against our own guilt.
Rather, we should beg forgiveness from our troops, the citizens of Iraq and decent people everywhere. The pious among us, beginning with our born-again president, should also repent before God.
Michael Takiff is the author of “Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam” (William Morrow, 2003).