Thursday, November 18, 2004

A distinction which seems to make no difference

Sock Thief, in response to the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed and wounded iraqi by a US Marine, uses it in an attempt to smear - who else? - those who condemn it:

The soldier will be held to account for any misdeed. That's the difference between a liberal democracy and terrorism. A distinction many liberals have forgotten.

Hardly. We all know the soldier will be held to account. The worry is that he will be "held to account" in exactly the same way Lt Calley was - not at all. And there is reason to be concerned (though this case suggests that military justice can sometimes work...)

It should also be pointed out that the distinction Sock Thief accuses critics of the war of having forgotten lies at the very heart of criticisms of the Fallujah massacre (and of the US's behaviour in Iraq in general). Terrorists murder without regard for "the rules of war"; they kill the unarmed and the uninvolved. The organised military forces of liberal democracies don't. However, if we are to judge the US by its actions in Fallujah, it is a distinction which seems to make no difference.

The US has used devastating force in Fallujah - artillery, aerial bombardament, automatic weapons, tanks - in an area primarily inhabited by civilians. The weapons they are using are simply indiscriminate - the kill radius of one of those 2000lb bombs they were dropping is around 100m, and white phosophorus and cluster bombs do not distinguish between those carrying weapons and those without - so indiscriminate in fact that it can called nothing less than a reckless disregard for Iraqi lives.

Those arguing that this is just how modern warfare is waged, and that "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs", should note that it is only the US that behaves like this. The British face insurgents in their zone, but they respond with a good deal more care. More significantly, they faced a terrorist insurgency in Northern Ireland for decades - during which it was absolutely unthinkable that they would use any of the above weapons. They did not call in airstrikes on IRA safe-houses, or use tanks to shell suspected sniper positions (in fact, they did not use tanks at all). And the reason in both cases is clear: they have some regard for the lives of those they are fighting amongst. The US does not. Instead, as Crooked Timber's Chris Bertram points out, they have a "deliberate and systematic policy" of transferring the risks of combat from soldiers to civilians - because the lives of American soldiers are more valuable even than those of innocent Iraqis. But whose name is this occupation being waged in? Whose "freedom" is being fought for? Iraqis. It seems strange to treat your ultimate goal, the people you are supposedly protecting in this manner. And, as Bertram notes,

[i]t is hard to escape the thought that were co-nationals of the people dropping the bombs the ones in the bystander position, different methods would be used.

The position of those opposing the occupation has always been clear: if the US is to claim moral superiority over terrorists, then it must act like it. If it wishes to claim that the indiscriminate murder of civilians is wrong, then it must refrain from doing so itself. But an examination of US policies and actions in Fallujah, and in Iraq in general, shows a disregard for civilian lives that is indistinguishable from that of the suicide-bombers. The message for people like Sock Thief is clear: if they vigorously condemn terrorists, they must also vigorously condemn the US's indiscriminate tactics. Their refusal to do so, and their defence of US actions, marks them as nothing more than hypocrites providing moral cover for murderers.