War…and the Ethics of Killing Large Numbers of People

henry-featuredAs of this minute, America is on the cusp of intervening in a civil war in a distant country.  This month it is Syria.  Next month, or next year, it may be a different country and the strange thing is, on the face of it, it may be with the very best of intentions.  Hell, it may even be the right thing to do.  I don’t know the answer to that one and I suspect no one on this planet has the in-road to the ultimate “right answer”.  It all comes down to perspective and what’s to be gained versus what’s to be lost.

America is tired.  We’re down-a-quart on our energy, two quarts with our economy, and possibly three quarts with what used to be a viable ethical system.  Anymore…I’m not sure what we stand for.  But the funny thing is, and I use that word, cynically, is that the crux of whether or not we enter into this latest debacle all hinges on a strange quirk of humanity: Our ability to stomach certain forms of killing over others.

We have a long, nuanced scale for what the good ways of killing people are…and what are the bad ones.  It’s a third-rail topic and as such, there’s a potential to get fried.  Having said that, let’s jump in and see if we can sort some of it out.

Good Guys and Bad Guys:  Let’s pick an “easy” one to kick-off.  Most of us, having grown up watching westerns, WWII, and Sci Fi movies understand that:  It’s quite “okay” if you’re in a show-down in front of the Golden Nugget Saloon, you have a white hat and a .44 in your holster, and the other guy is wearing black and also sporting a .44.  One of you is gonna go down and it stands to reason that it’s supposed to be the other guy.  This is a two-thumbs up kind of death.  Nobody has a problem with it.  But…  Let’s say the SOB wearing black has tipped the scales and is cheating.  He’s got a little Derringer in his palm and before you’ve even gotten yourself set up to draw, you have this terrible pain in your chest and find yourself falling to the ground.  At that point, and on a very small scale, the scenario has changed from a balanced dispute to WAR.  How did that happen?

In war”, as General Patton said so bluntly, yet so succinctly, “the goal isn’t to die for your country, it’s to make the other sonofabitch die for HIS country.”  Once you truly understand this, you realize that War is essentially a hideous game in which there are no rules.  There really aren’t.  There never were any rules and there probably will never be, at least none that will ever be enforced by all.

Monsters:  With Syria this week, the biggie, the most heinous thing that occurred and it is, indeed, heinous, was the killing of people with gas.  The moment I began watching the film of the young children, women, babies in the hospital dying, I could barely look, and yet I also couldn’t look away.  I wanted to throw-up, scream, cry.  The first word that came to mind…comes to mind… is MONSTERS.  Only monsters could do this, and I still believe that’s true.  But,  wait a minute.  Before anyone on this planet points a finger, let’s take a moment and thumb back through our history books.  Is there anything…could there be anything more monstrous than dropping canisters of gas on people and watching them choke to death?

Napalm  Think a moment before you answer.  Yeah, there just might be.  Dropping canisters on people, little kids, young women, old men, babies when the stuff inside the canisters is called NAPALM.  It’s a kind of jellied gasoline which when it lands on your flesh, your face, your arms, your breasts, your eyes, cannot be rubbed off, cannot be extinguished.  It just spreads and keeps buring until your flesh literally burns off your body.  There’s nothing worse than the pain of burning to death.

Greek Fire  Care to guess how long ago it was used?   Way back when, it was called Greek Fire.  But, of course, only the bad guys used it…the monsters.   But you know that’s not true.  Or…if it is true then we are monsters as well, because we used it in WWII.  (We also used GAS in WWII by the way) as did the Germans and the Russians.  In Okinawa we used flame-throwers as well. Very effective……

At the very end of the war, thanks to Julius Robert Oppenheimer, we were able to test out his latest innovation by dropping not one, but  two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima, the other on Nagasaki. Over 250,00 civilians died in a handful of days.  It was initially rationalized that it helped end the war more quickly, which sounds pretty good.  Later, history wasn’t so kind.  What America actually wanted to do was keep the Soviet Union at bay.  Japan was already beaten.  That’s a difficult one to wrap one’s brain around.    The final world-wide count of deaths from WWII:  Over 63 MILLION.

Vietnam We used a LOT of napalm  in the Vietnam War.  And I know of what I speak.  I enlisted during the Vietnam War.  I flew jets…fighter jets.  I also had a very serious disagreement way-back-when with the US Air Force on that very issue, primarily because of one fact:  My dad was a war correspondent and had spent a lot of time there researching his best seller, Air War Vietnam.  When he returned, he showed me film footage and  photos of what it looks like to burn alive.  It isn’t pretty and you never get over it…….   The  disagreement I had with the USAF about napalm had its own repercussions.  In retrospect I’m proud of the stand I took though that’s a different story.

The point is, we as a country found it acceptable to drop napalm from fighters, 105s, Phantoms, B-52s  skimming across jungle canopies at 1000 feet, going 350 mph and dropping thousands upon thousands of canisters.  They tumble and scatter in a peculiar pattern as they drop and three seconds later, everything…EVERYTHING that was beneath it is burning to death.  Napalm is not prejudiced by the way.  It doesn’t really give a damn who or what is down there.

In the 1980s the world decided that napalm was something that was just too awful, too horrible to be used in future wars.  It was outlawed.  Nearly every country in the world signed the agreement.  One did not.  Care to guess who?  It was us, and we’re supposed to be the good guys.  I’m still scratching my head on that one.  Why didn’t America sign it?

Genocide The world will probably agree that the most heinous act of all occurred in WWII with the Nazis genocidal attack on the Jews.  Over six million died…also hideously.    The sign above the camps read:  ARBEIT MACHT FREI, which translated means:  Work Makes Freedom, or Working will set you free.  Not really, unless you count being free as free from living on the planet.  It was heinous, inhuman, monstrous…but pound-for-pound, suffering for human suffering, is choking to death worse than burning to death?  I personally don’t have the answer though I have a hunch that one isn’t a whole lot better than the other.

I think we’ve tried with our latest smart bombs and drones to make war antiseptic and almost ethical.  But that, too, has a potentially bad aftertaste.  Would a drone strike against our own White House be considered acceptable, because there’s a smaller total head-count?  I don’t think so.  There’s something awful about drones as well, whether they dispense bullets, gas, or napalm.  The thought of handing over the killing of people to an autonomous machine only sounds acceptable if we’re doing it to someone else.  The thought of Iran or Iraq or China, or North Korea, sending little drones into our government, or our churches or hometowns is almost impossible to imagine.  Imagine it.  If we are doing it, it can be done to us.  We are all capable of becoming monsters during a war.  It’s gotta stop.


P.S.  I have the horrible shrinking feeling that if this week Syria had killed 1400 of its own people in the streets with AK47s and pistols…the “old-fashioned way”, we wouldn’t even be arguing this  It’s the gas…and unfortunately, we’ve been there and done that many times over.  What do you think???  Do we go in…or do we stay out?  Are we qualified to be the world’s policemen and ethicists?  I don’t know.




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