Maybe now that we actually see people dancing in the streets and welcoming American and British troops with smiles and flowers and pulling down statues of their now ex-dictator, we might hope for an apology from those many commentators in the media and elsewhere who, during the past couple of weeks, have been heaping scorn on those who predicted that such would be the case. A recent “Conventional Wisdom” feature in Newsweek, for example, gave Vice President Cheney one of its dreaded downward-pointing arrows with the comment: “Tells Meet the Press just before war, ‘We will be greeted as liberators.’ An arrogant blunder for the ages.”
As the Vice President is far too gracious and gentlemanly to allow himself to be seen shouting, “In your face, Newsweek!” perhaps someone at the magazine will be gracious enough to acknowledge that the “blunder” — not to mention the arrogance — was their own after all. What do you suppose are the chances?
For a couple of weeks now I have been mulling over the complaint by Uwe Reinhardt in the New York Times about glib talk of protecting “innocent life” in war. “What does ‘innocent’ mean in the context of war?” he asks. Are not the enemy soldiers who are just doing their job, just like our own, as innocent as any civilian? That, as it turns out, seems to have been more or less the way in which the American commanders looked at the matter. There can be little doubt that allied forces have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid hitting civilian targets, but as Max Boot pointed out, also in the Times, we have “gone beyond the chivalrous warfare of the 18th and 19th centuries. Nowadays the military tries to spare not only civilians, but enemy combatants as well.”
Though there were good reasons for this if we expected the enemy combatants to lay down their arms without fighting — as many of them seem in fact to have done — some caveats have to be entered. First of all, “just doing their job” like “just obeying orders” is no excuse for wicked behavior, and our men are quite likely to regard those who are shooting at them — if there be any such — on behalf of a cruel dictator as being guilty of wicked behavior. Does not the very idea of “war crimes” acknowledge that soldiers are moral agents and not automata?
Moreover, if they are presumed to be free to choose not to obey an immoral order, are they not equally to be held accountable for putting on the uniform in the service of an immoral master? That’s a more difficult question. But we ought at least to consider the concept of what Henry V in Shakespeare’s play called being “guilty in defense.” You may remember what he said to the burghers of Harfleur when he called upon them to surrender:
For as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the batt’ry once again
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flow’ring infants.
What is it then to me if impious war
Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends
Do with his smirched complexion all fell feats
Enlinked to waste and desolation?
What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon th’enraged soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore. Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command,
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil, and villainy. . .
What say you? will you yield, and this avoid?
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed? [HV, III.3.88-126]
When Michael Pennington presented the play on the British stage back in the eighties, he let out a huge sigh of relief when Harfleur subsequently capitulated, as if to indicate that these blood-curdling threats had all been a gigantic bluff — a view of the matter born out by his subsequent instructions to his occupying troops as they were about to enter the town to “use mercy to them all” as well as by his subsequent precept given to Fluellen (III.6) “that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language. For when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.”
All very admirable, no doubt, and a good motto for our troops in Iraq. Yet there is also an important point made by the idea of the weak being “guilty in defense” against the strong when they have no chance of winning. Although as it turned out the Iraqis could depend on American and British tender-heartedness, it would be a poor rule of warfare that did not recognize the greater probability of one’s enemy’s offering no quarter. After all, it was a British Admiral, John “Jacky” Fisher, who said that “the essence of war is violence; moderation in war is imbecility.” In doing so he was expressing also the philosophy of the American General William T. Sherman.
Thus it would be, to say the least, unwise to take up arms in a hopeless cause in the expectation that one’s enemy will prove imbecilic. Would it also be criminal? Fortunately, it now looks as if we shan’t have to answer that question. The Iraqi people now dancing in the streets really do appear to be innocents. Let’s hope they are content to remain so.