The Monday Witness: Veterans Day and the Value of Human Life

This is the latest in a series of occasional essays that I call The Monday WitnessThis series focuses on social rather than technical issues, for the reasons explained in the first entry in the series.  As always, the opinions expressed here are mine alone.

I find it difficult to write about the war in Iraq with the same degree of detachment that I strive to bring to other subjects.  Given the dual lessons delivered by the conflicts of the 20th century – that the horrors of war defy imagination, and that it is far easier to begin a war than to end one – it seems incomprehensible that we would have launched a preemptive war against a nation on the other side of the world with no immediate ability to harm us, even if all of our inaccurate pre-war intelligence had proven to be true.

Notwithstanding the fact that Iraq was thought to be at best several years from possessing a nuclear weapon; despite the fact that its regime could not deliver weapons of any type more than a few hundred miles beyond its borders; notwithstanding America's historical and moral stand against preemptive war; and regardless of the fact that the nations of the world assembled in the UN were not convinced of the basis for war.

In part, I fear, it is because Americans do not value foreign lives as highly as their own.

That is, of course, a horrible thing to say.  But it would be even more horrible not to acknowledge the truth of this statement, if only to deal with the realization more honestly.  Perhaps if we understood that this type of preemptive war cannot be logically justified absent such an assumption, we might be slower to permit our elected leaders to commit us to such a course of action.

But is that assumption valid?  Sadly, I believe that it is impossible to reach any other conclusion, if we look to actions (and inaction) instead of words.

To begin with, consider that the very concept of preemptive war necessarily involves the certainty of inflicting the horrors of war on the citizens of another nation, in order to avoid the speculative possibility that our own people might be attacked at some indefinite point in the future.  In other words, when we launch a preemptive war we claim the right to take the lives of others in order to protect our own from being taken.  But even assuming that preemptive defense can be morally defensible on such a basis, must not imminent danger be a precondition?  We know now, and perhaps in 2003 our leaders knew as well, that there was no such imminent danger.

Be that as it may, you might protest that this was also a war of liberation – one that we owed to the people of Iraq, and for which they would be grateful.  Sadly, little that followed our initial easy victory has led to any cause for thanks.  At minimum, we might agree, if a nation claims the right to launch a war of liberation, it has an obligation not just to remove the targeted regime from power, but to ensure that the lives of those liberated are better post-invasion rather than worse.  Or, as a friend of mine observed succinctly, "You broke it, you bought it."  And yet four and a half years after the invasion, those living in Baghdad do not even have adequate electricity, clean water and sewage treatment, let alone anything remotely like security.

Our ability to assign differential values to American and Iraqi lives can be seen in how we have waged the war as well.  Over and over, we have heard of remote-controlled drones launching missiles to destroy cars and houses in Iraq and in Afghanistan that may, but often don’t, prove to contain insurgents. Instead, they all too often hold innocent non-combatants.  Why do we use drones instead of troops that could capture rather than kill, and do nothing at all if the targets prove not to be present after all?  Because it would be more dangerous to send our own helicopter-borne troops to intervene on the ground, despite the fact that the lives of innocent civilians might be spared as a result.  And yet this tactic may ultimately result in the loss of more American lives, as our infatuation with high tech weaponry yields a false sense of security that only makes it easier for our leaders to go to war.  When we win such a war but lose the resulting peace, "shock and awe" gives way to resignation and misery for all.

Similarly, it is standard operational procedure for heavily armed Blackwater drivers in armored vehicles, immune from prosecution, to drive at full speed into opposing traffic on city streets, so that their passengers can be safer than those in the cars that they scatter in their wake.  Meanwhile, the prisons in Iraq continue to house thousands that have been rounded up in raids and sweeps, and that after many months are still not charged with specific crimes beyond having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Yet as presidential primaries approach in this country, there are candidates that promise not to close Guantanamo, but to double its capacity.

And, of course, we have only a general idea of how many tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians have been killed or injured, and how many millions have been turned into refugees.  After four and half years, how many lives have been lost – how many families have been torn apart – how many existences have been shattered?  Worse – how much do we truly care? To answer that last question, you might ask yourself how often you have heard the impact of the war in Iraq on Iraqis discussed?  Even now, many Americans consider the war to have been justified, despite our failure to find weapons of mass destruction, and  despite the carnage that the people of Iraq have suffered and appear doomed to continue to suffer.  If the threat to our own lives has proven to be so low and the impact of the war on Iraqis so great, how can we continue to justify the war itself?  The math simply does not work if the value of every life is deemed to be equal.

As I write this essay on Veterans Day, I cannot avoid asking another and equally troubling question:  what value have we placed on the lives of the hundreds of thousands of service men and women that have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice in the course of this war?  What of their dreams and happiness, and those of their parents, spouses and children?

At the end of the day – and especially at the end of this Veterans Day – I believe that we must dedicate ourselves to the conviction that not only are all people created equal, but that every life, wherever it is lived, is of equal value.  If we can inspire the peoples of the world to commit themselves to the same belief, the likelihood of war will certainly decline. If so, all children, everywhere, will grow up in a world that is less vulnerable to wars launched not only by our enemies – but by us as well.


For further installments of The Monday Witness click here.

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Comments (6)

  1. I am not an American (or Iraqi or Afghan) nor someone who agrees with Bush policy

    "In part, I fear, it is because Americans do not value foreign lives as highly as their own"

    That is not specifically American way of thinking. If it boils down to you or me we all know whose life I will value most.

    As for dropping big bombs instead of fighting close quarter combat, that’s a fallacy of Western military thinking. Also not specifically American. NATO troops, take the British for example, also call in "air-delivered ordinance". In fact, those bombs the call in are likely to be American Air Force’s bomb rather than their own. In long running insurgency case, that’s not good for "hearts and minds’, but that’s another story.

    • I agree that what I’m writing about is hardly unique to Americans.  The reasons I’m focusing on America, though, are three:

      1.  I’m American, and therefore feel entitled to do so

      2.  America publicly sets a higher standard for itself, and therefore should try harder to meet it

      3.  America has a greater power to wage war than any other nation on earth, and therefore needs to be particularly aware of its responsibilities to uses that power wisely.

      –  Andy

  2. We’re on different sides of a few other topics you blog about, but on this one I couldn’t agree more.  The American public’s callous view of the slaughter of Iraqis is shameful, and we’ve created a problem there that we’re not capable of solving.  I only hope we’ve learned a lesson, because this won’t be the last time our leaders try to scare us into attacking a much smaller country far away.

  3. I am reading this blog from germany ( where things are not so good too) and want to thank you for your broad understanding of standards, which i suppose is the basis for understanding technical standards the right way.

    • Thanks for your kind words, and I’m glad that you find this blog helpful.

        –  Andy

  4. Hi Andy

    I have to agree with you again. With Afganistan they had justification, but Iraq, I think it was finishing dads unfinished business.
    You know I wondered after the last election,Did Osama Binladen send that video to get the American people to vote against Bush, or did he think that that would make them stick with him? Did miscalculate the reaction of the American people, or did he wish him to stay as president, to use him as recruiting tool? It has just had me wondering…..
    Another problem has been the coruption, The roads they built were usually not up to scratch and quickly broke up. From what I understand, the Teliban may have been radical,but they did not tolerate coruption.
    Another problem I think they have is that they do not listen to the local people, rub them the wrong way and get them offside. I gather that happened in Somalia. Binladen changes his strategy when he realizes that he is losing the support of the people, too many inocent civilian casualties. The US military seem to be too slow to respond, and think they can force their way with the gun. Well it didn’t work in Somalia!

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