The Sick Logic of War
October 27, 2001
When the United States started the war against Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told us two things: It would be a war unlike any other, fought by non-traditional means, and it was not a war against the Afghan people.
But the Donald was wrong on both counts.
The United States is waging this war as it did the ones against Iraq and Yugoslavia, with massive bombings that begin with great accuracy and then gradually start missing their mark.
Because in the first few days, the most obvious targets are hit, the enemy doesn't give up, and the Pentagon is left with all this firepower and nowhere to put it.
So it looks for less obvious targets, and these are often civilian: in Iraq, a bomb shelter with hundreds of people; in Yugoslavia, the Chinese embassy; in Afghanistan, a nursing home, a hospital, villages, and the Red Cross (which the U.S. has now managed to hit twice).
Nor does it help that in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has given pilots the freedom to fire at will, instead of going after predetermined targets. With such leeway, the civilian casualties are bound to mount.
They are also bound to mount when the United States litters the landscape with cluster bombs, as it did in Iraq, Yugoslavia, and now Afghanistan. These weapons scatter about 200 bomblets each, little armor-penetrating canisters that lie on the ground until a tank rolls over them-or a kid picks one up.
It may not be long before the number of cluster bombs on the ground exceed the number of care packages.
This is not a war against the Afghan people?
The sick logic of war compels the aggressor to keep upping the carnage. If the enemy does not collapse at the beginning (as the United States foolishly expected the Taliban to do), then hit them harder. This logic played out in Vietnam also, but never triumphed, unless you call the deaths of more than two million people a triumph.
And now we're seeing the same logic at play in Afghanistan, and we're even hearing it articulated in our leading newspapers.
Take the Wall Street Journal.
On October 26, Senator John McCain took to the Journal's editorial page to write a chilling piece called, "There Is No Substitute for Victory."
Here's what he says: "Get on with the business of killing our enemies as quickly as we can, and as ruthlessly as we must." He advocates the use of "all force necessary to achieve unconditional victory." And he casts aside the unpleasant likelihood of high civilian casualties.
"We cannot fight it without risking unintended damage to humanitarian and political interests," he says.
A bit later, he goes on as if reading from the Vietnam script: "We cannot allow the Taliban safe refuge among the civilian population. We must destroy them, wherever they hide. That will surely increase the terrible danger facing noncombatants, a regrettable but necessary fact of war."
At the end, he washes his hands of these "regrettable" civilian deaths. "We did not cause this war. Our enemies did, and they are to blame for the deprivations and difficulties it occasions. They are to blame for the loss of innocent lives."
This moral shirking mirrors the U.S. rationale for keeping sanctions on Iraq. All those hundreds of thousands of kids who've died as a result, they are all Saddam Hussein's responsibility, our government tells us.
Two days before McCain's piece came out, I spoke with Robert Fisk, the great foreign correspondent of the London Independent, who was in Islamabad. He predicted the kind of debased rhetoric that McCain employed.
"In about three or four weeks time," Fisk said, "this could turn into a tragedy of biblical proportions, as the starving and dying of famine arrive at the borders. At which point, there's going to be a most unseemly and revolting argument in which we're going to say, 'It's the Taliban's fault. If they weren't there, we wouldn't be bombing.' And a lot of Muslims are going to say, 'These people are dying because they are fleeing from your bombs.' That's what's going to enrage Arabs. The Arabs have seen the pictures of emaciated Iraqi kids dying. Are they now going to see pictures of emaciated Afghans dying?"
The Bush Administration has sped by several exits off the bloody highway of war. In the days before the United States began bombing, the Taliban offered to arrest bin Laden if the U.S. produced the evidence. Bush said no.
Then the Taliban offered to put bin Laden on trial under Islamic law. Bush said no.
Then after the first week or so of bombing, the Taliban foreign minister asked for a two-day ceasefire so his government could find bin Laden and hand him over to a third country. Bush said no.
The Pope, the Dalai Lama, the U.N. humanitarian agency, and Doctors Without Borders urged Bush not to pursue this war. Bush said no.
Robert McNamara has written that one of the serious flaws of the U.S. war planners in Vietnam was rejecting opportunities to stop the war along the way. But Bush and Rumsfeld have not learned that lesson.
And so they continue to go headlong and headstrong toward McCain's goal of "unconditional victory."
If they arrive there, they will be accompanied by thousands of civilian corpses and by world chaos.