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A weak-livered reticence in bulldozing war dead.

Throughout history, wars have meant the fighting of a series of battles aimed at blocking a hostile power and imposing one's will upon the enemy. It presupposed the mutual engagement of two sides in conflict. Casualties on both sides were inevitable. How else could one bring force to bear upon the enemy?

While warfare in a traditional sense continues in various parts of the world, as for example among the seceding republics of Yugoslavia, technology has taken over warfare when entered into by the United States as a superpower. There is little to represent "fighting." Once the superpower has assembled overwhelming force, the high-tech weapons are loosed with the intention of annihilating opponents before they can respond.

That is what happened in the Gulf War, although there has been a weak-livered reticence about the heaps of dead Iraqis that had to be bulldozed after the war.

The difference between the two kinds of war is shown in the attitude to casualties. The acceptance of casualties on one's own side reached its high level of tolerance with the Battle of the Somme in World War I. In one day, 19,000 British soldiers were killed and 57,000 were wounded. Compare that with the Gulf War, in which the forces against Iraq suffered only a handful of casualties, some of those the result of "friendly fire."

I am not suggesting we cheerfully accept casualties among those fighting for us. Besides, those conducting a war have generally made every endeavor to lessen casualties. As a character in George Bernard Shaw's "Arma and the Man" puts it rather cynically: "Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward's art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong and keeping out of harm's way when you are weak. That is the whole secret of successful fighting. Get your enemy at a disadvantage; and never, on any account, fight him on equal terms."

Indeed, the indifference of the generals in World War I to the excessive casualties on their own side reached pathological proportions and requires a sociopsychological explanation.

I am not, then, questioning either the desire or necessity to reduce one's casualties to a minimum. The question is whether that can morally be done by the use of weapons that wipe the opponents off the face of the earth. In other words, is annihilation ever a legitimate aim, even when directed against armies?

Just-war theory clearly excludes weapons of mass destruction because in the use of those weapons it becomes impossible to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. But it seems to be supposed that one can loose an annihilatory force against an opposing army.

But can one ever justify the release of a literally annihilatory force against one's opponents, even if they are in the traditional sense combatants? I would argue that one cannot and that, therefore, the Gulf War was immoral and a dangerous model for the future use of military power.

There are two reasons why one cannot in justice annihilate the armies of one's enemy. First, utterly helpless before the superpower's high-tech weapons, the soldiers are not combatants; they are sitting targets. There is no mutuality. They are in the same situation as when an unarmed soldier confronts an armed opponent. The armed soldier should not simply shoot the unarmed enemy but should take him prisoner.

Second, simply to eliminate the enemy by such overwhelmingly superior firepower that there is no fighting, no struggle, no casualties on one's own side, is in effect to deny the humanity of one's opponents. No one with a sense of our common humanity could envision such a war as just.

The moral monstrosity of using hightech weapons to wipe out an opponent with inferior equipment is confirmed by the thinly veiled racism evident in the reporting of the Gulf War. An American casualty was spoken of as if he or she were a human being different from an Iraqi. The slaughter of the Iraqis was stated in impersonal, clinical language. One was intended to forget the human reality that lay behind the talk of "surgical strikes."

I find, then, the exercise of overwhelmingly superior force morally questionable, even when it is justified as eliminating casualties on one's own side. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, remember, was defended as a means of avoiding heavy allied casualties.

As a general principle, one might state that the very use of physical force is tyrannical unless it is democratic. By "democratic" I mean supported by the consensus and willing participation of a community. War is a conflict of communities.

But even if a community has fallen under tyranny, we must not deny in word or action our community humanity. To seek to transcend conflict by a preemptive annihilation of one's opponents is such a denial. To possess power without compare also poses a grave temptation to the idolatry of power. We need to remind ourselves that the mystique of power is the very core of fascism.

For those reasons, I regard the new peacemaking mission of the United States with suspicion. It seems benign enough in Somalia -- indeed, a duty to the starving Somalis. The same mission takes on a sinister aspect in relation to Iraq. The question is, what in the long term will be the outcome of an intervention policy based on the principle, "I have all the power; you have none"?

To remove mutuality from conflict is to produce inhuman tyranny.
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Title Annotation:Operation Restore Hope
Author:Davis, Charles
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 5, 1993
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