My (conservative) book club read Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. One of the points Hanson makes in the book is that Pericles embarked upon a new type of warfare:
Periclean strategy . . . defined the new war as battle not between hoplites or even sailors but rather soldiers against the property of everyday folks. . . . Sherman, Lord Kitchener, and Curtis LeMay . . . all argued that battle is ultimately powered by civilians and thus only extinguished when they cannot or will not pledge their labor and capital to those on the battlefield.
Hanson goes on to comment that many Athenians thought this new civilian focused warfare was immoral. Our group discussed whether including civilians as part of the battlefield was, or was not, immoral.
Our conclusion was that it is absolutely true that civilians finance war through their labor, direct (munitions factories) or indirect (economic infrastructure). If you are fighting a war to win — and you’d better be sure you believe in your cause — one of the most effective ways to win assuming equality on the battlefield is to destroy the labor/economic infrastructure. If this means pulling a Sherman by destroying the depot that not only supplies arms to the troops but also food to the civilians, you’re going to do it. The same thing goes for bombing a munitions factory, even if you know civilian employees work there.
What we all had a problem with is targeting civilians simply to slaughter them, which is a Nazi and a Muslim tactic. This tactic is not meant to destroy the war’s infrastructure and end the war but is, simply, meant to kill the enemy because you hate them, want to terrorize them, and don’t think they are worthy of life. Unsurprisingly, when an army resorts to these tactics, the slaughter is usually distinguished by the utmost cruelty. At the end of the day, a dead child is a dead child, but I still think there’s something morally different between a child killed when a bomb explodes at the IED factory next door versus a child killed when the soldiers personally toss it in the air and use it for target practice.
What do you think?
Please keep in mind as you grapple with the question that right now, today, this is not a hypothetical question. Our troops in Afghanistan have already died in unnecessary numbers because of Rules of Engagement that value the civilian population over the lives of our own troops.
If you want to see how this can result in a massive f*ck-up for Americans, just read Marcus Luttrell’s tragic Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10. There, the fear of running afoul of political rules that elevate Afghani lives over American lives (and that have the power to destroy a SEAL’s career) led the SEALS to release an “innocent” shepherd, who promptly reported the SEALS’ position to the Taliban. As a result, more SEALS died on that day than on any other day in SEAL history.
Right now, General Petraeus is trying to change these ludicrous rules that emanated from the halls of academia, rather than the real world of battle. Even as he goes forward with that effort, though, the administration is pushing an award (posthumous, obviously) for “Courageous Restraint.”
It seems to me that either we raised our boys right, or we didn’t. Either they have a moral compass or they don’t. And either we have a decent military infrastructure that, after the fact, can distinguish between legitimate battle necessity and brutal sadism — and, after the fact, can punish the behavior accordingly, thereby setting the correct example for other, future troops.
Certainly it makes sense to have baseline rules to protect prisoners of war, such as the Geneva convention. However, to send our troops out with the instruction “Thou shalt not kill unless you’re absolutely sure you’re killing some who is from a properly identified military unit and who manifestly intents to shoot you . . . right . . . about . . . NOW” is insane and, in itself, immoral.
UPDATE: I just want to throw into the mix the peculiar war between Israel and the Palestinians. It is asymmetrical, because Israel has the big guns. Israel, however, allows her morality to restrain her from using those big guns. She is blamed continuously for anything she does, despite her herculean efforts to strike at only true military targets.
The Palestinians do not have big guns. Both tactically and for obvious pleasure, they deliberately target civilians. They aim their rockets and their suicide bombers at schools, hospitals and buses. When they get their hands on individuals, they subject them to horrific torture before murdering them (and this includes people they class as “traitors” in their own midst.) They are applauded continuously for their committed heroism.
This is asymmetrical warfare with a sick international audience that prefers the snuff film to the movie that has a moral to the story.
UPDATE II: And apropos Israel, an essay suggesting that she get tougher, or more serious, in her pursuit of this existential war — since it is her existence that is at stake.
UPDATE III: Caroline Glick on another facet of civilians in war, and on the will to win. (H/t: Sadie)