The price of winning

Posted: Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Last month, soldiers from the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry, returned to Fairbanks after a yearlong deployment to Iraq. My oldest son, Michael, was among them. He completed his third tour there. Sadly, the lives of eight other Stryker soldiers were lost forever.

Should I count my blessings that Michael was spared a tragic fate, the fate of more than 4,300 other American soldiers? Who decides who lives and dies when nations go to war? The questions taunt me not as a peace activist, but as a parent of a soldier struggling with the meaning of betrayal.

It's true that the violence in Iraq has been greatly reduced in the three years since his last tour in Baghdad ended. So the dangers he faced weren't as great this time. Life though doesn't distinguish "this time" in isolation as though it can erase history. I am still plagued by how our military strategy sometimes disregards the lives of innocent people in order to increase the survival rate our troops on the ground.

How many children died in air and artillery strikes that directly benefitted Michael's platoon by killing the targeted enemy? How many innocent lives is Michael's life worth to me? Thinking like this tortures my moral compass. The two competing pangs of guilt thrust my conscience into irreconcilable confusion.

How I wish I could block it out, or otherwise justify the act as right because we are Americans and we are supposed to be better. I know we have an arsenal of the most precise military weapons the world has ever known. I should place trust in our president and the military officers under his command. We aren't a nation of terrorists and we don't aim at civilians deliberately.

War is terror, though, to the people caught in the crossfire. Military intelligence isn't perfect either. Mistakes happen and they've occurred far too often, especially if we consider their horrifying consequences to the Iraqi families living in the aftermath. And we have weapons like cluster bombs that indiscriminately kill people long after missions are complete. These alone suggest that America can be morally blind.

By believing our first priority is to do everything possible to protect every American soldier, we're too eager to dehumanize the enemy nation and its entire people. It's the pursuit of total victory that binds us to this immoral world view. We sanitize killing innocent civilians to a business-like abstraction called collateral damage.

Saving American lives was the historical justification for dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan. Those events left the fire-bombing of Tokyo as a footnote to history that we readily forget. We don't ever want to acknowledge that there weren't military targets involved, or that we learned the perverse effectiveness of fire-bombing by killing 100,000 innocent people or more in Dresden and Hamburg.

That these acts expedited ending World War II explains why President Richard Nixon believed massive bombing of Hanoi would deliver an American victory in the Vietnam War. Civilian lives didn't matter him. In a recorded conversation that was declassified in 2002, Nixon told Henry Kissinger "the only place you and I disagree ... is with regard to the bombing. You're so goddamned concerned about the civilians and I don't give a damn."

By conservative estimates, 50,000 to 100,000 civilians died during that 1972 bombing campaign. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara estimated the entire war claimed 3.4 million Vietnamese lives and that the vast majority were civilians.

McNamara had been a key figure in planning and analyzing the fire-bombing of Tokyo. In the documentary film "The Fog of War," McNamara reminds us that "We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo." He then asks in apologetic hindsight "What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"

McNamara died this past July. But he and his question should haunt us all, not just the families of soldiers serving in today's wars. How do we claim to be a moral and civilized society and justify or otherwise ignore the innocent people our military has killed and will kill if we continue to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan?

• Rich Moniak lives in Juneau.

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