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What is it in our culture that allows us to kill innocent civilians?

What is it in our culture that allows us to kill innocent civilians?

Published: March 29, 2010

From a talk at the August 9, 2009 Hiroshima-Nagasaki Commemoration

by Ira Harritt, KC Program Coordinator, AFSC

A few weeks ago Henry asked me to offer some comments about AFSC’s position on nuclear weapons. I felt called though to reflect on what it is in U.S. culture that allows us to conceive of using nuclear weapons or conducting military actions, knowing that it will result in civilian causalities or in military terms collateral damage. This term, collateral damage, itself provides a factor– the dehumanizing and abstracting of the death and destruction of children and innocent families, people like you and I.

What I can offer on this topic in the short time we have here at best are some thought provoking but incomplete comments on a very deep topic.

In discussing this issue one could start with Just War Theory’s criteria including: Just cause; Comparative justice; Legitimate authority; Right intention; Probability of success; Last resort; and Proportionality – but the reality is that these criteria are not accepted by all, many would feel they would automatically rule out modern warfare; and usually are manipulated by the powers that be to justify whatever war, missile attack or assassination they chose to pursue

Instead I will start with the question of how people are brought to accept or support killing.

The words of Herman Goering, Nazi leader, President of the Reichstag, creator of the Gestapo and designated successor to Hitler, can give us some perspective on how this can be done. In an interview at the time of the Nuremberg trials Goering commented

“Why of course the people don't want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don't want war neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

These comments suggest two forces which are used to convince people, against their best interest, to support war or violence against another country or group. These are: the manipulation of fear of the other and stimulation of patriotism – we the brave, the pure, the proud, the free (add your adjective) united against them.

We also see our leaders adding to these two forces the dehumanizing and demonizing of the other. We are -the brave, the pure, the proud, the lovers of freedom and they, they- hate freedom and democracy, and are the opposite of all that we value.

Two incidents which occurred during the period leading up to the Iraq war come to mind in this regard. At a pot luck one of my more conservative neighbors, who was also an army reservist, commented that the people of Iraq and Afghanistan “just don’t value life the way we do.”

The ironic thing is that I agree with her, but for very different reasons. I remember a remark of former Secretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeline Albright in an interview on CBS's 60 Minutes. In response to a question about the half a million children that had died as a result of sanctions. -more children than died in the Hiroshima bombing. Albright replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it."

I hope that “They” the people of Iraq and Afghanistan do not value human life the way we seem to value it.

In another pre-Iraq war incident while vigiling and leafleting outside the Federal courthouse a man walked by. Refused to take a flyer and shouted over his shoulder “We should Nuke’m all.” I cannot help wondering -what was he thinking? Nuke all 26 million Iraqis, all the women and children included, because they might some day also have nuclear weapons? What allows people to be so cavalier about human life? Have so much faith in our rightness and righteousness?

Gil Bailie, Rene Girard and others have written about sanctified violence in which violence against the other has the blessing of the religion, state or philosophy. This idea is illustrated in Mark Twain’s War Prayer which exposes the absurdity of a loving God sanctifying violence against a part of his creation. In a part of Twain’s essay the protagonist prays:

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe.

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells;

help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire;

help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief;

help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst,


We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the everfaithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.


Let’s now look at recent news regarding civilian deaths in military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was revealed that during the Bush administration Secretary Rumsfeld personally approved over 50 US airstrikes in Iraq which were expected to kill up to 50 innocent Iraqi civilians each. According to Pentagon policy at the time, any strikes expected to result in 50 or more civilian deaths as unavoidable collateral damage were to be approved personally by the Secretary.

Boy, I bet you are as glad as I am that we have a new administration which is more humane and wouldn’t approve missions in which that many innocent civilians would be killed. Well, I wish this was the case but actually the Obama administration has refuses to report whether the previous policy has been discontinued, which would mean the White House is delegating the projected body counts to lower field commanders, or the Secretary of Defense is still signing off on missions lethal to civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. We do know that Afghan officials said a May 4 U.S. bombing killed 147 civilians, including 90 women and children. And we know that Afghan civilian causalities rose 40% in 2008 over 2007.

Former Army General Omar Bradley, evaluated the human condition in this way:

“The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.”

Dr. Martin Luther King observed:

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

He called for a true revolution of values and a questioning of the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.

And tragically our government continues to maintain the old values justifying and utilizing violence. But we are among those who are evolving a new vision and value system and we are growing in numbers.

We need to educate ourselves and friends, family and others and challenge the manipulation of our fears; resist the appeal to base patriotism; and reject the dehumanizing and demonizing of those who might be harmed by military actions.

Do not lose faith. More and more are not buying the rhetoric and propaganda. However the war machine grinds on and on and if those of us with the perspective and wisdom to see through the deception do not speak up and act we will continue to see more war and violence; more civilian deaths; more environmental destruction done in our names.

Thank you for all of your work for peace and justice.