Why we give little thought when innocents die because of U.S. policies

REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
An Iraqi girl who, according to Iraqi authorities, was wounded in an air strike, lies in a hospital bed in Baghdad, March 20, 2003.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died (and are still dying) as a result of the “war of choice” launched by the United States during the George W. Bush administration for reasons that turned out to be wrong (and that’s assuming, for the moment, that the “belief” that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction” was the real reason).

Some of the dead — starting with Saddam himself, of course — were legitimate villains, thugs and/or murderers themselves. Far more were just soldiers and still more were civilians, most of whom we can suppose were in the category of innocent victims whose only crime was being born in the wrong country at the wrong time when the world’s greatest superpower decided to liberate them.

We all kinda know this, but perhaps don’t think about it enough, even when we are thinking about the “mistake” that the U.S. bombing and invasion of Iraq turned out to be. Nor do we think enough about the inevitable additional innocent deaths that the United States will have on its hands if/when we yield to the next or the next or the next idea for a war that we need to start or get into or escalate our involvement in.

I do believe — although this is way above my pay grade — that this represents some kind of collective moral failing for those of us who were so much wiser and more discerning in choosing the location and circumstances our own births.

I am not a strict pacifist, but I am often struck — when we are contemplating our next attack/invasion/incursion/surgical strike — by how relatively little thought and discussion goes to the inevitable death of innocents that will end up on our collective moral ledger (not to mention the inevitable enduring hatred of America that will be engendered among the survivors).

On the other hand (getting a little closer to the intended point of this little essay), Americans and others around the world often pay enormous attention to much smaller incidents that involve deaths (or near-deaths or possible deaths) of innocents around the world. It could be miners trapped in a cave. It could be passengers on a plane that crashed or has gone missing. It could be a murder victim. It could be the four Americans who died in Benghazi (although generally not the Libyans who died in the same attack). It could be those in the path of a storm or a tidal wave. It could be the young girls taken by Boko Haram.

In general, it is not a group of innocents whose lives are lost or directly endangered by a policy of our nation.

I actually think about this fairly often. It’s somehow wrapped up in the deranged religion of “American exceptionalism.” But I was set off to write about it by reading this piece by Harvard international relations scholar Stephen Walt in Foreign Affairs, headlined (provocatively) “Whose Lives Matter?”

The subheadline on Walt’s piece struck me as wrong. It goes: “When refugees die on Europe’s borders, the West wants to act, but when Assad rains barrel bombs on Homs, no one cares.” A lot of people in the West and in the United States seem to care a lot about what Syrian dictator/President Hafez Assad is doing in Homs and elsewhere. It strikes me that the United States is fairly obsessed with what to do in Syria, and those who favor greater military action there undoubtedly cite the innocent victims of barrel bombs as part of the justification.

Walt is from the school of international-relations theory known as “realism,” which is generally unsentimental about the U.S. posture of moral crusader in the world and generally reluctant to see the United States get militarily involved in situations. I have a lot of sympathy for the general approach. But in “Whose Lives Matter?” Walt is mostly interested in trying to understand why the world in general and the United States in particular is more moved to get involved in certain kinds of death-and-danger situations than others. He’s even developed what he considers the nine factors that affect the likelihood of the United States or the world rushing to the rescue of those in danger.

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/05/2015 - 11:02 am.

    You must really be agonizing

    over the cavalier way in which Truman incinerated 150,000 Japanese civilians and FDR fire bombed 500,000 German citizens in Dresden and other cities just so the United States could claim its moral superiority. Or something.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/05/2015 - 11:56 am.

    We We again

    I can’t remember who it was but back in the 80’s a progressive media critic pointed out the media habit of making “we we”, i.e. “we” think this, or “we” think that, or “we” always something or another etc.

    Of course the illusion of “we” serves multiple functions not the least of which is to assuage conscience by pretending that NO ONE had any conscience at the time. The real truth however always lies in the refrain: “What’daya mean ‘we’?”

    I remind everyone that millions of people around the world were thinking about innocent civilians BEFORE the Iraq war, and indeed almost every war. Many of us recognized that this was (and was going to be) an illegal war of aggression, based on fabricated threats, and did all we could do to warn “YOU”. Those of us who recognized the atrocities have always called for the prosecution of those White House officials who committed this war crime precisely because “we” have not given “little” thought to innocent civilian casualties.

    The problem is that every time some American President pulls a bogus excuse for a war our of his backside YOU people snap to attention, grab a flag, and march off to combat ( or least watch someone else do it on TV). Those of us who warn you time after time after time are always dismissed as naive peaceniks who just don’t understand the “real” world and don’t want to support the troops.

    So I don’t know what: “we” YOU’RE talking about but the “we” I know told YOU that this war was about oil. We listened to Han Blix and Mohamed Elbaradei as they systematically dismantled Colin Powel’s charade at the UN. WE listened to the UN inspectors that told us there was no evidence of Iragi nuclear or chemical weapons programs. We noticed that Bush gave up on UN resolutions in favor of a “Coalition of the Willing”. And WE remembered all of the lies and incompetence of Sept, 11 2001 so when the same characters “promised” us a slam-dunk we knew better than to take their word for it. WE also had the moral sense to know that no one lives forever and you don’t kill a million people in order to get rid of one bad man.

    So forgive me if “we”, who remember Viet Nam, My Lai, Iran Contra, Illegal mines in Nicaraguan harbors, Four Nuns killed by a CIA backed death squad, 50,000 dead in Central America, Pinochet’s regime, 3,000 dead Panamanian’s, Grenada, the first Gulf War, and the killing fields of Cambodia, and OPPOSED ALL OF IT, take some issue with the idea that “we” don’t give innocent civilians much thought.

    Speak for yourself, fine, but do not pretend to speak for us. And maybe, just maybe next time, try listening to us instead of denouncing our lack of patriotism.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/05/2015 - 01:17 pm.

    Collateral damage

    Thought-provoking, as is the lengthier article in “Foreign Policy.” The phrase “collateral damage” is simultaneously quite accurate in most instances, while also being among the most tone-deaf combinations of words in common use nowadays. Ethically, it’s no defense at all for civilian casualties, or letting refugees drown, or other similar events. What I liked best about the piece in “Foreign Policy” was the last line: “… the obvious lesson is to do more to head off civil conflicts before they start.” It’s not that difficult to rationalize all sorts of brutality, as virtually every nation could attest if they looked at their own history. We are certainly no better than most in that regard.

  4. Submitted by Bill Willy on 11/05/2015 - 02:17 pm.

    “Some kind of collective moral failing”

    Amen to that.

    The tricky part is, what kind of moral failing? Or, what does that moral failing consist of? This entire web site (let alone this comment thread) probably isn’t big (or patient or willing) enough to begin to say.

    But when it comes to the most graphic and still remembered example Eric pointed out (as just one example), “9/11” and its fallout may at least be some kind of toe-hold:

    At about the same time as the highly effective and efficient post 9/11 actions in Afghanistan (that were mostly CIA-run — see: “Henry Crumpton on Afghanistan” here – http://www.cbsnews.com/news/hank-crumpton-life-as-a-spy/), were halted just short of the “end-game” objective by the Bush administration’s inexplicable dumb and dumberer left turn to Baghdad, I was asking myself the question, “What does a country need to do in order to have the wrath of the U.S. Military unleashed on it?” and came to the general conclusion, “Do something that kills 3,000 U.S. citizens in one day.”

    And, for some reason, that got me to thinking about cigarettes, and how (according to the statistics at the time) they kill about 1,100 Americans every DAY, which equates to more than TWO 9/11s per week.

    “So,” I asked myself, “if protecting the security and lives of the American people is Presidential Priority Number One, and the Shock and Awe threshold is 3,000 Americans killed in one day, wouldn’t the cigarette manufacturing plants of America (that are mostly clustered in the South) be a prime candidate for a few bombing runs out of Florida? Wouldn’t it save a lot more America lives, and be a lot less expensive and more efficient, to make sure everyone’s out of the buildings and, on some specific morning, fire off some cruise missiles, or drop a couple hundred smart bombs, on Phillip Morris’s, et all’s, factories and headquarters? The much bigger taker of American lives could by wiped out by about noon, I’m sure, and probably wouldn’t cost much more than 50 or 100 million dollars. How come we don’t do that?”

    Doing the quick rough arithmetic (1,100 lives X 365 days per year X 14 years) on the cigarette-caused American deaths since 9/11, says right around 5,600,000 Americans have been killed by cigarette manufacturers (and smokers themselves, of course) since we went to war to stamp out the Evil Doers “over there,” in the name of preempting their imminent (mushroom cloud covered) invasion of America and the killing of its citizens.

    But instead of doing something as “completely insane” as bombing a few buildings in our own country, our fearless leaders send our military half way around the world to wind up killing at least a half-million people (just in Iraq), blow up half the entire place, create millions of fresh enemies, and spend more money than anyone can count because protecting American lives is what it’s all about.

    Like I say, this entire web site probably isn’t big enough to begin to scratch the surface of examining and explaining what Eric took a whack at describing as “some kind of collective moral failing,” but anyone that can explain the “logic,” or motivation, behind that example of the (hypocritical?) “disconnect” involved in America’s recent war-related activities, may be able to provide a clue or two as to what that “moral failing” consists of or is based on.

    And, speaking of “miners trapped in a cave,” for all the YouTube videos and other graphic delights on the internet, the best thing I’ve ever seen was the live (newscaster-free, narrator-free, background sounds included, but otherwise, video-only) webcast I stumbled on that covered the rescue of the Chilean miners, end-to-end… I happened to locate the simple “live feed” just before they started their attempt to pull off the impossible feat (at 9:00 pm) and couldn’t take my eyes off it (until I couldn’t stay awake any longer).

    The wildest moment was when the rescuer went down in the capsule the first time and, courtesy of an in-mine camera that had been lowered down to the miners beforehand, all of a sudden I was seeing the bottom of the capsule poke through into the place they were trapped. Talk about a “MOMENT!!!!!” and a “Happy Ending!” The miners exploded into yells and jumping underwear dances brought on by “snatched from the jaws of death” ecstasy, while I sat here thinking, “Wow… Look at that! Here I am, a couple thousand miles away, watching something incredible that’s happening 2,000 feet below surface of the Earth, at the exact same moment it’s happening. How is that possible!?”

    Haven’t run across anything on the internet that has come close to that since. And when it comes to the seeming impossibility of dealing with that “collective moral failing” (before it’s too late), something along the lines of that rescue is, if you ask me, pretty close to what the world could really use.

  5. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 11/05/2015 - 11:43 pm.

    One thing I miss about the Carter Administration aside from an inspired energy policy, is the emphasis on human rights. Until we evolve into a new species, Homo sapiens americanexceptionalanus perhaps, we’re the same as any humans on the planet.

    American exceptionalism is little more than bigotry and xenophobia among the progeny of earlier immigrants than those who don’t discriminate much yet aside from seeking out and keeping company with others of similar origins. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to try to export American or any other sort of democracy anywhere as it only works when those who would have it, institute it on their own; we might not even recognize it when looking at any other version other than a Western one.

    Folks in most of the places where we intervene don’t look too kindly on us with a few exceptions, but it sure seems like these things go better acting with a wide coalition of or at least a mandate from people on Earth rather than unilateral actions.

    Rather than explain our misbehavior nine different ways or justify it through our prejudices, we should find some place to hash things out, perhaps in New York City at the United Nations.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/05/2015 - 09:11 pm.

    Try to remember that we are the 10,000 generation of predator rather than prey. The prey did not continue, the predator survived.

    Ask the question, how can you eat 3 meals today when there are literally millions dying of hunger?

    We have the lordly indifference of the lion on the savanna, with not one thought of the dying agony of the gazelle.

    And just by the mere fact of being the laziest couch potato of the western world, we are still among the top predators in the world today.

    If sharing and starving with the great masses who did not grab and push were our lot, we would be long gone. No, we pushed our way to the front, grabbed the largest piece, abandoned those who could not help us, and so we survived.

    And we have so advanced as predator that we have servant predators that act for us in our interests. They assume the risks and we can assume an even greater air of remove.

    Perhaps it is the advent of leisure from the now-contracted hunt that has allowed us to turn a small portion of attention to the short lives and ugly demise of the prey. Perhaps not so much that we do not eat heartily, though.

    But hey, nature will have it’s laugh on the peak predator.

    Climate change, the spoor of the peak predator. We ignore it now, because it first affects those pinned by poverty, geography, borders.. But it will overthrow us as surely as it did T.Rex, unleashing the new mouse-creature that will creep through the new world. You can bet that mouse-creature will prosper by not giving a damn about the mouse-like-creatures.

    How’s that for pessimism ?

  7. Submitted by colin kline on 11/06/2015 - 12:15 am.

    We have decided some lives are worth more than others.

  8. Submitted by John Appelen on 11/06/2015 - 06:45 am.

    So Silly

    People die whether the USA gets engaged or not. Of course when a million people die because the USA failed to act, none of the near pacifists seem to mind. Thankfully the USA usually only gets involved when some “evil” exists that is harming or killing people, AND there is a national interest in the region.

    From what I remember, the Syria civil war started long after Iraq and before ISIS came on the scene. The USA pretty much stayed out of the fight and hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions have been displaced. Now do we bear the guilt of not helping out more earlier?

    With great wealth and power comes great responsibility!!!

    Just curious…
    Should the USA let Putin take back Ukraine and maybe all the BLOC countries?
    Should we let China take over the South China Sea uncontested?
    Should we have let Germany have Europe in the 1940s?

  9. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 11/06/2015 - 08:43 am.

    one thought…

    Seagull on a pole

    Was it a momentary madness or some ancient legend fulfilled that told the fisherman whose place was next to mine, to kill the seagull and hang it on a pole?

    “Why?” I asked, my eyes offended by the dead gull dangling so grotesquely …

    “I killed the gull to scare away the owls that try to eat the ducklings nesting near the shore.”

    “Ah, yes I see” I said and yet I did not; at least totally, this act of crucifixion; this act of horror?

    One for the many? Where then is the value of one among many…and who lives, who dies for the sake of one, a few, many…or does the ceremony merely support an empty legend whose old truths are but meaningless ritual?

    Is there still a valid principle of sorts demanding one act deserves acceptable recognition for whatever reason to justify the act?

    ..or is it simply a myth to support the killing; even preempting retribution in the feasting-gull perception?

    even if the gull is only searching for a herring bone?

    Who is expendable…one gull, one person, one group…who decides who is expendable for the sake of what and why…

    that is indeed exceptional?

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 11/06/2015 - 11:17 am.

      What the faithless know

      “even if the gull is only searching for a herring bone” (5 stars!)

      Somehow, the fisherman knows Nature will send the owls to make all ducks disappear if he doesn’t nail up the seagull.

      And, his steel trap mind tells him, if that happens, Nature will send in the poison eels and radio active squid to make all the fish vanish too.

      And then where would he be? Where would EVERYone be? No ducks, no fish, no anything but gulls so full and fat they can’t fly ramming their beaks into his head like nail after nail where he’s dropped on the beach, helmetless and starved, just trying to get one last drink of water.

      “No!” he says.

      And, having seen the tightening invisible web so clearly, he decides, for the sake of All, it must be done and he must do it because no one else can see what he sees or has the backbone to do what must be done.

      (Maybe. . . Always enjoy your perspective)

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/06/2015 - 09:28 am.

    Actually all this talk about collective morality…

    Misses the point. Americans don’t drive the nation into these moral catastrophes they’re driven into them systematically by Presidents. This is well documented but for some reason liberals in this country refuse to acknowledge it.

    In each and every one of these cases you find orchestrated propaganda operations, deception, and fear mongering. This goes all the way back to the “Missile Gap” in the lat 1950s. We have domino theories, Soviet bases in Nicaragua and Grenada.

    All those comparisons of Saddam Hussein to Hitler going all the way back to the first Gulf War were absurd, the threat of the Iraqi military was always exaggerated beyond any conceivable reality. The suggestion that an army that could never advance more than 70 miles into Iran was going to sweep across the Middle East was always laughable. The collapse of the Iraq army in a matter of hours and days in both wars wasn’t unpredictable, you’re government was lying to you about the strength of that army from the beginning. And then of course there were the WMD’s.

    The moral failing, if any, is that for a variety of reasons time after time American’s decided to trust (despite all previous experience) warmongering presidents that are lying to them. the real question is why does that keep happening? Is it a collective moral “fail” or is it a byproduct of criminal regimes?

    Now the actual mechanisms of these propaganda machines within democratic societies are not a mystery, the mechanisms were first described by Walter Lippmann in 1922 and more recently in the 80s by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in: “Manufacturing Consent”. Progressive intellectuals have explaining and exposing this process for decades but they’ve been locked out of the national discourse by a largely complicit corporate media. That’s not a conspiracy theory it’s just history.

    Now I hate to say it, and I’m not trying attack anyone, but Eric is actually promoting a dishonest narrative here. If you REALLY want to search your soul ask yourself why it is we’re talking about collective morality instead of trying to bring members of Bush’s criminal regime to justice? Why are you trapped in mental contortions that avoid the obvious fact that you were duped into going to war… again?

    Maybe the REAL moral failing is that too many American lack the courage to face the fact that our Presidents commit war crimes in our name? Is it easier to wring our hands about our moral failings than it is to hold our Presidents accountable for atrocities? Is this really just collective denial pretending to be national soul searching?

    Or maybe this is about ego? Is it more palliative to the ego to believe that one has a moral failing that it is to admit you’ve been duped? Whatever.

    I’ll tell what’s weird:The rest of the world by and large gets it. Ask people around the world and they’ll tell you that it’s NOT the American People who are the problem, they believe Americans are decent human beings. THEY’LL tell you its our criminal regimes that are the problem. This is way guys like Kissinger find themselves dodging Judge’s around the world today.

    I think there’s actually a pretty simple solution: The US needs to submit to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Courts. Obviously for whatever reason we are unable to prosecute our own Presidents so we need to make them (and their cabinets) subject to international prosecution for war crimes and atrocities.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/06/2015 - 11:11 am.

    By the way…

    Just a little off topic but I think admissible is a note about “progressive” vs. “liberal” orientations. (Given a recent article and discussion about Bernie Sanders and socialism). One way to keep the difference between liberals and progressive in mind is to look at the discourse. In Progressive discourse, discussions, publications etc. it’s permissible to talk about some deeper systemic issues like criminal nature of corporations and US administrations.

    Liberal discourse largely prohibits a lot of this discussion. So for instance Christopher Hitchen’s: “The Crimes of Henry Kissinger” comes out of progressive discourse (although Hitchen’s himself was somewhat enigmatic) where it’s part of the conversation, while the liberal media largely ignored it. Likewise during the 80’s while progressives were talking about the fact that Reagan administration created a terrorist army that attacked Nicaragua and killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians (Something we invaded Afghanistan for doing), the liberal discussion was limited to whether or not a few million dollars from Iranian weapon sales was diverted to the Contras and whether or not Ollie North lied to Congress. The progressive discourse puts Reagan in the dock for crimes against humanity, while the liberal discourse never even seriously discusses his impeachment. And of course Chomsky is central figure of the progressive discourse while being pretty locked out of the liberal discourse. Right or wrong that’s good way to see the difference.

  12. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 11/06/2015 - 01:50 pm.

    Hear ye, hear ye…small hope rises…

    Check out The Intercept.com if you are a progressive and are looking for legitimate former mainstream reporter/journalists who have -left those “embeded ones’; corporation-sponsored regular news rags….a suggestion

  13. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 11/06/2015 - 01:36 pm.


    The Intercept.com is the place…covering the underbelly of our national and foreign policy deeds and misdeeds wouldn’t you know.. etc…forgot the “the’, sorry

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/07/2015 - 10:03 am.

    Hope indeed

    I would note Beryl that historically liberals always migrate into progressive territory. Back in the 90s there’s no way Sanders gets onto the same stage as Bill Clinton and whereas liberals were worried about “bad actors” within the markets in the 80s and 90s, while progressives were talking about a rotten system, now even the BBC is wondering out loud whether or not capitalism is still viable. Add to that the fact that worldwide the historical trend is towards liberal democracies and yes indeed there’s hope. The only question is whether or not we’ve run out of time because climate change is about unleash severe strain on the worlds systems and liberal incrementalism is incapable of coping.

  15. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 11/08/2015 - 09:43 am.

    Feedback to Udstrand’s good comment…

    “run out of time”…that may be so true, but mine here is more a comment on labels:

    Labels don’t mean much anymore I do agree… that they are morphing into Progressives; sign of the times and with a message like Sanders even the uncommitted are looking to a new day.

    Tom McGrath the late, great plains poet used a political label as a necessary epitaph whatever…cynical soul indeed…he said he was from the” unafilliated left”.

    Beyond the labels, old and new, we try to establish a position politically which says nothing at all really, but defines us as part of a group….that is my view of political labels..they give us credibility in the public eye where no credibility exists? Bernie Sanders is reaching beyond ‘labels’ and even the uncommitted are hearing him…there lies hope.

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