On Worthier Victims

By Buddy Bell, Voices for Creative Nonviolence

If someone is not accustomed to hearing much about death and suffering, it can be very upsetting to suddenly hear that a human being was brutally killed in some foreign location. Another someone who has a larger context in which to place that death, while not less upset, might feel less of a sense of momentary kneejerk urgency regarding that singular piece of news. Put in another way, the increment between 0 and 1 human deaths feels intuitively much greater than that between 1000 and 1001 human deaths.

What the first ‘someone’ lacks is proportion. This kind of haziness has been exploited, in one generation after another, as a foundation to construct justifications for war. Those who want to justify war don’t want us to see, let alone value, the first 1000 human beings.

Media attention to the daily murderous instability in Iraq and Afghanistan has been sorely lacking. Even the consistently repeating deaths and injuries of U.S. soldiers receive only momentary pause. Yet when General Harold Greene was recently killed in a ‘green on blue’ attack IN Afghanistan or when James Foley and Steven Sotloff were beheaded in Iraq, the story moves to the top of the page for days; people talk; the dead have names. It looks like there is an acute crisis on our hands when actually it is a chronic one.

The reasons for renewed energy on the part of the media go beyond the pure attention-grabbing novelty of these killings. There is an internalized perception of self-superiority, to which viewers and readers often respond, and from which reporters and editors are not necessarily immune. Ever-ambitious politicians, especially those who are bought by defense contractors and resource extraction industries, construct the case for starting or widening wars in this context. The shooting of a general at a training facility is seen as more vile than breaking down the door and shooting into a family home. Beheading one’s victims becomes more disgusting than burning them alive with a hellfire missile or with white phosphorous. And for some reason, I haven’t heard Dick Cheney on the radio saying that ISIS waterboarding is not torture.

If we could somehow put aside the double-standards, what would the picture in Iraq look like?

Two facts would not be in doubt: ISIS is a murderous threat to the people in its immediate vicinity and U.S. military force has often been a murderous threat to people in its immediate vicinity and beyond.

History is not on the side of the U.S. military. The War on Terror– ostensibly meant to destroy Al-Qaeda, a terrorist group with little consolidated territory of its own at the time, zero in Iraq– has brought us to the point where a worse group is controlling and governing a third of Iraq and a third of Syria next to that. The Iraq War never led to building a cohesive state in the shell of the one it completely and rapidly dismantled. Sectarian divisions in the government excluded a large Sunni population, and the U.S. gave weapons and money to preferred local Shi’a militias. Baghdad became violently segregated. The standard of living declined for many and rose for a few. Oil companies were not hurting very much, and people noticed it. The Pentagon could not or would not address the problem of Christian extremists embedding themselves with U.S. Army and Blackwater mercenaries. I haven’t yet gone into the torture at Abu Ghraib, the poisoning of Fallujah, the massacre in Nisoor Square. All of these factors were generators of unemployment, aimlessness and trauma among young people who were and continue to be vulnerable to manipulation by ambitious warlords.

Whether the U.S. sends ground forces, drones or conventional aircraft to target ISIS fighters, they will end up making the problem worse. Sending planes to bomb high-level leaders will have the effect of encouraging the most extreme behavior possible among militia fighters. The most extreme and brutal will be the most likely successor to fill a power vacuum.

For the most part, the U.S. ought to be authentically extracting itself from the sovereign country of Iraq.

If U.S. citizens working in Iraq need the protection of the U.S. military, that is a sign that these citizens should leave along with the military, or else stay at their own risk. This of course would not be in the short-term interest of U.S. companies, but it would be in the long-term interest of the Iraqi and U.S. populations: ISIS stands to lose significant power once its major unifying antagonist is no longer on the scene.

If there is a helpful role for the U.S. and other countries to play, it has to do with arresting the cycle of revenge. This can be accomplished by: encouraging Iraq’s government to form a more equitable power-sharing structure; ending all interference in Iraq’s elections; paying for the medical treatment of those maimed by U.S. bombs and munitions; engaging diplomatically with wealthy neighbors Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to help Iraqis locally administer a system that will supply Iraqis with basic human needs– clean water, food, shelter, medicine; and providing meaningful help to Iraqi entrepreneurs who can create employment.

If such measures were promised and demonstrated on the frontier of ISIS control, their appeal may be strong enough to encourage potential defectors who might elude the more brutal ideologues in their camps and successfully escape with their lives. (If this is to happen, the defectors would also need to have confidence in a government de-militarization and re-entry system.) Multiplied enough times, such defections could disable ISIS, as well as other militias. Those who would call this set of ideas a pipe dream should ask themselves what they would call another campaign of bombing when alternatives haven’t yet been attempted.

The U.S. and the U.K. can start paying for these humanitarian measures with money they would have spent anyway: on the order of $110,000 for each Hellfire missile they plan to drop in Iraq.

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