The quote originates from General Sherman’s address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy (19 June 1879):
I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.
Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!
War crimes, massacres, and, as Al Jazeera calls it, “collateral murder,” have been part of the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
As the New York Times reports:
“American troops raked a large passenger bus with gunfire near Kandahar on Monday morning, killing and wounding civilians, and igniting angry anti-American demonstrations in a city where winning over Afghan support is pivotal to the war effort.”
The Kandahar incident is only one of many. Last year alone, there have been dozens of Afghans who have been killed in checkpoint and roadside killings. Not one, not a single one, of these involved hostile forces. When the smoke and dust cleared, all of the cases involved innocents. And these are only the incidents we know about. I guarantee the people in Afghanistan and Iraq know of many more. And they won’t forget.
As General McChrystal himself recently said:
“We really ask a lot of our young service people out on checkpoints because there’s danger, they’re asked to make very rapid decisions in often very unclear situations. However, to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I’ve been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it.”
Then why aren’t the rules of engagement altered? An important part of McChrystal’s strategy is to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. We are spending billions upon billions on that strategy, building schools, roads, and hospitals. These civilian killings, aside from being tragic beyond all comprehension, are a damned ineffective way to go about that!
In the Iraq case, as revealed in the Wikileaks video, a group of eight men on a Baghdad street, in plain sunlight, is shot to pieces from a helicopter. Then, when a van carrying four or five other men arrives to pick up a wounded man, the van is blasted to pieces when the airmen request permission to “engage.”
The military’s rationale is that US forces a few hundred yards away had taken small arms fire, and so the airmen in the copters circling above assumed that the men they’d seen were bad guys. And my response remains the same — war is hell– although I realize how dismissive and cavalier that sounds. It is a cliché because it is the terrible, hideous truth. But even though war is horrific for everyone, we can’t just leave it at that. Not good enough.
David Finkel, a Washington Post reporter wrote:
“What’s helpful to understand is that, contrary to some interpretations that this was an attack on some people walking down the street on a nice day, the day was anything but that. It happened in the midst of a large operation to clear an area where U.S. soldiers had been getting shot at, injured, and killed with increasing frequency. What the Reuters guys walked into was the very worst part, where the morning had been a series of RPG attacks and running gun battles.
“More context. You’re seeing an edited version of the video. The full video runs much longer. And it doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight, in this case zooming in on the van and seeing those two children. The helicopters were perhaps a mile away. And as all of this unfolded, it was unclear to the soldiers involved whether the van was a van of good Samaritans or of insurgents showing up to rescue a wounded comrade. I bring these things up not to excuse the soldiers but to emphasize some of the real-time blurriness of those moments.
“If you were to see the full video, you would see a person carrying an RPG launcher as he walked down the street as part of the group. Another was armed as well, as I recall. Also, if you had the unfortunate luck to be on site afterwards, you would have seen that one of the dead in the group was lying on top of a launcher. Because of that and some other things, EOD — the Hurt Locker guys, I guess — had to come in and secure the site. And again, I’m not trying to excuse what happened. But there was more to it for you to consider than what was in the released video.”
Ok, I’ll buy that. In war, I am told, there is the” real-time blurriness of those moments.” The fog of war. I don’t doubt it for a minute. We are told we have the “best” military in the world—however that is scored. We are told we have the best soldiers, but soldiers are only as good as their commanders. They are called grunts for a reason. Someone had better start thinking outside the box and changing the rules of engagement. Let’s see some excellence, even though war is Hell.
Add to that, we are “engaging” enemies dressed in mufti. We can’t tell the civilians from the insurgents from the enemy combatants. In Afghanistan, the repeated killings of innocent civilians have angered an embittered the population. Same in Iraq. The same resentment and hatred is brewing in Pakistan, where our drones are killing and maiming civilians. And that is something that will bite us in the ass in the future.
We are never going to win any hearts and minds, but I am glad we try. Now we must try harder—and that means figuring out how to fight a war against an enemy we cannot recognize. This could be the future of war, the way war against a stateless enemy will be fought from now on. There must be a way, must be a template from all the innumerable wars humanity has fought.
I feel like we’ve just discussed this, but I am still thinking about this, so forgive me. I have very unclear and mixed-up feelings about being in Af/Pak; I am not trying to solve my dilemma about that now. I just think since we are there, we need to do the best possible job, and that does not include murdering and maiming the civilian population. Forget the moral aspects of that if you can and just focus on a long-term strategy, because turning those people into eternal enemies can’t bode well for us. I know we’ve talked about this before, but it’s been festering in me. I agree with KQuark that we can’t fight a humane war—it’s an oxymoron. But can we at least fight a smart war, a war that meets our objectives? Or is a “smart war” an oxymoron too?