Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Warfare Is What It Is (Redux)

****I posted this over the weekend and it laid there essentially unread. A couple bloggers picked it up and graciously linked, they think it is important. I also happen to think so, so it is repeated here.****

Recent news reports, McClatchy, about a Sadr City strike damaging a hospital and ambulances have created a stir. As many as 5 rockets were fired into a house apparently used by militants for attacks on US troops "yards" from the hospital. Civilian casualties are up for the month, as are US troop casualties. This fighting is occurring in a crowded slum of 2.5 million people.

When civilians or clearly civilian installations are damaged in attacks people begin to complain. There is a natural disinclination amongst Americans to participate in indiscriminate slaughter. Here is where reality and wishful thinking collide, bullets and explosives do not discriminate, once loosed they hit where they were pointed. That baby has no target discriminator on him; age, sex, and participation are not disqualifiers from death and injury. It is the nature of things that go bang to knock the snot out of anything nearby, it is inevitable, and it is a characteristic which is both feared and utilized by the targets of those things.

Back in 2003 there was a huge ground swell of approval as "Shock and Awe" proceeded and we were informed that only militarily significant targets were exploding on our TV screens. Some of us bought into that idea, smart bombs was the mantra. The idea was clearly as stupid as the bombs were smart. The explosives, for the most part, reached their intended targets and those targets were in a populated area, civilians got blown up or devastated by flying debris. Everyone with half a brain knew that, but the pictures were ever so 'cool' and covered by a willing media analysis. C'mon, you saw the size of the fireballs and you knew it was in Bhagdad...

We live in an age of video and video games and our perceptions are skewed by this. We can see things with our own eyes and discount them because an 'expert' says something. We see the video image the bomb sees as it goes into its target and accept that as the reality. Reality happens after the video transmitter is exploded by the payload, that is what you do not see. Video games and TV sanitize the war experience while letting us think we are a part of the experience. The sounds, smells, and actual results are hidden away. The contents of a human body are spread everywhere, all the contents, and they are cooked. That body may have been a Saddam General or a kid walking home from a visit, you have no idea - you neither saw him nor the results. Our news organizations were roundly criticized at the time by other media, particularly Al Jazeera, for not showing civilian casualties. Whether that outlet's numbers were accurate or not is beside the question, they existed and you didn't see them.

There are issues of decency that our media adheres to, it is hypocritical in the extreme, but flatly Americans will not look at the results of a large explosion on a human body and not complain. The children, after all, might be watching and besides, we have some standards... We have illusion and garbage - not standards. That impressive fireball sent out from it a concussion wave of air and flying objects, the objects buildings are constructed of, moving at thousands of feet per second followed by heat. Anything in the path of that suffered damage, damage you do not want to think about. That shock wave compresses the human body, forcing what is inside, out. Buildings are constructed of very unfriendly to human beings objects when they are moving at hundreds of miles per hour- try to imagine a sheet of glass, masonry, steel, and wooden splinters impacting humans. Right behind it was heat, more than you use to sear that steak you were eating. You cheered, "Wow, look at that!" and saw none of it.

Warfare is a bloody inhumane exercise and you've been insulated from that fact. There are veterans who know, they say little. If you fault them, you are a fool. To speak to the horrid realities of warfare is to relive them and they have already served you. It is not their job to educate you about the obvious that you ignore. Guns are not magical, they put a small projectile in the air at thousands of feet per second, far beyond the speed of sound, and the target is hit well before the sound of firing reaches it. The effect of that bullet depends on its caliber, speed, and what it strikes, it may inflict a fraction of an inch hole through a body or it may strike bone, shattering it and virtually exploding the surrounding flesh. Military rounds are considered humane, use of destructive bullets is banned. Humane.

Dying or severely shocked humans lose control of their bodily functions, urine and feces are released and possible uncontrolled vomiting. Mix all this together with blood and seared flesh and you have truly unattractive visual and olfactory experience, auditory stimulus may not be particularly nice - either. Warfare is the business of blowing things up and grievously harming human beings, it ain't pretty and it ain't a game. We are doing it to "them" and they are doing it to "us" and the mechanisms of the doing are immaterial. A car bomb and a smart bomb in a populated are have exactly the same outcomes and ends. The end is to make it fearfully inappropriate to continue a course of action. Terrorism. The presence of or lack of a uniform does not make this less true.

Civilians are particularly vulnerable in this kind of urban warfare, shelter involves the very sorts of places where people live and work and go to hospital. People at risk of being shot or blown up seek shelter. If there is an expectation that one side or the other will try to avoid civilian casualties the civilians become objects of shelter and because neither side wishes to lose, the civilians become disposable pawns in the effort to achieve checkmate. In today's world, uniforms are camouflage, it is important to have them different enough to avoid fratricide, but the end object is be a poor target. Civilian clothing for fighters works in the same way, though with unfortunate results for civilians, regardless bullets will fly in high numbers. Military weapons deliberately allow for high rates of fire, a lot of lead in the air makes those difficult targets more likely to be hit and less likely to hit back. Anything in the way is going to suffer.

If you are going to start a military conflict it is wise to know what it is that you propose to do. You are going to engage in one of the least humane and civilized of all behaviors and do it on a grand scale. You are going to destroy a lot of things you would ordinarily find commendable and harm lots of people you would ordinarily find laudable. Warfare is neither glorious nor is it, as our President seems to think, an adventure; it is flatly destruction and slaughter. If you do not approach it with, at the very least, sadness and regret you forfeit the title of reasoning being.

I refuse to play. I opposed this war from before the first bomb and I oppose it now. I oppose war on general terms and I fiercely oppose its glorification. I regret and resent the use of our power to harm others. What I will not do is condemn the soldiers on the ground for the inevitable results of our leadership's decision to engage in this behavior. Our troops are engaged in a street brawl and everybody knew or certainly should have known that this was going to be the outcome. The fact that we have criminally irresponsible people leading this nation is the fault of the voters not the soldiers, we both have jobs to do and it is about time we voters do ours.

1 comment:

Zak J. said...

I've been reading Gen. Sherman's autobiography this week. He is a surprisingly nuanced, even tender writer for someone who'd probably be considered a war criminal today (and is considered such by much of the south). His "war is hell" comment might never have been made, but he did say "war is cruelty." And he should know.

What we did when we went in with force was determine to impose our will through superior application of violence. There will always be civilian casualties in war, there will always be innocents maimed and killed, there will always be lingering resentments that persist for generations (visit Atlanta if you doubt that.) That's what war is, which is why it should be viewed as a last resort by civilized people.