All Wars Are Crimes

The past couple of days, I’ve been involved in a number of discussions regarding how we (as liberals and lefties) respond and react to Iraq War vets. Some of us, regrettably, have chosen to personalize their displeasure against the war by criticizing and demonizing those of us (like me and others) who have fought and will fight in Iraq.

I happen to think that’s the wrong answer;  for one, it’s how we ended up getting painted as a bunch of wimps after we lost in Vietnam. For another, it’s entirely too easy and facile an argument to make, and one which leaves your hands feeling squeaky-clean: I oppose the war. Therefore, I won’t join the military.  Those guys over there are fighting in a war I oppose. They can choose to disobey the orders I think are immoral. Since they won’t, they’ re war criminals.

First of all, it’s a volunteer military, but there’s volunteers, and then there’s volunteers. I didn’t have to join—I had a wonderful family supporting me, and had lots of opportunities to go a different route. But I made a number of bad decisions, and with the advice of my family, I chose to join the military in order to develop a sense of discipline.

But others didn’t have the opportunities that I did, and the military was their one sure route to a better life. And in most cases, they’ve done better. But keep in mind the next time you make a broad criticism of us, that many of us didn’t have the choices you had.

Second of all, and this is the more important point—criticisms like the above are the political equivalent of Tuesday morning quarterbacking. You’re sitting safe at home, in Athens, OH, or Madison, WI, or Eugene, OR. You have the luxury of seeing an event taking place after the fact, and thus being able to calmly make a decision based on an different set of facts. Would you make the same decision if you were pinned against a wall, under a hail of fire from a sniper, any one of whose shots could cause a man in uniform to appear at your wife’s doorstep? There’s no way to know.

So here’s what I wrote in response to one such criticism:

You’re entitled to your opinions.
But that’s a very simplistic stand to take, and one which allows you to feel virtuous and free of moral taint.
The fact of the matter is, the world isn’t made up of stark blues and reds. Like that popular map, it’s more a shade of purple. And within that shade, it’s probable that a whole continuum of moral and ethical decisions can be made.
I envy your stark moral clarity, but I can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t have an element of fear in it—the fear that comes from not knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how you would act if you were placed in a similar situation, having experienced similar things, over a period of time.
I suspect—no, I know—that within all of us, there’s a savage beast, clawing at the fragile shells of our civility, and that only a sense of discipline, and the humility that comes in knowing that we’re sinners all, keeps the beast at bay.
I have seen the beast in me. I did things there that I’m not proud of. I ask forgiveness of my God every day. That’s all I can do—that, and continue to be the best man and husband that I can hope to be.

Obviously, when there’s clear war crimes—like the situation in Abu Ghraib, and the mosque execution in Fallujah—I’ll say so. But we need to keep everything in context, and I’m a lot more likely to be conciliatory towards the Marine in Fallujah than towards the creeps in Abu Ghraib. The Marine was in the midst of a battlefield, and had been himself wounded in a similar situation only the previous day, for example.

All this to say this: all wars are crimes. Which is why we should only go to war not as a first resort, but as a last resort. With all that, I’m proud of much of what I did in Iraq. But I’m not proud of much of what’s taken place, either. And that’s a debate I’ll always have with myself, and always have to live with. And hopefully, someday I’ll be in a position to apply the lessons I’ve learned thus far and save a younger generation from the mistakes we’ve made.


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