What's Lost in the Hue and Cry Over Haditha

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By Frank Schaeffer
Saturday, June 3, 2006

Even in "good wars" things go horribly wrong. The following quotations from "Naples '44," by the late Norman Lewis (perhaps the greatest English travel writer of the past century), are instructive. Lewis was stationed in Naples following Italy's liberation from the Nazis, and he kept a diary:

"What we saw was ineptitude and cowardice spreading down from the command, and this resulted in chaos . . .

"I saw an ugly sight: a British officer interrogating a civilian, and repeatedly hitting him about the head with the chair; treatment which the [civilian], his face a mask of blood, suffered with stoicism. At the end of the interrogation, which had not been considered successful, the officer called on a private and asked him in a pleasant, conversational sort of manner, 'Would you like to take this man away, and shoot him?' The private's reply was to spit on his hands, and say, 'I don't mind if I do, sir.'

"I received confirmation . . . that American combat units were ordered by their officers to beat to death [those] who attempted to surrender to them. These men seem very naive and childlike, but some of them are beginning to question the ethics of this order.

"We liberated them from the Fascist Monster. And what is the prize? The rebirth of democracy. The glorious prospect of being able one day to choose their rulers from a list of powerful men, most of whose corruptions are generally known and accepted with weary resignation. The days of Mussolini must seem like a lost paradise compared to us."

If Lewis's account were the only surviving document from World War II, we might assume that allied nation-building ended in catastrophe. We would wonder why a morally outraged peace movement didn't stop our troops from carrying out their failed and brutal campaigns.

Sixty years later and caught up in another war, we are confronted by the massacre in Haditha. And we are also caught up in the anguish of another generation of young men and women asked to kill but to keep killing within "civilized" bounds, to take insults, be fired upon by men hiding behind women and children, yet not respond in kind.

To most readers this is an academic question of morality, or I-told-you-so politics. To those of us with loved ones in the military, the allegations of an atrocity committed by U.S. Marines in Haditha are personal.

All our troops confront the tortured "morality" of war. My son wrote this from his first combat tour in Afghanistan as a Marine intelligence noncom: "Date: 9/25/03 8:27:01 PM Dear Mom and Dad: I have learned that the right thing and the necessary thing are not synonymous, rarely are they even in the same ballpark. It's very depressing to see the results of some necessary actions, it's never pure, and there is no purity here . . .

"People ignore what they cannot see. They just don't want to know. The truth is too ugly and vicious to comprehend . . .

"In a natural state a human will kill, and kill not always for necessity, but for convenience as well. The only way that I know I am still me is that I hate that fact; I hate it more than anything I have ever known."

I think Lewis would have understood my son's distress. Perhaps he would have also understood my tears when confronting a son's loss of innocence. Yet I am proud my son volunteered, and of his two tours in Afghanistan and his mission in Iraq. And he is glad he served his country. I wish all Americans had a gut connection to the troops so they would know that people like my son don't kill civilians and that they anguish over the vicissitudes of war. And I also wish more people read books like "Naples '44" to give them some sense of perspective when terrible things do happen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Judging by Lewis's diary -- and many other accounts -- the so-called Greatest Generation of World War II was often badly led and worse-behaved, and was certainly less merciful than our present-day soldiers and their leaders. We haven't carpet-bombed Baghdad or nuked Fallujah to spare the lives of our troops. Yet most Americans are glad we forced Italy, Germany and Japan to become democracies, however brutal our means.

The flag-waving boosters of our current war and their critics all seem to forget that war really is hell. Proponents sweep the inconvenient dreadfulness under the carpet (no photographs of coffins, please) while opponents are shocked, just shocked, at the nastiness. All sides seem to forget that there are no good wars, only morally ambiguous conflicts that lead to better or worse outcomes.

In this war, we do not have enough political leaders and opinion-makers receiving soul-searing letters from their children. Their sons and daughters are notably absent from our military. That's too bad.

A personal connection to our wars might discourage the sort of glib hubris that leads the media to trumpet events such as the Haditha killings without putting them in the context of the everyday heroism that is the norm, or in the context of history. And a personal connection to our military by our political leaders would give them a stake in our troops' welfare and what we are asking them to do.

It's time for the critics of our military to also earn a little moral authority by volunteering themselves or encouraging their children to do so. Anything less is nothing more than arm's-length moralizing.

Frank Schaeffer is co-author of "AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from the Military and How it Hurts Our Country."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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