War – is it a justification for mass murders?

Published 11:14 am Tuesday, December 19, 2023

BY ROBERT C. KOEHLER
There are a number of blatant ways for terrorist organizations – by which I mean national governments – to justify committing mass murder.
Once you start killing, it’s hard to stop. But you have to justify what you’re doing – a process humanity has been engaged in since the dawn of civilization. We call it “war,” which turns mass murder into a necessary abstraction and gives us a far simpler way of dealing with conflict than . . . oh my God, understanding counter points of view and creating solutions rather than enemies.
This involves more than merely “negotiating” peace – it requires believing in peace, which is a concept far more complex than simply a ceasefire. It’s a living concept. And it seems to me that trying to reorganize our planet around this shimmering possibility is, as I have said previously, “the largest project the human race has ever undertaken.” And it involves all of us.
So we have to stop being spectators, though this is the role the mass of humanity has been tucked into – either that or participants in the game of war, which is in full horror all around the planet right now, with nuclear war . . . planetary suicide . . . ever looming in the background. Why?
How can humanity be so blatantly flippant about its own suicide? Why are we so divided from ourselves? Let’s undo the chains, shall we?
As a starting place, I revisit the State of the Union address George W. Bush delivered in 2002, in the wake of 9/11, with the United States waging war in Afghanistan and prepping for an even bigger war in Iraq. The address, known to history as the Axis of Evil speech, pulsates with spurious justifications for mass murder.
Justification #1 is that war is simple, clean and precise, producing outcomes that serve the good of the whole world: “The American flag,” Bush declared, “flies again over our embassy in Kabul. Terrorists who once occupied Afghanistan now occupy cells at Guantanamo Bay. . . .
“America and Afghanistan are now allies against terror. We will be partners in rebuilding that country.”
Uh, the prez was a little off about this, since the U.S. didn’t scuttle out of Afghanistan for nearly 20 more years, with several hundred thousand people killed and nothing accomplished. Somehow this never seems to matter – you know, the actual outcome of a particular war – since the next war always looms with so much excitement and necessity.
Justification #2 is what feeds this insanity. It’s what you might call “takes one to know one.” No matter how many bombs we drop, how many civilians we kill, our aims are just and righteous. But those other folks are acting on nothing but hatred: They have zero moral rectitude.
“And the depth of their hatred is equaled by the madness of the destruction they design,” Bush said. “. . . What we have found in Afghanistan confirms that, far from ending there, our war against terror is only beginning. . . .
“These enemies view the entire world as a battlefield, and we must pursue them wherever they are.”
But Bush really gets going when he brings in the planet’s three premiere evil regimes: North Korea, Iran and Iraq, especially that last one:
“Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens, leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children.”
While in no way would I downplay, for instance, Saddam Hussein’s dropping of mustard gas canisters on the Kurdish city of Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war, killing as many as 60,000 people, the legitimacy of Bush’s moral outrage disintegrates pretty quickly, when the actions of his own country are taken into account. Takes one to know one!
This country inflicted hell on Planet Earth during the Vietnam war, dropping some 11 million gallons of Agent Orange and eight million gallons of other herbicides on the country, ravaging some five million acres of forests, rivers and cropland. It’s been linked to cancer, diabetes, birth defects and more.
“The Red Cross estimates that three million Vietnamese have been affected by dioxin, including at least 150,000 children born with serious birth defects,” according to the Aspen Institute. “Millions of Americans and Vietnamese are still affected, directly and indirectly, by the wartime U.S. spraying of Agent Orange and other herbicides over southern and central Vietnam.”
The institute adds: “Large tracts of that land remain degraded and unproductive to this day.”
But Bush nonetheless declared: “History has called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight.”
Carl Jung’s words may be a bit more on target: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
We all, as individuals, have a shadow side to our nature, as Jung pointed out: a dark place, where rage and despair seethe. There is also a collective human shadow, which morphs into armies and, ultimately, into wars. Evil is externalized. The enemy easily becomes what we fear and hate about ourselves – which means we can kill it. But first we must dehumanize “the other,” and dehumanization is seductive. It’s also addictive. Is a world beyond war possible? Yes, I believe so – if we can face the collective shadow.
(Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. He is the author of Courage Grows Strong at the Wound.)

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox