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Commentary

Bad Apples Keep Bobbing Up


     
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Owing to the appearance of hard-to-dismiss photographic and videotaped evidence, certain "incidents," such as the massacre at Haditha or the disgusting fun and games at Abu Ghraib, find their way into the U.S. news media from time to time. The government reacts predictably: first, officials cover up or obfuscate the evidence; then, they blame "a few bad apples" in the enlisted ranks and insist that we take the time to "find out the facts before leaping to conclusions," especially to any conclusions about misconduct by senior officers; finally, they bury the whole matter in a drawn-out proceeding by which the military investigates and, for the most part, exculpates itself, while the general public shifts its attention to the latest story of a vanished coed.

It's the tried-and-true method by which the government deals with unpleasant reports about its actions: hunker down, pronounce inanities, and wait. Top officials have battallions of mealy-mouthed flak catchers and plenty of time, the news media are tame, and the public is fickle.

Amid the ebb and flow of the episodic "incidents," however, what goes generally unremarked is the great extent to which, quite apart from infantrymen going berserk and prison guards acting out their sadistic fantasies, atrocities are built into the insouciantly hyper-violent way in which the Americans are delivering the blessings of liberal democratization to Iraq. They are waging war against a civilian population, making scant if any serious attempt to distinguish between "insurgents" and other persons in the vicinity. As Dr. Salam Ishmael, projects manager of Doctors for Iraq and former chief of the junior doctors in Baghdad's Medical City Hospital, told the Inter Press Service, "There are many, many, many cases like Haditha that are still under cover and need to be highlighted in Iraq." In addition to carrying out Haditha-style massacres, U.S. forces are routinely resorting to aerial bombardments with hugely destructive rockets and bombs (warheads of 500, 1,000, and even more pounds of high explosive) and to fusillades with big guns (tank cannons and .50-caliber machine guns), often in densely inhabited cities, towns, and villages. On the receiving end of these lessons in democracy (one bomb, one vote), countless thousands of innocent persons—collateral human beings, so to speak—then inevitably suffer death, personal injury, or destruction of their homes and other property. Oops, didn't mean to hurt THEM; only the "bad guys."

This whole endeavor is so appallingly pervaded by the most blatant moral hypocrisy that one scarcely knows where to begin a denunciation, except perhaps at the moment George W. Bush ordered the invasion to begin. All the rest followed naturally and might well have been foreseen—indeed, it was foreseen, by me and by many others. Yet, at this late date, we are still being treated to mock-shocked media reports and make-believe discussions of "bad apples" and all the rest of the public-relations pretense trotted out to cloak the ongoing mass murder.

After having expressed the foregoing views publicly, I commonly receive objections or counterarguments from people who are convinced that however wicked or misguided the president might have been to launch the war, the ordinary soldiers who are actually waging it are overwhelmingly dedicated to conducting themselves honorably. My challengers have been led to believe, in the expression that currently serves as an official talking point, that "99.9 percent of the troops" are as pure as driven snow. Thus, many people, chastened by the horrendous events of the past three years, now declare that they "oppose the war but support the troops." Vicious war, virtuous soldiers.

I cannot swallow this concoction. Although Johnny might have been, only a few years ago, just that nice boy next door, he may nonetheless now be engaged in monstrous actions. Besides, no war, however vile its conception may be, can become a reality unless somebody actually carries out its design: someone must actually do the deed.

I submit, in short, that all the U.S. government's military and other agents in Iraq are engaged in an evil enterprise—a war of unprovoked aggression—and therefore all bear some moral culpability for their participation. I do not mean to suggest that the man who shoots a baby point blank is no more guilty than the man who drives a supply truck or runs office errands for the colonel, but all are guilty to some degree.

I put no weight on the "laws of war" or "what the soldiers were told" in a perfunctory training session about refraining from murder and other wanton mayhem. Committing a wrong is committing a wrong, whether in Iraq or in Indianapolis, whether someone waves the verbal wand of "war" over the crime scene or not. Sending the Marine Commandant to Iraq to lecture the troops on moral behavior is ludicrous, especially after all the effort the Corps has put into turning the boys into effective killers.

Yes, George Bush told the soldiers to go, but they chose to obey. When the Nazis at Nuremberg claimed that they were "only obeying orders," they received no mercy, nor did they deserve any on that account. Perhaps the enlisted men and women who merely tagged along ought to be seen as less culpable than the Big Chief—I'm not sure, I'm not God. But I do not see that anybody involved in this huge criminal undertaking is entitled to a clean bill of moral health.

The problem in Iraq—and also in that nearly forgotten yet still violence-wrecked backwater, Afghanistan—is not that the U.S. forces harbor a few bad apples. The barrel itself is rotten, and even a good apple placed in it absorbs its foulness. To remain morally upright, people need to steer clear of voluntary association with criminals, and they most certainly need to refrain from acting as their henchmen.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications


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