Thursday, April 10, 2008


One of my goals that didn't make it to do 'to-do' list yesterday was to listen to an interview by Terry Gross (NPR's "Fresh Air") of a man who had been the 'chief of high-value targeting' for the Pentagon--he assisted in choosing targets and helped plan logistics for the bombing missions of the invasion of Iraq. Two days after Baghdad fell he's on a plane to New York to work as a military analyst for Human Rights Watch. Shortly after that he's in Iraq, touring the areas of damage that he'd helped plan.

I may have mentioned reading a book by Mary Doria Russell 2 years ago, A Thread of Grace. Within the larger story of the final 3 years of World War II after Italy surrendered but was still under Nazi occupation was a stark portrait of what life is like for civilians unfortunate enough to live in a strategically valuable location. They were bombed regularly by the Allies while coping with hostile occupation. Reading this book was an experience of scales falling off my eyes and realizing how many different ways there are to suffer, and I really got visceral feel for what a bomb falling on your neighborhood means. "Collateral Damage" ceased to be a clinical and sanitary term.

It is very surreal to listen to this man describe the bombing planning, watching the bombs fall in real time on a Pentagon screen (his group even cheering in one case when a body they saw fly and flail hit the ground and bounced because they thought it was Chemical Ali--they bet lunches on how many times he would bounce), sincerely citing the 'great care' that the military takes to avoid civilian casualties (at the time of the invasion there was a threshold of 30 estimated civilian deaths--any operations resulting in estimates greater than that had to be directly approved by the President or Secretary of Defense.), and then describing actually walking into these craters and talking with survivors of the bombs that he'd participated in dropping.

My head spins when I consider how ethics are turned topsy turvy and the moral compass spins. He describes how he'd been looking for other work, but when Human Rights Watch finally called him it was on the eve of the invasion and he told them they'd have to wait because he had a sense of responsibility for the invasion: walking out would mean that some other planner would have to be brought in cold. Without a proper immersion in the background and context more civilians and more pilots could be endangered. He couldn't "let that happen".

It's a world of thinking that it's better to find a way to kill just 15 people instead of a hundred.
On the face of it there's no arguing with that. His argument is very logical that he's one of the good guys. He points to having dropped 9 2000# bombs targeting the Republican Guard's intelligence operations--located across the street from a maternity hospital. He says that only some windows were broken in the hospital (but was there a poor woman in labor walking across the street at 2 am, with her husband and a young child beside her?). Good planning reduces collateral damage.

Still, what kind of mental and emotional gymnastics must one do to come to terms with being a part of something that maimed people horribly, tore families apart most tragically, ruined livelihoods, contributed to the further collateral damage of turning people into refugees, forced to sell their young daughters into prostitution to feed the family? Is there really any comfort in saying "it would have been worse if it hadn't been planned well"? Terry asked him if he'd divulged to any of these survivors he spoke with what role he'd had in their calamity and he exclaimed, shocked, "No!"

He said that though his wasn't a branch of intelligence that was concerned with acquiring evidence of a nation's wrongdoing or weapons stockpiling, there was much discussion about the quality of the intelligence that the US was basing its case for war on. His particular working group in the Pentagon all felt the case was based on garbage. So his planning for reduction of casualties was for an invasion that he and his group felt was based on garbage.

To embrace, reluctantly or otherwise a starting point that says that your decisions mean that someone is going to die, be maimed, or orphaned and the only choice you have is whether to kill one person or to kill 10--to go from "it's wrong to kill" to "it's better to kill less rather than more" is a quantum leap. Years ago some friends of mine were driving through Yosemite on a climbing trip. They saw the car ahead of them hit a squirrel and they pulled their car over to see what they could do for it. They concluded that it would be best to give it a humane death. The intention was good...but of course none of them carried guns. So they took a rock and tried to end it with a blow to the head. Well, the squirrel clung to life and struggled, bloodied. It was very messy. One friend who had opted to stay in the car said it had looked a barbaric scene, and nearly indistinguishable from one where the intentions weren't good.

It just seems that warfare would have sickened human beings so much that they'd have abandoned it as a tactic centuries ago. Instead, our threshold for what's tolerable seems merely to rise.


Douglas W said...

What more can I add?

While it may be possible for some to argue the case for a "justifiable war", if a person believes the was is unjustified (ie.based on 'garbage') surely they have the courage to stand up and express their case. It would have been more honorable to say "We will not make plans for this war because we do not believe it to be justified".

It sounds like the person you refer to was not really concerned about devising a strategy that would kill only 10 civilians instead of 100, but rather about keeping his own job. Could he not have said to his bosses "I will not be a part of this!"

It brings back the time when I was due to register and possibly be called up during the Vietnam war. I objected. But the pressure put on me was intense. It's in the 'Sacrificial Fodder' chapter of my Young Man story.

excavator said...

I had not listened to the entire interview before posting. When I finished it later something near the end mitigated my shock, a little. And that was his unique situation of coming to Human Rights Watch directly from the Pentagon. He can actually do substantial good as a liaison between the two organizations and enable them to work together to reduce innocent casualties as much as possible.

I'm still having trouble though wrapping my mind around the necessity of moving to that level of ethics. Could any human meet someone whose baby had been agonizingly maimed, and then died of infection or something (because of lack of adequate medical supplies, including pain medicine, which were also a consequence of the strike they'd personally planned) someone reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence because their livelihood had been destroyed and there is no family to take them in--could any human see the misery that their decisions had reduced someone's life to take comfort in the fact that at least it was only one family and not a hundred? I think the compartmentalization that someone would have to do to live with that would be some kind of a diminishment of humanity.

And, he seemed like a fairly decent person.

I agree with you that he should have refused to be part of something that was going to involve collateral damage, reduced or not, if he understood the cause to not be legitimate. He was looking for other work anyway.

Douglas W said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Douglas W said...

Sorry about that last one... I had included a link to a radio program that didn't work so deleted it... will email it to you instead.