In Other Words
By Donald Kaul
They were droning on about drones the other day in Washington.
The Senate Intelligence (ha-ha) Committee was grilling CIA chief-designate John Brennan on the use of unmanned aircraft during his tenure as President Barack Obama's adviser on terrorism.
Drones are being used a lot, according to Brennan, who was in charge of the drone program. But only for a good cause.
His answers satisfied some, not others. Mainly, the critics wanted to make sure we were killing people humanely, with full attention to their human rights. We don't want to be war criminals.
That's so mid-20th Century. There was a time when people could actually be shocked by the slaughter of civilians during a war.
The most famous example that comes to mind is the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War.
Guernica was a market town of no particular military importance but it favored the Republican cause during the war. So the infamous Condor Legion, under Hitler's command, swooped in on a spring day in 1937 and bombed it flat.
The international reaction was immediate and immense. Newspapers all over the world condemned the attack as barbaric and beyond the rules of warfare.
Hundreds of people died in the raid, which Pablo Picasso immortalized in one of the greatest anti-war paintings ever made.
That reaction seems almost quaint in its innocence, given the subsequent events of World War II. By 1945, Hitler had killed thousands more in his rocket attacks on London, destroyed Warsaw, and sent millions to the gas chambers. England had retaliated by leveling Dresden, where 25,000 died. The United States killed 100,000 Japanese in one night of Tokyo firebombing, and more than 200,000 by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost all of the dead were civilians.
The United States has bombed dozens of countries since then, all in the name of peace - most dramatically Vietnam and its neighbors, where we used more explosives than we did in all of World War II.
And we're worried whether our reliance on drones adheres to the finer points of bombing ettiquette? We're missing the larger moral point.
We kid ourselves that our warfare is moral and clean and good and that it's the other guys who commit the war crimes. Don't believe it.
Modern warfare is an exercise in savagery. If you're not willing to sign up for that, don't go to war.
Think of napalm, for example, a liquid flame designed to stick to the skin as it burns it away.
Or our flechette bombs, fitted with dozens of barbs to tear apart flesh.
Or our landmines scattered across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, which are still blowing legs off farmers in southeast Asia.
I hearken back to my favorite military philosopher, William Tecumseh Sherman, famous for unapologetically burning down Atlanta during the Civil War.
"War is cruelty," he said. "There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over."
Southerners hate Sherman still, but it can't be said that he didn't warn them. In a letter to a friend in the South, written on the eve of the war, he said:
"You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization…War is a terrible thing!"
Then he made it so.
The recent film that best captures that for me is "Zero Dark Thirty," about Osama bin Laden's killing.
It's been criticized for justifying torture as a means of obtaining information from prisoners, but I don't think it does.
Rather, it shows with unflinching honesty the tactics we are using. And a nasty piece of work they are.
It would be nice if we could have it both ways: be good guys and triumphant. Unfortunately, life ain't like that.
Believe Sherman - war is Hell.
Other Words columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. OtherWords.org