'The Man He Killed'

Now that the war in Iraq is won, I’ve been thinking about how it was fought. Operation Iraqi Freedom had its setbacks and breakthroughs, but one constant was the massive discrepancy in casualties, with American troops inflicting hugely disproportionate losses on the enemy. In their April 3 capture of the Baghdad airport, U.S. Marines killed three hundred Iraqi soldiers while sustaining no losses. Two days later, the first big incursion into the city left one U.S. soldier dead-and an estimated two thousand Iraqis. In encounter after encounter, as NBC News put it, the U.S. Army prevailed by "completely overwhelming all opposition."

Watching these reports, I found myself feeling vague qualms about the overwhelming superiority of American military power. I remembered the first Gulf war, when a TV commentator described our obliteration of retreating Iraqi troops as "a turkey shoot," and I’d felt similar unease. Should it make us uneasy that while our battlefield losses remain in the dozens, enemy deaths reach the thousands? Or should we feel precisely the opposite-namely, relief that war can now be waged at such a reduced risk to our troops?

As a matter of foreign policy, overwhelming superiority may allow a nation to undertake war too lightly. (Would we have taken on Iraq if we thought ten thousand Americans might return in body bags?) At the personal level, meanwhile, this superiority challenges our traditional idea of being a soldier in battle. Last century’s wars involved a large measure of equality across enemy lines. The World War II veterans of my father’s circle expressed horror at Nazi evil, but respect for the courage of the German soldier. This respect reflected a particular understanding of the soldier’s lot, one that joined both sides in a hard symmetry of sacrifice. When the soldier submitted his life to decisions made by superiors far from the front lines, he knew that his opposite on the other side was doing likewise; that only the random facts of birth had brought them here as enemies; and that, just as randomly, one or the other might die. This is the outlook famously summarized in the 1902 Thomas Hardy poem, "The Man He Killed." In that poem, a soldier muses on his enemy, and how if the two had chanced to meet "by some old ancient inn," they might have shared a drink. Instead, "ranged as infantry, / And staring face to face, / I shot at him and he at me, / And killed him in his place." Together with his enemy, the soldier stood more or less as an equal before fate.

No more. Indeed, such lopsided casualty reports as the ones from Iraq now seem to constitute a sine qua non of our nation’s willingness to wage war. After Vietnam, our politicians demanded quickly winnable wars with minimal American deaths, and our military developed weapons to do the trick. We will fight no war in which we are not overwhelmingly superior. The high proportion of our casualties now resulting from friendly fire and from accidents suggests a war machine so lethal, simply operating it presents more danger than anything the other side can offer.

To conduct a war that deals out death so asymmetrically confounds our traditional conception of the soldier’s lot. Amid the confident analyses emanating from coalition press briefings, the reporting from Iraq now and then caught American soldiers expressing discomfort, dismay, and moral confusion over the one-sided nature of the fighting. Like the tank commander I heard lamenting a "battle" in which waves of Iraqi irregulars driving civilian cars immolated themselves against his brigade’s armored vehicles. The tank commander shook his head and winced, describing the slaughter. He had to go home to his wife and kids when this was all over, he said. He didn’t want them to think of him as a killer.

Actually, patriotic sentiment will assure him a hero’s welcome in his community. But how will he think of himself? My sense is that Shock and Awe offers less moral solace than the Hardyesque version of the soldier’s lot. When The Man He Killed becomes The Many He Killed, and battles become turkey shoots, soldiers may have a harder time summoning the it-could-have-been-me scenarios of fate that have traditionally provided a warrior’s haunted but honorable bottom-line consolation. An article I clipped from the Iraqi war-"Fighter Pilots Choose Not to Talk of Killing"-interviewed Navy pilots returned from dropping a load of satellite-guided bombs. "We know we’re killing people," one of the pilots said. "We don’t talk about it, don’t worry about it." As for whether his bombs have killed civilians, he remarked, "I’d rather not know about it." Does that sound like someone who’s not worrying? "My job is to hit whatever target I’ve been assigned to hit," added the pilot’s squadron leader. "I don’t think about it as human life. I aim at hard things, and if there are people around, I don’t think about it."

I don’t believe that for a second. Asked to describe their experiences in this lopsided campaign, our troops didn’t sound as if they felt any less uneasy about Shock and Awe than I do. And why should they? We civilians back home are only responsible for celebrating America’s glorious victory. The soldiers actually had to dish it out. end

Published in the 2003-05-09 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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