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Perspective on Military Murder and the Mission at Hand

Nicholas Johnson

Guest Opinion

Iowa City Press-Citizen

July 2, 2006

Links to additional writing by Nicholas Johnson about terrorism in general and the Iraq War in particular can be found at*%20Terrorism%20and%20the%20War%20in%20Iraq.

Supporting notes, below.

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Murder is wrong, whether during wars abroad or breaches of the peace at home.

Moreover, as Israeli soldier Haim Watzman writes in the New York Times, "morality in combat is not just an abstract principle. It is an element of an army's strength" ("Hiding Behind the Enemy," June 22, 2006).

So it's hard to defend the alleged actions of the eight soldiers charged with murdering an Iraqi civilian -- and then lying about it. But that doesn't preclude a little perspective.

Joseph Stalin is credited with saying, "Death of one man is a tragedy. Death of a million is a statistic." What we call "loss of a loved one" when it's one of "us," and "collateral damage" when it's uncounted numbers of "them," has always been a dehumanizing price of war.1

During February 13-15, 1945, we deliberately participated in a fire bombing of Dresden that sent over 25,000 German civilians to their gruesome death.2 The atomic bomb we dropped on Hiroshima August 6, 1945, killed 140,000 Japanese civilians -- some instantly, some from radiation.3 Estimates of Iraqi civilians killed -- fathers, mothers, children, neighbors -- range from 35,000 to 100,000.4

Under rules of war these may not be "murders," but it is not enough to dismiss them with a "war is hell" resignation. Those who go to war are responsible for the deaths of many innocent civilians.

All wars are different. But the wars in Vietnam and Iraq involve some similarities:

Countries most Americans could not find on a map before the war.

A history of imperialist outside invaders that made us just the latest.

Our ignorance of the country's history, culture and religions.

Peoples whose languages we could not speak.

Wars with no front lines; territory gained, lost, and taken again.

Enemies without uniforms, indistinguishable from civilians.

In Iraq we have the added handicaps of fighting in the streets, schools, homes and shops of major cities what has many qualities of a civil war among three major, and uncounted tribal, groups, while providing both the added incentive, and territory, for al-Qaida training camps that increase terrorists and decrease homeland security.

As I said while handling sealift for the Vietnam war, "You can't play basketball on a football field." General Colin Powell spelled it out in what is called "the Powell doctrine"5: Not all of the world's problems are capable of military solutions. Iraq has proven to be a predictable, and predicted, classic example of this truth.

This is not to argue that we should not put our national interests first, that a response to 9/11 was not warranted or that war is never an appropriate option. It is not to suggest that intelligence was manipulated, or the American people and their representatives fed lies, to justify this war. Those are issues for another day.

Nor is it to charge that President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others in the administration should be characterized as "murderers."

It is to say that they've constructed a nation-building mission, virtually impossible to accomplish, and less suitable for the military than for Peace Corps volunteers, diplomats, intelligence and law enforcement officers.

It is to say that sending our troops on a mission the administration was advised from the outset risked failure, does put some responsibility for the consequences on those whose decision it was. Those consequences include our 21,000 killed and wounded U.S. troops6 and the 35,000 to 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians.7

The murder for which eight soldiers are accused was not justified.8 But it is, in a way, the inevitable consequence of this administration's unfairly putting our superbly-trained, brave young troops in harm's way. They have been handed a mission which the military wisely resisted before accepting. It is a mission which any military is, by definition, not only incapable of accomplishing, but for which military force is counterproductive; a mission that now has eight young men standing trial.
Nicholas Johnson served as director of the War Shipping Authority and commissioner of the FCC. He now maintains and teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law.

[All Internet cites/sites last visited June 22, 2006.]

1. See "Stalin," Wikipedia,

2. See "Bombing of Dresden in World War II," Wikipedia,; Mickey Z., "From Dresden to Baghdad: 58 Years of "Shock and Awe," Dissident Voice, February 7, 2003,

3. See "August 6," Wikipedia,]; "Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima," Wikipedia,

4. See "Iraq Death Toll 'Soared Post-War,'" BBC, October 29, 2006, 16:09 GMT ("A study published by the Lancet says the risk of death by violence for civilians in Iraq is now 58 times higher than before the US-led invasion. . . . Dr Les Roberts, who led the study, said: 'Making conservative assumptions we think that about 100,000 excess deaths, or more, have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.'"),; "Iraq Body Count: War Dead Figures," BBC, June 15, 2006, 13:20 GMT ("The number of civilians reported to have been killed during the Iraq war and subsequent military presence is being recorded by the campaign group Iraq Body Count. On 1 June 2006 it put the total number of civilian dead at 36,149 to 40,548 and the number of police dead at 2,145."),

5. See "The Powell Doctrine, Wikipedia,

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in expressing frustration at the number of Afghans killed, made a similar observation: "There is a need to reassess the manner in which the war on terror is being conducted. I strongly believe and have conveyed that we must engage strategically, to stop the . . . motivation. . . . If we don't stop the sources of terror, the people will suffer once again." Pamela Constable, "Karzai Decries Video Urging Afghan Revolt," Washington Post, June 23, 2006.

Mike Scheuer is a former CIA-operative and one tough SOB, once charged with tracking Osama bin Laden, who thinks any administration "moral cowards" for putting other interests above killing bin Laden when we could have, even though it would have involved killing women and children as well. And, "Better a dead Iraqi than a dead American," he says. So this guy's no diplomtic "peacenik." And yet even he echoed many of the points made in this column in an interview July 7, 2006: that we're losing the "war on terror," that no one (politicians, media, academics) has explained to the American people what it's all about, that there's no solution unless we're willing to change the foreign policies that most anger Muslims, this is not a problem that can be solved militarily, that America is bin Laden's enemy only because "it's in the way," because it's put itself on the bull's eye, and that we have no real national interest in doing that. Owen Bennett-Jones, "The Interview" (Mike Scheuer), BBC World Service, July 7, 2006 (listen especially to the last 7 minutes of the 25-minute interview), available now (until July 14, 2006, and probably searchable thereafter) at

Curious as to why, if all that is true, we continue to wage wars anyway? You might want to watch "Why We Fight," a 99-minute movie available from Google Video, This film of Eugene Jarecki's won the 2005 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize. It is also available as a Sony Pictures Classics DVD.

6. See "Military Fatalities by Time Period" and "U.S. Wounded by Week," Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, See also, generally, Z-Facts, (for a variety of interesting, relevant material). There are as many stories of war as there are combat troops, but this brief quote gives one little peek into the stresses that contribute to the psychological as well as physical wounds: "He went on to describe his year of combat: Daily patrols looking for roadside bombs, the bomb removal vehicle blown out from under him three times. Each time he escaped shaken, but unharmed. Three of his friends were killed in the line of duty. A firefight with insurgents, capturing one. And that includes none of the daily stress of the unbearable heat in full battle gear, living elbow to elbow with 10-30 other members of his platoon, being far from home, the uncertainty of mortar fire and ambushes." John Carlson, "Chance Meeting Soothes Soldier's Turmoil," Des Moines Register, July 5, 2006,

7. See Note 4, supra.

8. Even more abhorent and less justified were the allegations that four soldiers were involved in essentially stalking a 15-year-old Iraqi girl, whom they subsequently raped and murdered after murdering her father, mother and sister. Beyond the horror and humanitarian reaction to such events is the enormously counter productive consequences when trying to win local citizens' hearts and minds. Qassim Abdul-Zahra, "Iraqi PM Wants Rape-Slay Investigation," The Associated Press, July 5, 2006, 12:27 PM, And recall, in this context, the quotation in paragraph two of the full text of this column, above, that "morality in combat . . . is an element of an army's strength."


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