I sat down to coffee, recently, with a couple who’d lived in Albania after the Russians withdrew. The husband was serving as U. S. Ambassador at the time and during our conversation, his wife recounted a story about an event she hosted for some of the country’s political leaders. Her husband, standing in the midst of a group of such men, asked what life was like under communist rule. “Oh, wonderful. Wonderful,” said one. “We had meat on the rotisserie every night.”
The man beside him was quick to translate, so there’d be no misunderstanding. “He means we ate a lot of beans.”
Naturally, I laughed. Having been a politician, I know all about euphemisms. Diplomacy, no doubt, couldn’t thrive without them. I suspect the same is true for the military. In an earlier blog, I remarked on our government’s efforts to create kinder, gentler weapons. The intent is to protect the lives of civilians who are trapped in the middle of conflicts. Under international law, a degree of “collateral damage,” meaning civilian deaths, is acceptable if those losses are in proportion to the military aim. (“Damage Control,” by Samuel Moyn, The New Republic, Nov. 2018, pg. 53.) Who decides what is proportional is unspecified.
I’ve no wish to denigrate military efforts to conduct “moral” wars. A decision about collateral damage is the unthinkable curse of leadership. Certainly, the “solace” money we pay to next of kin does nothing to ameliorate the burden of having to make that fatal decision. (Ibid pg. 54.)
Nick McDonnell’s new book, The Bodies in Person, wonders about rules designed to make the consequences of war acceptable. Like him, I wonder if we should even try. Logic suggests we should spend less time thinking about how to soften the impact of war and think more about ending war, itself.
The heart asks the same question. Can a human being ever make peace with the image of a child being blown to bits? Can that child’s death ever truly be rationalized as the proportionality of a military aim?
If we make war acceptable, we give it a legitimacy and a permanence in our culture. Is that what we want? I say, let us talk no more about rules of engagement. Let us talk about how to achieve peace. To anyone tempted to say the goal is naïve, I reply, “It’s common sense.” If we dedicate ourselves to achieving kinder, gentler wars, we are engaged in an act of insanity. We cannot let that be the norm. Let us at least have the decency to be shocked.
(First published 1/18/2019)