These days we are asked — or more accurately coerced — to give our assent to some strange things. Take the recent adventure of Richard Phillips, Captain of the USS Maersk Alabama, held hostage by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa, in the spring of 2009, for five days. Rescued, he wanted none of the fanfare and accolades usually conferred on a courageous and selfless captain of a ship but, instead, asked the country to turn its admiring eye on three sharpshooters from the Navy SEALs. Standing on the shifting fantail of their Navy destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, the snipers drew a bead on the pirates, who were themselves bobbing up and down in their lifeboat and, from a distance of several hundred yards, killed all three pirates instantaneously with a single shot apiece.
Extraordinary marksmanship — a near impossibility — but the SEALs miraculously pulled it off: death with precision, assassination with magic. Upon his homecoming in Vermont, Phillips announced to the waiting and adoring crowd: "They're the superheroes. They're the titans. They're impossible men doing an impossible job, and they did the impossible with me. They're at the point of the sword every day, doing an impossible job every day."
A part of me does indeed think those three Navy SEALs accomplished something remarkable. I believe in them, above all else, as superb professionals — deep resolve coupled with deadly aims. They are highly trained assassins and they performed their job profoundly well — so well that in just a few minutes time Captain Phillips used the word impossible four times — three times in a single sentence. Virtually every news account entices us — instructs us — to admire the heroics of those shooters. But, should we admire them? Do we really have to? Should we really be in awe of their ability to do with such brilliant efficiency and precision what is most abhorrent to civilized people: the extermination of another human being? I could not find a single dissenting voice in the print media, not a letter to any editor or an op-ed piece in any major newspaper that questioned the killing of those pirates.
Those snipers offered Americans a glimpse of the real — no special effects aboard those ships, no CGI in play on those vessels. No simulacrum there or cowardly inaction or intellectual procrastination: the order is given, the execution executed. This was highfaluting stuff, with enough of the real to make Jean Beaudrillard proud. After all, the authorization to shoot to kill came from the highest authority — nearly — from the President of the United States himself. The vignette seems to say, if you just put your mind to it, if you just allow yourself to enter wholly into the Zen of revenge — or worse yet, move beyond it so that no other human beings exist — you, too, can achieve greatness. All of which leaves me with a powerfully disturbing and fundamental question: what do we turn ourselves into — what do we become — when, even begrudgingly, we grant those assassins our admiration, even our awe for killing, especially in such a storied way?
I can hear the critics: What would you have the SEALs do? Let the captain die an agonizingly slow and stupid death? Besides which, those SEALs put an end to Somali piracy for more than just the moment; their swift action will reverberate for years and years, letting other pirates know that this country, at least, will not stand for such blatant lawlessness. The world simply cannot condone piracy and encourage such flagrant examples of anarchy on the high seas. The SEALs pulled the trigger for law and order around the world.
But the issues are not that simple. We cannot count the pirates as the purely bad guys and the SEALs and the captain as the solidly good guys. For one thing, we, the United States, have to share a good deal of the responsibility for the creation of those modern pirates. From the moment of our military intervention in Mogadishu, in 1993, when we massacred some 1,000 Somalis in a single firefight — lots of them women and children — the Somalis fought us off in the most ferocious manner as the unwelcome invaders. (Most people probably know this episode in failed American intervention from the Ridley Scott film that dramatized the invasion, Black Hawk Down.) That African nation has now endured civil war for nearly 20 years, leaving Somalis with no food and no water and no hope and little governmental infrastructure. When people face the horror of starvation, they will do anything to survive, including stealing from stores. When there are no stores, they will steal from the wealthy — in this case, huge American container ships loaded with goods they can sell for money, or people they can hold hostage in exchange for money.
This is not, of course, the first time that, in the midst of killing and assassination, death and maiming, Americans have been asked to applaud the killers. I think of the most obvious recent examples of heavy-duty killing: war. By some counts, the United States has killed upwards of one million men, women, and children in the war in Iraq (not counting those killed or maimed in Afghanistan). Some of those dead we even considered the enemy. We invaded Iraq, as everyone but the most ideologically blinded now knows, without justifiable provocation or any truly compelling reason — not compelling enough, certainly, to justify such enormous loss of life on both sides.
Very quickly after Shock and Awe, the insurgency grew in number and ferocity, maiming or killing thousands of GIs. Those so-called insurgents desperately wanted America out of their country; polls conducted of Iraqi citizens revealed the same desire — America be gone! Indeed, as U.S. troops began withdrawing from the major cities, on July 1, 2009, Iraqis couldn't wait to celebrate with parties and fireworks. Deep down in the recesses of the collective American heart — that is, stored away as a terrible and frightening secret — many people cheered the insurgency on, hoping they would indeed drive America out of their country sooner rather than later. A great many did not support the troops. They never supported the troops. Bumper stickers instructing us all to do just that angered a great many people, who did not want to see soldiers die in battle, but who flatly could not support them or their mission.
Nonetheless, because of that stance, a great many Americans tacitly condoned the killing of young American men and women in uniform. In their minds, every death took the country a step closer to declaring an end to the stupidity that was Iraq. One of the major reasons the Vietnam War slowly lost steam is that Americans came to believe that too many young men and women were dying halfway around the world in a place that those Americans, finally, cared little about and knew even less about. Confronted with enough killing of young Americans, even the staunchest of patriots, the most heated of hawks, will demand an end to war.
And that seems to be the only way wars end in this country — they peter out through a feeling of general fatigue, a gradual seeping away of the collective will. Body counts mark the country's long slog to chaos — in the case of Vietnam, near 60,000 GIs dead and an astonishing three million Vietnamese killed. One can sense the end coming, as the press begins to use words and phrases like "quagmire" or "peace with honor" or "withdrawal from the major cities" or "the cessation of hostilities," or even the deft "transfer of power." This country — or any other, for that matter — had not dared use the word victory for a very long time, until George W. Bush made his bold announcements of "Mission Accomplished" and "One Victory Against Terrorism" aboard the USS Lincoln in May 2003. He paid for those PR gaffes for the rest of his presidency.
The question I am raising — and I raise it first about myself — is how to stay human in the midst of a world that expresses its seriousness and concern in the most distorted ways, for instance by parsing distinctions between plain old-fashioned killing, as opposed to murder, on the battlefield in Iraq, or between something called "enhanced interrogation methods" and torture off the battlefield in Guantanamo. How can we maintain our own moral integrity when we see violated in the grossest ways imaginable the commandment we knew from our earliest age, Thou Shalt Not Kill?
All of that pales for me, however, in the face of the most critical decision we need to make. How can we continue our good faith efforts in recycling techniques and green practices knowing that the single largest polluter in this country, surpassing factories and cars, the United States military, overwhelms our efforts each and every day? I include in the military's output of poison not just the standard greenhouse gases, but also much more deadly and persistent elements like depleted uranium. I call this our most critical decision because it involves the life and death of the planet itself.
Here, we can make a bold choice; we can take a radical stance. If we truly care about the continuation of all life on the planet, we must not just oppose the current war in Iraq and the current escalation in Afghanistan. We must oppose all war — now and in the future. Any other stance supports wholesale killing. Any other stance says no to all life on the planet — indeed, to the planet itself.
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Barry Sanders has recently retired as Professor of the History of Ideas from Pitzer College. He is the author of eleven books, including A Is For Ox and Sudden Glory. Barry and his wife divide their time between Pasadena, California, and Portland, Oregon. He currently holds a five-year appointment as Fulbright Senior Scholar.
Books mentioned in this post
Barry Sanders is the author of The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism