by Gavan P. Gray
March 30, 2003
The question of whether it is just to sacrifice a few for the betterment of all has been a cornerstone of ethical thought since the time of the Greeks. It is a simple question and perhaps it is this simplicity that ensures there is never an easy answer. What we can be sure of is that the act of sacrificing the few is never a noble thing and that even if done in the name of a greater good the guilt of that action should forever remain with the benefactors to remind them of the price paid for their welfare.
We are now, with the crisis in Iraq, faced with such a just such a conundrum. Is it right for hundreds, if not thousands of civilians, to be sacrificed to the bombs and bullets of US troops (I say US as there has been little confirmed evidence of the Iraqis firing on their own people) to "liberate" them from Ba'ath party rule. We can simplify the question by pretending that Hussein would be replaced by a true democracy rather than the unpopular pro-American puppet sure to be forced upon a bitter and resentful nation, yet even then does the "golden rule" apply? Set forth in centuries past by some of humanity's greatest minds; people such as Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Confucius and Rabbi Hillel, this simple question asks "how would you react if it were done to you"?.
In the US the smallpox immunisation program has begun to run into opposition following two deaths in recent weeks. The program, designed to immunise roughly 500,000 soldiers, medics and other personnel with a slightly higher chance of encountering the virus, was always likely to claim some lives. This was decided to be an acceptable risk to protect so many against a potential encounter with the threat and of course it was entirely voluntary. Even so, now that two unfortunate victims have succumbed to the side effects there have been calls to end the program. Whether this will happen is open to question now that it is so far along its path. We can ask though would the reaction against the program be stronger if people were forced to participate, if it were not voluntary. What kind of backlash would we be seeing if the nurse and soldier who died from their shots had been opposed to receiving them in the first place?
Lets take it a step further and ask what the outcry would be like if we knew for a fact that ten times this number of unwilling participants would be sure to die.
This is the same proportion of the Iraqi civilian population likely to die as a result of the current war. With no say in the matter, against their will, this "liberation" is forced upon them by the US for "the greater good".
Of course this is based on the most conservative possible estimate, which is of 1,000 civilian casualties projected by the Pentagon out a population of 25 million. More pessimistic estimates put final civilian casualty figures at least ten times higher with countless more left maimed and traumatised and still it does not take into account either the results of the humanitarian crisis likely to befall the surviving population or the military deaths of many who are simply defending the sovereignty of their country rather than Saddam Hussein.
What can be done though? This decision has been made already, it was never left open for debate long enough for this comparison to be made to the American people, certainly the compliant mainstream media never brought it to their attention. Perhaps all that can be done is to accept the burden of guilt for supporting this barbaric act or doing too little to oppose it. Even if the many voices decrying the war as unjust and illegal are incorrect and it truly is a noble cause, it is vital that the innocent Iraqis sacrificed to this effort are never forgotten. If anything good comes from war the price that was paid must be remembered.
And yet how many Americans dependent on CNN and Fox news are aware of the deaths now occurring among the women and children of Iraq being cut down by bombs even as their husbands and sons are felled by the irresistible onslaught of American technology? Even among the Senators or Congressmen who should be the most highly informed of spectators how many have seen the images of children with their feet turned to grisly mockeries of flesh or their skulls laid wholly open?
If we are to remember the consequences of both our action and inaction these young lives must not be taken casually. Whether it is right to go to war is a matter for debate but to let young children die anonymously wholly out of the sight and thoughts of those who passed their death sentence is inexcusable.
Perhaps the matter could be properly handled if members of government who support a war guaranteed to claim innocent lives were more visible in their willingness to get their pristine hands a little bloody. All it would take would be to abduct a dozen or so young Iraqi children and bring them to Capitol Hill. Once there, lots could be drawn to see who would have the privilege of putting their principles to the test. The lucky winners would be handed a gun and told to take one of the children by the hand. Not wishing to traumatise the entire assemblage they would be permitted to lead the child to another adjacent room
where the reverberation of a single gunshot would announce that they had fulfilled their service to their nation. Now that they had shown that they were fully prepared to accept the moral consequences of the "greater good" creed, war would be permitted to proceed and the bloody handed senator or congressman could return to receive the praise due to him as a true patriot and defender of democracy.
For politicians the carnage they bring into motion must always be carried out far from themselves and their loved ones. They must remain dignified, untouched by the horror and tragedy they have unleashed and which continues every moment of their sheltered lives. Its true that some of them in their past have fought and killed for their country but now they enjoy an elevated status where murder for the greater good is left to younger men. Men in large part convinced of the rightness of their cause or unconcerned as to its legality, "soldiers" such as Sgt. Eric Schrumpf of the US Fifth Marine Regiment.
Sgt. Schrumpf has a very clear conception of the "greater good" ideology and is happy in his work.
"We had a great day, we killed a lot of people." Says Schrumpf, "We dropped a few civilians but what do you do?"
Killing a lot of people refers to both the Iraqi militia he and his comrades faced and the women and children near them when they engaged the American troops.
"It's a judgement call," says Schrumpf's colleague Corporal Mikael McIntosh.
The sort of judgement they would use was laid out quite clearly. If a lone Iraqi soldier was surrounded by 25 women and children they would hold their fire, however if it was only 3 women and children it would be a different matter.
This judgement had in fact been put into practice they claimed when their unit opened fire on a soldier who was near several Iraqi women. It's not clear whether they hit the soldier but at least one of the women was taken down by their gunfire.
"I'm sorry," Schrumpf said. "But the chick was in the way."
It remains open to question whether this is enough to warrant the "excessive incidental death" status that would make it a war crime under the terms of the International Criminal Court but does well enough to point out the crux of the "greater good" question. If you and your unit can be better protected by killing both an Iraqi gunman and a young child playing beside him do you simply kill them both because your five lives outweigh their two or do you look for a different solution even to the extent of retreating from confrontation?
I dearly hope that the vast majority of Americans would have a different opinion on this question than that evidently held by Sgt. Schrumpf.
Gavan Gray is a teacher currently living in Osaka, Japan. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org