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Why good countries fight dirty wars

July 30, 2006|Caleb Carr | Caleb Carr is visiting professor of military studies at Bard College. He is the author of "The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians."

THE DISCOVERY of an alleged mass murder of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in Haditha in November and the more recent rape-murder case in Mahmoudiya that led to charges against five men of the 101st Airborne Division stand in stark contrast to the traditional portrait of the behavior of U.S. armed forces abroad.

Since the time of our own revolution, we have been taught to expect such savage behavior from the inheritors of Attila and Tamerlane, be they Barbary pirates or Nazi Germans -- but not from the armies of democratic nations, the philosophical descendants of ancient Greece and Rome.

The citizen-soldiers sent into the field by the United States or any other Western popular government are expected, by virtue of not so long ago having been free civilians themselves, to be more empathetic with the plight of the noncombatants with whom they come into contact. Certainly, brutal incidents like the My Lai massacre or the Abu Ghraib scandal occur from time to time, but they are widely viewed as cultural aberrations.

This interpretation, however, is as simplistic as it is misleading. All too often the armies of modern democracies have tolerated and even initiated outrages against civilians, in manners uneasily close to those of their totalitarian and terrorist enemies. Israeli troops are currently demonstrating this fact in their response to the Hezbollah rocket offensive -- a response most of the world community, according to recent polls, believes is taking an unacceptably disproportionate toll on Lebanese civilians. And there have been times when democratic leaders have been even more open about their brutal intentions: Speaking of the Allied bombing campaign during World War II that culminated in that consummate act of state terrorism, the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, Winston Churchill flatly stated that the objective was "to make the enemy burn and bleed in every way."

Any examination of why this record of behavior on the part of democracies exists -- and why it has been so carefully distorted -- requires a look back over thousands of years of military history, as well as a willingness to dispense with long-cherished but false historical narratives.

Many of the ancient cultures that provided the philosophical inspiration for the modern West in general, and especially for our founders -- the Roman republic most particularly -- believed in allowing their troops to enslave, rape and impoverish enemy civilians as a matter of reward and routine.

The romantic narrative of chivalric medieval knights, in which noble warriors supposedly rallied their followers to champion the helpless against exploitation, is similarly mythical, created late in the medieval game to conceal the ruthlessness with which those knights and their troops preyed upon merchants and peasants -- a situation that became so ugly and anarchic that, late in the 11th century, Pope Urban II was forced to devise the ingeniously enduring scheme of dispatching murderous, plundering European nobles and their followers to the Holy Land to defend Jerusalem against Islam.

When we hear of such conflicts as the "Peasants' Revolt" in Europe during the early 16th century, we don't tend to think of hideous massacres of civilians by their formerly oppressed equals, but such in fact occurred. And the phrase "wars of religious liberation" does not suggest that those seeking the right to worship as they pleased would commit the same sins as did the often-brutal Catholic Church from which they wished to separate, yet they did.

All this confusion and bloodshed meant that by the early to mid-17th century, Europe was one massive battlefield, with few if any leaders who could really claim to have the interests of noncombatants at heart.

Systematic relief for civilians from such ravages finally began to take shape near the end of the Thirty Years' War in the mid-1600s; but it was not budding democracy that supplied it, nor lofty philosophers seeking to define what constituted "just war." When real reform occurred, it came from some of the most reactionary leaders and rulers of the era.

During the English Civil War (1642-49), for instance, Puritan rebel officers led by that country's future and only military dictator, Oliver Cromwell, discovered that keeping an army under control vis-a-vis civilians had a pragmatic as well as a moral side: It tended to gain the local population's loyalty far faster and more effectively than either threats or long philosophical and political harangues.

Through such simple steps as the strict use of distinctive uniforms (to discourage soldiers from the popular practice of deserting once armed and creating civil mayhem) and the institution of public and severe punishment for anyone caught molesting noncombatants in any way, Cromwell's "New Model Army" solidified popular support more than any other military unit in the war.

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