THE NEW YORKER: Collateral Damage, by Hendrik Hertzberg, Marh 31, 2003
One of the characteristic horrors of what Raymond Aron called the century of total war was the expansion of the battlefield to encompass whole societies. In many of the twentieth century’s conflicts, from the Philippines to Algeria to Vietnam and beyond, the distinction between soldiers and civilians offered the latter scant protection. In the bloodiest of all, the Second World War, both sides adopted a strategy of deliberately killing civilians and destroying cities—usually by means of aerial bombing, and always with the aim of breaking an enemy nation’s will, or, failing that, its physical ability, to continue. The “good war,” in this sense, was bad in the extreme. The damage inflicted upon London and Dresden, Rotterdam and Tokyo, Leningrad and Hiroshima was anything but collateral. It was the whole point.
Whatever else can be said about the war against the Iraqi dictatorship that began on March 19th, it cannot be said that the Anglo-American invaders have pursued anything remotely resembling a policy of killing civilians deliberately. And, so far, they have gone to great tactical and technological lengths to avoid doing it inadvertently, too. Collateral damage is one of those antiseptic-sounding euphemisms that are sometimes more chilling than plain language, so hard do they labor to conceal their human meaning. It would be indecent to belittle the agony that has already been inflicted; you have only to imagine yourself, for example, as the parent or child of one of the dozens of people who were blown apart or maimed last Wednesday, and again last Friday, when stray bombs plowed into Baghdad marketplaces. But this kind of “damage” is indeed “collateral,” not only in that there is a serious effort to avoid it but also in that the intended purpose of the bombing of Baghdad, which so far has apparently been aimed only at military and government installations, has been to break not the will of the Iraqi people but the connections between them and their tyrannical rulers. Indiscriminate bombing would actually strengthen those connections, as we know from the experience of the Second World War and Vietnam. What we do not yet know is whether a different intention, backed by technologies of precision, will produce a different political result. And we do not yet know whether even the intention can survive the transition—which suddenly seems more likely than not—from a quick war of shock and awe to a grinding, protracted struggle, hand to hand and house to house.
The war in Iraq is a new kind of total war. The immense anxiety it is provoking throughout the Western world, perhaps most keenly in the United States, is more than a matter of compassion for the sufferings of people far away. The dread is a kind that hits closer to home. It is bound up with a set of fears that, in the runup to the war, had been invoked in different ways by both supporters and opponents of the impending conflict. One such fear is that “weapons of mass destruction,” especially portable ones, will find their way into the hands of undeterrable terrorists. Another is that what began as a measured campaign against terrorist bands and the handful of rogue states that may or may not try fitfully to use them for their own purposes will morph into a globe-spanning, escalating struggle between the Islamic world and the United States. The Bush Administration maintains that in the end this war will lessen both of these dangers; so, more conditionally, does the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Many others—in good faith, here and abroad—fear that in the end this war will do just the opposite.
The clash of arms is sharply limited in space, in time, and in the number of actual participants; but it is unlimited in its psychic presence in the lives of virtually every sentient person in the developed and half-developed world. The satellites that orbit the earth and the hundreds of millions of television sets that dot it insure that this is so. The fighting may not be total, but the audience is total; and in this sense the war is total. It is a world war. The war as it is seen here is not quite the same as it is seen elsewhere—elsewhere the screen shows more corpses and fewer retired generals with maps and pointers—but everywhere the war fills the field of vision. And this, too, brings its own kind of collateral damage.
One small example: Within hours of the war’s beginning, the Cuban government began systematically arresting its nonviolent opponents and confiscating their papers, typewriters, and other records. Although the handful of leaders whose names are best known abroad have (for that reason) been left alone, those who have been seized make up the bulk of the active civic opposition, which, on account of the option of exile, is as small as it is courageous. Seventy-seven men and one woman were behind bars as of the end of last week, including the poet Raúl Rivero, once the Moscow bureau chief of Prensa Latina, the Cuban news agency, now an independent journalist; Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist and ex-foreign-service officer; and Marcelo López Bañobre, a former tugboat captain, now spokesman for the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. The predicament of these people, who are guilty only of bearing witness to facts the regime wants to suppress, is enviable compared with that of those who are suffering and dying in Iraq today, and also of those who have suffered and died there through the decades of Saddam’s rule. There’s a war on, and Fidel Castro knows it. Absent Iraq, what the Commandante is doing would be front-page news throughout Europe and the Americas; most likely he would not be doing it at all. “Human rights in Cuba can therefore be viewed as one of the first cases of collateral damage in the second Gulf war,” Robert Ménard, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, said on March 21st. “Human rights in other countries could also soon suffer the same fate.” Mr. Ménard is French; even so, he was soon proved right. In Zimbabwe last week, hundreds of opponents of the Robert Mugabe regime were arrested or beaten. There is similar news from Belarus, but it is little seen or heard. The fog of war is thick, and it covers the globe.
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