Column, 663 words

New World Disorder

Modern warfare is an exercise in savagery.

Donald Kaul

They were droning on about drones the other day in Washington.

The Senate Intelligence (ha-ha) Committee was grilling CIA chief-designate John Brennan on the use of unmanned aircraft during his tenure as President Barack Obama’s adviser on terrorism.

Drones are being used a lot, according to Brennan, who was in charge of the drone program. But only for a good cause.

His answers satisfied some, not others. Mainly, the critics wanted to make sure we were killing people humanely, with full attention to their human rights. We don’t want to be war criminals.



That’s so mid-Twentieth Century. There was a time when people could actually be shocked by the slaughter of civilians during a war.

The most famous example that comes to mind is the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War.

Guernica was a market town of no particular military importance but it favored the Republican cause during the war. So the infamous Condor Legion, under Hitler’s command, swooped in on a spring day in 1937 and bombed it flat.

The international reaction was immediate and immense. Newspapers all over the world condemned the attack as barbaric and beyond the rules of warfare.

Hundreds of people died in the raid, which Pablo Picasso immortalized in one of the greatest anti-war paintings ever made.

That reaction seems almost quaint in its innocence, given the subsequent events of World War II. By 1945, Hitler had killed thousands more in his rocket attacks on London, destroyed Warsaw, and sent millions to the gas chambers. England had retaliated by leveling Dresden, where 25,000 died. The United States killed 100,000 Japanese in one night of Tokyo firebombing and more than 200,000 by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost all of the dead were civilians.

The United States has bombed dozens of countries since then, all in the name of peace — most dramatically Vietnam and its neighbors, where we used more explosives than we did in all of World War II.

And we’re worried whether our reliance on drones adheres to the finer points of bombing ettiquette? We’re missing the larger moral point.

We kid ourselves that our warfare is moral and clean and good and that it’s the other guys who commit the war crimes. Don’t believe it.

Modern warfare is an exercise in savagery. If you’re not willing to sign up for that, don’t go to war.

Think of napalm, for example, a liquid flame designed to stick to the skin as it burns it away.

Or our flechette bombs, fitted with dozens of barbs to tear apart flesh.

Or our landmines scattered across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, which are still blowing legs off farmers in southeast Asia.

I hearken back to my favorite military philosopher, William Tecumseh Sherman, famous for unapologetically burning down Atlanta during the Civil War.

“War is cruelty,” he said. “There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

Southerners hate Sherman still, but it can’t be said that he didn’t warn them. In a letter to a friend in the South, written on the eve of the war, he said:

“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization…War is a terrible thing!”

Then he made it so.

The recent film that best captures that for me is “Zero Dark Thirty,” about Osama bin Laden’s killing.

It’s been criticized for justifying torture as a means of obtaining information from prisoners, but I don’t think it does.

Rather, it shows with unflinching honesty the tactics we are using. And a nasty piece of work they are.

It would be nice if we could have it both ways: be good guys and triumphant. Unfortunately, life ain’t like that.

Believe Sherman — war is Hell.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

  • Tom Sacco

    Kudos to what ever co. made those land mines still going off in Vietnam, 41 years later. I drop a pair of pliers outside my home, they’re rusted and rendered unusable in a season.

  • Dennis

    We will never know how many civilians we killed bombing IRAQ with all those “surgical” strikes. Hundreds of thousands?

  • Phil

    I am grateful for Donald Kaul’s honest, stark analysis. The numbers are beyond staggering. When will mankind learn that war is “a crime against civilization”.

  • Kieran Kelly

    This “modern warfare” – these post-WWII Western interventions – are “wars” against peoples, not armies. Raphael Lemkin studied the history of this behaviour and he gave this sort of mass violence the name “genocide” noting that the mass violence was accompanied by cultural, social, economic, political and moral attacks on the society of the victims. If you want to understand this cruel and brutal violence, stop pretending its about fighting wars, or that Sherman’s military ruthlessness has any relevance. Indochina, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Korea were imperial genocides used to increase imperial dominance and power.

    • talferris

      Nah, it’s about oil and whose invisible man is better. And, it’s good business! We’ve moved the biggest majority of our manufacturing capability to China, so if we weren’t making war material and selling it, we’d be in an awful pickle. In that regard you might want to tear those pages out of your copy of the ‘manifesto’ or draw a line across each page and mark it obsolete; the ‘imperialist’ paradigm has shifted. We’re back to crusading and making a buck.

  • talferris

    I’m a Southerner and I don’t hate Sherman. He had a special affinity for the South and even returned to the South after the war. But he knew as do most in the profession, that there is nothing noble or honorable about war. There is nothing ‘civil’ about it either. If you have to fight, and I truly mean have to, as a last resort, when you’ve exhausted all of your avenues, then you fight to win. You fight with a ruthless abandon to put an end to it as soon as possible and make sure you win.
    Modern warfare or ancient warfare makes no difference, non-combatants have always suffered, either in blood or property. That hasn’t changed nor will it. But we think that with precision weapons we can limit collateral damage. We can be surgical and precise. And while maybe we’ve gotten better with our technology in that regard, nothing is ever foolproof. In any war, people die. That will never change. The only way to ensure that no one dies in a war is to not fight them. That hasn’t happened across the existence of man. We can put all the high moral ideals we wish forward, and for the most part they do lend themselves to a better world. The problem is, not everyone buys in to it nor will they. Not now, not ever. That’s reality. It doesn’t hurt to dream though and we should. We should strive to make the world a better place than we the way we found it.
    Sherman knew that and the job he had to do. He did it with the ferocity of a man possessed, because to do otherwise would only prolong the agony.
    And a flechette is not a “barb”. It’s more like a little dart or nail with fins, weighing approximately 4 grains.

  • Thomas Ryan

    I agree with you on all fronts Mr. Kaul, but I do hope we keep in mind that the United States is not at war with anyone. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress — and only Congress — the power to declare war. We are killing people, but The United States has not been at war since August of 1945.

    It does scare me to find myself in agreement with Ron Paul, but he’s right on this — the discussion about how we kill people should come after the discussion about who decides they need to be killed in the first place. No President, even one I respect and voted for, should have that power.