Former head of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Lt. General Michael Flynn has joined the ranks of the many recently retired officials openly admitting that what the U.S. military does generates dangers rather than reducing them. (Flynn didn’t explicitly apply this to every recent war and tactic, but did apply it to drone wars, proxy wars, the invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Iraq, and the new war on ISIS, which seems to cover most of the actions the Pentagon engages in. Other recently retired officials have said the same of every other recent U.S. war.)
Once you’ve admitted that the means of mass killing is not justified by some higher end, once you’ve called the wars “strategic mistakes,” once you’ve accepted that the wars don’t work on their own terms, well then there’s no way left to claim that they are excusable in moral terms. Mass killing for some greater good is a tough argument to make, but possible. Mass killing for no damn good reason is totally indefensible and the equivalent of what we call it when it’s done by a non-government: mass murder.
But if war is mass murder, then virtually everything that people from Donald Trump to Glenn Greenwald say about war is not quite right.
Here’s Trump regarding John McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” This is not just wrong because of your view of the good, bad, or indifference of being captured (or what you think McCain did while captured), but because there is no such thing as a war hero. That is the unavoidable consequence of recognizing war as mass murder. You cannot participate in mass murder and be a hero. You can be incredibly brave, loyal, self-sacrificing, and all kinds of other things, but not a hero, which requires that you be brave for a noble cause, that you serve as a model for others.
Not only did John McCain participate in a war that killed some 4 million Vietnamese men, women, and children for no damn good reason, but he has been among the leading advocates for numerous additional wars ever since, resulting in the additional deaths of millions of men, women, and children for, yet again, no damn good reason — as part of wars that have mostly been defeats and always been failures even on their own terms. This senator, who sings “bomb, bomb Iran!” accuses Trump of firing up “the crazies.” Kettle, meet pot.
Let’s turn to what a couple of our best commentators are saying about the recent shooting in Chattanooga, Tenn.: Dave Lindorff and Glenn Greenwald. First Lindorff:
“If it turns out that Abdulazeez was in any way linked to ISIS, then his action in attacking U.S. military personnel in the U.S. and killing them has to be seen not as terrorism but as a legitimate retributive act of war. . . . Abdulazeez, if he was a combatant, deserves credit really, at least for following the rules of war. He appears to have focused his killing remarkably well on actual military personnel. There were no civilian casualties in his attacks, no children killed or even wounded. Compare that to the U.S. record.”
“Under the law of war, one cannot, for instance, legally hunt down soldiers while they’re sleeping in their homes, or playing with their children, or buying groceries at a supermarket. Their mere status as ‘soldiers’ does not mean it is legally permissible to target and kill them wherever they are found. It is only permissible to do so on the battlefield, when they are engaged in combat. That argument has a solid footing in both law and morality. But it is extremely difficult to understand how anyone who supports the military actions of the U.S. and their allies under the ‘War on Terror’ rubric can possibly advance that view with a straight face.”
These comments are off because there is no such thing as a “legitimate retributive act of war,” or an act of mass murder for which someone “deserves credit,” or a “solid” legal or moral “footing” for the permissibility of killing “on the battlefield.” Lindorff thinks a high standard is to target only soldiers. Greenwald thinks targeting only soldiers while they are engaged in war is a higher standard. (One could make an argument that the soldiers in Chattanooga were in fact engaged in war.) Both are right to point out U.S. hypocrisy regardless. But mass murder is neither moral nor legal.
The Kellogg-Briand Pact bans all war. The U.N. Charter bans war with narrow exceptions, none of which is retribution, and none of which is any war that takes place on a “battlefield” or in which only those engaged in fighting are fought. A legal war or component of a war, under the U.N. Charter, must be either defensive or U.N.-authorized. One could fantasize a United Nations without its Western bias accepting an ISIS attack in the United States as somehow defensive against a U.S. attack in what used to be Iraq or Syria, but it wouldn’t get you around the Kellogg-Briand Pact or the basic moral problem of mass murder and of the ineffectiveness of war as a defense.
Lindorff might also consider what “in any way linked to ISIS” means for the U.S. side of the war, in terms of whom the United States claims the right to target, from those guilty of “material support” for trying to promote nonviolence in Iraq, to those guilty of assisting FBI agents pretending to be part of ISIS, to members of groups with ties to ISIS — which includes groups that the U.S. government itself arms and trains.
Lindorff ends his article discussing actions like the Chattanooga shooting in these terms: “As long as we diminish them by calling them acts of terrorism, nobody’s going to demand a halt to the War on Terror. And that ‘war’ is the real act of terrorism, when you come right down to it.” One might exactly as well say: that “act of terrorism” is the real war, when you come right down to it, or: that governmental mass-murder is the real non-governmental mass-murder.
When you come right down to it, we have too much vocabulary for our own good: war, terrorism, collateral damage, hate crime, surgical strike, shooting spree, capital punishment, mass murder, kinetic overseas contingency operation, targeted assassination — these are all ways of distinguishing types of unjustifiable killing that aren’t actually morally distinguishable from each other.