By John W. Whitehead
“Now thou art come unto a feast of death.”—Shakespeare, 1 Henry VI 4.5.7
War is not about territories. War is not about oil. War is not even about winners and losers. In the end, all that can really be said is that war is about killing. It is about the taking of human life.
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main,” wrote John Donne. “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind…” If this is so, then we belong to a race of human beings that has been greatly diminished over time. In fact, one “atrocitologist” estimates that roughly 174 million people died in the 20th century alone due to acts of war, genocide and tyranny.
War is also about the loss of humanity—a loss that has become an inherent part of modern-day warfare. And with every new death, civilian or otherwise, we lose yet another piece of our humanity and regress toward our primitive, animal instincts. This is what we must grapple with in the wake of the reported assassination of Osama bin Laden and the NATO airstrike said to have claimed the lives of leader Muammar Gaddafi’s 29-year-old son and three young grandchildren. Whether or not it was actually bin Laden or Gaddafi’s relatives who were killed, as some have questioned, is not the issue. As CIA Director Leon Panetta remarked, “Bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaida is not.”
In other words, while Americans may be celebrating the death of “the most infamous terrorist of our time,” seeing it as a fitting act of retribution for the innocent lives lost on 9/11, the war effort is far from over. Indeed, America’s military response to 9/11 has spawned such blowback in the Middle East that we now find ourselves in a permanent state of war.
As a result, the war machine will continue unimpeded and the civilian death toll will rise higher with every passing day. All the while, most Americans, comforted by expressions of patriotism and pride in their military, distracted by mindless entertainment, technological gadgets and materialistic pursuits, and relatively insulated from the devastation being wrought overseas, seem to be unconcerned about the escalating costs of war—in dollars and lives. Even as these endless wars drag America to the brink of bankruptcy, both financially and morally, most Americans continue to live in a state of denial about the part we have played—are playing—in this bloody tragedy.
Modern technology totally dehumanizes warfare and, in the process, totally dehumanizes us as human beings. While it allows us to wage battles from afar, modern technological warfare also reduces the act of killing human beings to nothing more than targeting blips on a screen—a macabre video game with faceless victims and no danger of someone shooting back. And when an American drone annihilates innocent civilians in some far-away land, this is simply written off as yet another technological blip.
I was an infantry officer in the Army from 1969 to 1971. Men in my platoon who had served time in Vietnam told me many stories—but none more chilling than the one from two helicopter pilots. They told me how they would shoot the “friendlies” on their way back from reconnaissance missions just so they could empty their ammunition before returning to base. The “friendlies” were South Vietnamese women and children, helpless victims in a war they did not understand. But to the American pilots, they were simply dots on the ground.
This is what warfare does to so-called civilized people. The U.S.-led Gulf War saw its share of carnage, as did the so-called war on terror that arose following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And once again, there were reports of the indiscriminate killing of civilians by American forces where entire villages were wiped out and women and children lay dead on the cold earth of Afghanistan. Then the American military industrial complex trained its sights on Iraq, once again unleashing its awesome war machine. And the carnage continued, made even worse by horrifying reports of Iraqi prisoners being tortured, raped and subjected to all manner of other abuses at the hands of U.S. soldiers.
Yet despite the rising death toll among the military and civilians, despite the cost to the economy (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone have already cost more than $1 trillion), despite the fact that the American military, acting as an international police force, is spread dangerously thin, despite the fact that Congress has yet to actually declare war against most of the countries in which America is making war (thus undermining the one thing that stands between us and tyranny—our Constitution), the American government continues to bang the war drums. And when all is said and done, after all the blather about national security and fighting terrorism and defending freedom abroad have died down, if these endless wars amount to anything at all, it is nothing less than the utter destruction of every decent and noble ideal for which America is supposed to stand.
The fact that modern technological warfare is turning human beings into non-feeling killing machines should cause us to tremble. It should give us reason to pause and question how we could let ourselves travel so far down the road to perdition. We have placed others on the highway of death. In the end, however, it is we who are traveling the highway of death. May God help us all.