Fighting war in the public eye

The recent release of a previously classified military video by the website WikiLeaks has once again reignited the firestorm over the nature of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A central thesis of the people who oppose the war(s) based on this video is that it proves the barbarity and indiscriminate nature of US Forces operating in those two countries and elsewhere and that those characteristics rob those forces of any moral legitimacy regardless of the barbarity and indiscriminate nature of their foes.

I posit a different view, and it is a view that is in no way a defense of what may or may not have happened in this particular incident.

War, whether or not nations follow rules, is a brutal, bloody, horrifying business. People die in war. Nations are brutalized in war. Generations are scarred in war. No matter how civil, humane, and limited anyone tries to make it, war will always be what it is.

During wars, all kinds of mistakes will be made. The wrong people will be killed. Civilians, including children and women, will be harmed. The militaries of moral and civil societies will do what they can to prevent and minimize such things as much as possible, but they will continue to happen, sometimes at an alarming rate.

Now, there are times when civilians are killed or harmed because of negligence or malfeasance on the part of military personnel, and those acts should be dealt with in the appropriate way as they occur. The fact that such incidents do occur on occasion, however, is not evidence of a broader trend on the part of the entire military.

Yet, that conclusion is exactly the one that far too many people will come to based solely on the evidence of a single video over an incident that they otherwise know little or nothing about.

Unfortunately, the existence of ever-present yet rarely accurate or complete media coverage of war makes the nature of war hard to understand for the vast majority of the industrialized world population who has never experienced or participated in it. As a result,  many people in those populations come to conclusions that cannot be supported by the actual facts or by the nature of war itself. In short, most people oppose war, extant wars, and even the use of violence itself because they have no idea what they are talking about.

Also unfortunate is the fact that these unexperienced, uninformed people have significant influence over their governments. Their visceral reaction to the horror of war causes them to demand that their governments place limits on how their militaries fight war even while those wars are underway. They demand that military members who they perceive to have violated their perception of how war should be fought be prosecuted by the government and that the military itself be treated like a pariah.

And what they accomplish is the very thing they think they seek to avoid. As militaries engaged in conflict have more limitations place on them by their governments and people, the wars become harder to fight, the potential for mistakes and unintentional harm become more pronounced, and the risk of defeat in the face of a defeatable enemy becomes more real.

There is a reason that modern nations have modern professional militaries. Governments and citizens experience in war realized that the best way to ensure that militaries fight wars as quickly and successfully as possible is to make sure that they are the best at fighting them. Yes, mistakes will be made and, sometimes, wrong things will be done even by professional militaries, but these incidents reflect the nature of war more than the nature of the militaries fighting them.

Of course, unless opponents of war choose to educate themselves on the facts of war and of these particular wars, they will remain unconvinced. Even then, their lack of conviction does not change the facts of war, whatever they might think the video shows them.


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