Saving the Village

by Ryan McGreal

Let’s set aside, for just a moment, the whole thorny issue of America’s justification to invade Iraq. One problem with using aggression for any means is that it gets progressively easier to disregard the value of a life. Recently, an American soldier gunned down a ten-year-old Iraqi boy who had been sent to recover weapons from a dead Iraqi militant. The soldier made the obvious statement that paramilitary forces who would send children into harm’s way are “cowards.” Then he said something very interesting:

“I think they thought we wouldn’t shoot kids. But we showed them we don’t care ... It’s not about killing people. It’s about accomplishing a mission.” [1]

Having a different perspective outside the military and away from the front lines, I have to disagree with the soldier. It most certainly is “about killing people.” That’s what happens in a war - people kill each other. When trying not to be the one who is killed, it makes sense to focus on “accomplishing a mission,” but this draws our attention away from the fact that the American government made a decision to order humans to commit acts of violence against other humans to accomplish that mission.

The Iraqi soldiers who sent that ten-year-old boy into danger did so because they thought American soldiers wouldn’t shoot a child. They sought to hide behind a shield of human compassion. I won’t try to explain the cynicism that leads to this kind of thinking. But how cynical is it that the Iraqi soldiers’ trust in American compassion turned out to be misplaced? By gunning down a ten-year-old, this soldier just demonstrated that America won't allow human compassion to deflect it from its mission.

My heart goes out to this American soldier as it goes out to his victims. He will carry the pain of his decision – to shoot a child picking through the rubble so a rocket-propelled grenade doesn’t fall into his enemy's hands – with him for the rest of his life. He didn’t instigate this invasion, and he has probably seen enough to know that the claims of Saddam Hussein’s depravity are well founded. But he has also become an experienced killer working for his government in a foreign land.

I temporarily set aside the question of whether America should even be in Iraq. Now it’s time to reconsider that question in light of one soldier’s choice to kill or be killed. What does that choice say about the administration that placed him in this predicament?

The Rumsfelds, Perles, and Wolfowitzes in Washington know that a young, scared soldier in the heat of battle will shoot first and ask questions later. (Doubtless, what remains of the Iraqi leadership knows this too, and has been banking on the bad PR that comes from civilian casualties.)

They also know that the American public doesn’t want American soldiers coming home in body bags. They use that to draw the public’s attention away from the validity of their justification to achieve their goals through unprovoked violence.

What would you do if you were that soldier? He’s just trying to stay alive; what gives anyone the right to judge him?

All true, all true. Which is why Bush and company knew they could get away with ignoring the protests and forging ahead with the invasion, hiding behind calls to “support the troops.” Sitting comfortable at home, I cannot judge the young soldier on the battlefield who just wants to get home safe.

I do reserve the right to judge the people who sent him there.

“We are a peaceful nation,” Bush has said, but America just invaded a country without provocation, without justification, on a wave of false pretences and deceits. We know that Iraq was already effectively disarmed. But instead of allowing diplomacy – slow, frustrating diplomacy that nevertheless leaves everyone intact – to work, America abandoned the United Nations and invaded anyway.

At least 1,100 Iraqi civilians are already dead [2], and the most grueling part of the campaign – rooting out resistance in the cities – is just beginning. Each time the soldiers kill, it gets easier to kill again, and it gets easier for the enemy to resort to drastic measures in its futile attempts to stave off the invasion. Once suicide bombers hide behind a civilian façade, all bets are off. American soldiers can no longer afford the luxury of distinguishing between soldiers and civilians. To their eyes, every Iraqi becomes a combatant.

Certainly, Iraqi tactics have contributed to this erasure of the distinction between soldiers and civilians. But what else can Iraqis do against an overwhelmingly superior invading force?

America expected the people of Iraq to celebrate their arrival as “liberators.” When this didn’t happen, the invasion subtly entered a new phase. American soldiers do whatever is necessary to accomplish their mission, even if it means gunning down children. Iraqi militants do the same, even if it means suicide attacks and guerilla tactics. The value of a life goes into sharp decline on both sides.

Once again America is destroying the village in order to save it. Let us not forget who decided the village needed ‘saving’ in the first place.

One thing is certain: the next time a country decides to ‘save a village,’ it will be even easier to erase the distinction between combatants and civilians.

Ryan McGreal


  1. Kieran Murray, “US troops face children, and hard calls, in battle”, Reuters, 7 April 2003,
  2. Iraq Body Count

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