Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-2

(Continued from yesterday.)

Examples of people’s willingness to believe the best about their own tribe and the worst about the tribe opposing them are not hard to find.

For example, I remember when the Iranian airbus civilian plane was shot down by a US navy warship in the Persian Gulf in 1988. Some people in the US went so far as to suggest that this was a diabolical plan by the Iranians, that they actually ordered a plane full of civilians to pretend as if it were a fighter plane dive-bombing a US navy cruiser so that it would be shot down and thus cause the US to look bad. The only reason such a story would be believed (or even proposed) by anyone was if they started out with the view that Iranians were completely evil and diabolical and viewed their own citizens as expendable.

On the other side, some Iranians felt that the US deliberately shot down the plane, knowing full well that it was a civilian commercial flight, because in their view that’s what Americans are like, a bloodthirsty and cruel people with a long history of violence, and who particularly dislike Muslims. This kind of we/they thinking is characteristic of tribal chauvinism.

For another example, in the current Israeli offensive in Lebanon, we recently had the killing of 28 people, mostly women and children, by an Israeli bomb while they were hiding in a shelter in Qana. Incredibly, there were those who suggested that the horrific pictures of dead children being pulled from the rubble were staged for the benefit of the foreign press or that the building may have been destroyed by Hezbollah itself to create sympathy for the Lebanese and antipathy towards Israel. Take this commentary:

The Palestinians, and by extension their rollicking sidekicks around the Muslim world, are the masters of dead-child porn. Looking at the recent releases from this sick culture is like watching a very unfunny Monty Python clip from the Holy Grail movie where the cart is pulled through the city with the chant, “Bring out your dead!”

And the dead are brought out — once they are determined to be photo-op worthy. The Killed-Kids of the Palestinians film series, like all standard porn films or magazines, almost never varies in its presentation. What you see is almost always dead children presented to the world on a platter like some grim roasted entree to be grabbed up and consumed by the ever-voracious cameras of the media and played in an endless looping celebration of carnage to a world. . .”

Dead child porn? Only people who have committed themselves wholeheartedly to this sick narrative that ‘our’ side has to be good and the ‘other’ side has to be evil could take such a scenario seriously. The subsequent killing of 33 farm workers in northeastern Lebanon also resulted in further speculation that perhaps they might not be ‘genuine’ farmers and thus deserved to die. This is the kind of calculus that people like Alan Dershowitz indulge in, to show that some people are ‘less civilian’ than others and thus killing them is not so bad.

Let me be brutally frank. Modern warfare has civilian terror as a central part of its strategy. The idea that warring entities consider civilians to be an inconvenience, that they would prefer it if armies faced each other directly without bystanders around, the noble warriors fighting each other mano a mano, is a quaint throwback to the Napoleonic days, so well described by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. Tolstoy describes soldiers fighting each other on open plains while civilian spectators observed the progress of the battles from the safety of hillsides. The idea that this is what modern day governments and armies would prefer but that pesky civilians get in the way is a bedtime story to lull the gulllible, so that they can sleep better at night while their government wages war, supposedly on their behalf.

The planners of modern warfare have the impact on civilians as central elements of their strategizing. It does not matter if it is the US, Israel, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan government, India Pakistan, or any other entity that engages in war. They all do this and to think that only the ‘bad’ people do so is to indulge in wishful tribal thinking.

When Hezbollah sends in wave after wave of rockets into Israeli cities, their goal is to disrupt normal life in Israel, to show that they have the ability and will to strike inside Israel. By terrorizing the civilian populations of the towns in northern Israel (and there are now an estimated 300,000 Israeli refugees forced to flee their homes and head further south), they are trying to make the point that all the military might of the Israeli armed forces is incapable of protecting the Israeli people.

When Israel unleashed its massive air assault on Lebanese cities such as Beirut, Tyre, Sidon, when it deliberately destroys the Lebanese infrastructure such as roads, ports, bridges, hospitals, and power stations, they are deliberately punishing the people of Lebanon for the actions of a few amongst them, and hoping that their terror and severe hardship and deprivation will cause them to turn on the Hezbollah and disarm them.

Those who see things in tribal ways will find it hard to accept my contention that ‘their’ side is very much like the ‘our’ side when it comes to warfare, and will try and find ways to make discriminations. For example, one hears over and over again that ‘we’ do not target civilians and that when civilians do die as a result of some action taken by us, it is an ‘accident’ or ‘collateral damage; or some such soothing bromide. It is the ‘other’ side that is deliberately targeting civilians.

There are clearly some cases, such as when bombs are set off in marketplaces and theaters and other places where people crowd, when civilians were obviously the targets. This charge can be validly applied to the daily killings that occur daily due to suicide bombers in crowded city centers in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, to the bombing by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, or to the attacks on the World Trade Center.

But most events during wars cannot be the ‘accidents’ their apologists make for them. For me, ‘accidental deaths’ are where one or two people die due to an unfortunate and unexpected turn of events (such as a policeman inadvertently shooting a bystander during a robbery) or even when many people die in a single event due to an error (as often happens in airplane crashes). But when hundreds and thousands of people die or are injured due to a large number of separate events, then we are way past the point where “Oops, I’m sorry, my bad, I did not mean it.” is a satisfactory explanation. As Auric Goldfinger says to James Bond in the film Goldfinger “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

Right now, nearly a thousand Lebanese are dead, one third of them children under 12 years of age, three thousand are injured, and a million people (about a quarter of the population) are refugees, fleeing their homes to escape the bombing. This cannot be excused as accidents or inadvertent.

I think it is true that the US and Israeli military does not deliberately target civilians. This is not because of the blatant immorality of such an action, since morality is not the deterrent that many people like to think it is when it comes to warfare engaged by governments or other state-like entities like Hezbollah. Governments are notoriously cynical and callous about the deaths of civilians. The reason I do not believe civilians are being deliberately targeted is because there would be no point in doing so. You do not have to actually kill people to produce the required terror in the civilian population, and it is only the terror that serves any strategic or tactical purpose. Killing civilians is also not desirable politically because it turns public opinion against you and weakens public support for wars.

What has happened is that civilians in modern wars have ceased be considered as human beings, each of whose lives are valuable, and are now merely public relations props. Consider this exchange between CNN’s Howard Kurtz and Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks on August 6, 2006:

RICKS:. . . I think civilian casualties are also part of the battlefield play for both sides here. One of the things that is going on, according to some U.S. military analysts, is that Israel purposely has left pockets of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, because as long as they’re being rocketed, they can continue to have a sort of moral equivalency in their operations in Lebanon.

KURTZ: Hold on, you’re suggesting that Israel has deliberately allowed Hezbollah to retain some of it’s fire power, essentially for PR purposes, because having Israeli civilians killed helps them in the public relations war here?

RICKS: Yes, that’s what military analysts have told me. 

KURTZ: That’s an extraordinary testament to the notion that having people on your own side killed actually works to your benefit in that nobody wants to see your own citizens killed but it works to your benefit in terms of the battle of perceptions here. 

RICKS: Exactly. It helps you with the moral high ground problem, because you know your operations in Lebanon are going to be killing civilians as well.

When people order the bombing of cities and buildings, they do so with full awareness that civilians are going to die and be injured. When Israel fires a missile at one apartment in an apartment building which supposedly is the residence on a Hezbollah official, they have to be aware that the subsequent collapse of the building is going to result in ordinary people being killed. When they bomb the suburbs of crowded cities like Beirut, it should be no surprise that civilians are going to die. When the US, in its ‘shock and awe’ invasion of Iraq, unleashed a massive assault on the cities and infrastructure of Iraq, they knew very well that they would kill many, many civilians, even if they were not deliberately targeting them.

The issue here is not whether there is deliberate targeting of civilians. That misses the point. What we have is the callous disregard for the deaths and injuries of civilians. All governments and other entities (like Hezbollah) that wage modern warfare, with no exceptions, are guilty of this. What we may argue over, if we are inclined to do so and are still concerned about having ‘our’ tribe be considered morally superior to ‘their’ tribe, are questions of the degree of callousness to the death of civilians. We may, if we wish to follow Dershowitz, construct an elaborate calculus to determine a scale of callousness. Dershowitz seems to have a follower in John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, who seems to hold the view that the deaths of Lebanese civilians are not morally equivalent to the deaths of Israeli civilians. To me, they are equally undeserving of dying and yet equally dead.

But such exercises in creating models of differential culpability are just cynical games of one-upmanship and self-justification, used to remove the shroud of guilt from one’s own tribe and place it over the opposing tribe. In modern warfare, no one occupies the moral high ground anymore. That position, like the hills overlooking the battle plains of yesteryear, has long since been abandoned.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: This Modern World

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, on target as usual.


  1. says

    Dr. Singham —

    I always appreciate your commentary on conflicts in the Middle East, as you generally provide some perspective which I believe is sorely lacking in the average American view of the situation there. However, as I read this entry, a couple questions sprang to mind:

    The first, and probably less central question, relates to the conversation you quoted between the CNN and Washington Post reporters. Is the idea there that the Israeli government has, allegedly, for some time left Hezbollah in possession of rockets, or that in their recent retaliatory strikes they have deliberately left certain of Hezbollah’s launch points undamaged? I checked the transcript and it wasn’t readily apparent from context; perhaps you know one way or the other?

    The other question is somewhat more to the point. Your argument that governments regard civilians in combat as convenient targets for psychological warfare can obviously be supported with any number of apparent examples from history. Moreover, it appeals to my cynical view of governments as disconnected, institutional, inhuman, and largely uncaring toward the actual population of their nation and the world. However, a decision to target civilians would be made by people (albeit that second-rate class of “people” known as politicians); and the outcry one would expect from a nation’s populace on finding that their government were deliberately targeting civilians would, presumably, be a result of the citizens’ humanity, which the politicians had obviously not shared. There seems to me to be a massive disconnect, not only in motivation, but even in psychological makeup, between civilians and those who govern posited by this theory. My cynicism toward government is largely based on the theory that politicians, like many people, are greedy, and will do whatever is most profitable for them, but I don’t think a willingness to target civilians is explained away by greed.

    Is it correct, in your view, to say that there is a significant gap between decision-making politicians and bureaucrats — “the government” — and civilians in this regard? (Maybe it isn’t; I know people whose proposed response to 9/11 was to “turn the entire Middle East into a sheet of glass,” which hardly seems humane or fair.) And, if it is correct, what causes this gap? Do we, as a rule, prefer those in charge to be psychopaths who see the weak and helpless as stepping-stones to glory? Is that just the kind of person who winds up running things? Or do the demands of conducting efficient warfare dictate such policies?

  2. says


    I do not have any more information about what Ricks meant than what is in the article. From my reading, I think he means the second of your two options.

    I do think there is a significant difference between governments and the people but the nature of that gap and the reasons it has arisen are complex.

    I think that governments are run for tbenefit of the elites of any country and the rules are such as to enable only those who are willing to serve the interests of those elites to succeed.

    I do not think that the people who run countries are psychopaths or differ psychologically from the rest of us. I do not think many of them are that cynical either. And they may not even be unusually greedy in the common sense of the term.

    I do think they are people who find it easy to convince themselves that what they do is for the good of the country when in fact they are serving the interests of a few. I do think they are people who like to have power. I think that they are people who are insecure and thius unusually susceptible to flattery and enjoy pomp and pageantry. These are the kinds of people who are willing to do what it takes to get into power.

    So the process is such that it filters through a certain kind of person.

  3. Mark says

    Well, personally, I don’t think politicians are “unusually” greedy — I think a pretty standard level of greed suffices to explain the corruption and bureaucracy we see, at least in the US. 😉

    I’m still a little confused, though, and I think maybe I got a little too wordy with my last post. I’d like to think most people consider the deliberate targeting of civilian populations to be somewhat reprehensible, with allowances for extreme circumstances — hence the we/they thinking you mention. Why, then, wouldn’t the politicians who run governments share that view?

    Obviously, we can’t determine the motivations and thought processes of every bureaucrat involved in these decisions, and any or all of them may have strictly “good” or strictly “bad” reasons for arriving at such a course of action, but it’s a question that bothers me, nonetheless. Maybe, as you say, they’ve just become insulated and convinced themselves that they’re doing something for the good of the country.

  4. Mary says

    Very insightful post Mano.
    I remember hearing decades ago the idea that everything that annoys you about someone else is really just a projection of a part of yourself that you are not conscious of -- parts of yourself that you have denied or repressed for some reason.   Although I always fight againt this idea, it usually turns out to be true, ugh!
    So if this is true, and if the whole reflects the sum of its parts, are we merely projecting our collective “us” onto the “them”.
    It’s seems so apparent when I listen to the two sides of the Middle East battles -- sometimes it’s hard to determine who is who, “their” words describing the “other” can just as easily be describing “themselves”.
    It’s a bit harder to see when you are part of the collective -- yet our “words” describing the terrorists do seem to align remarkably well with our “actions” against them.

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