Friday, February 04, 2005

A Self-Inflicted Wound

Yesterday, speaking in a forum at the San Diego Convention Center, Lt. Gen. Jim "Mad Dog" Mattis said, "Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight, you know. It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right upfront with you, I like brawling." He continued: "You go into Afghanistan, you've got guys who slapped women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."

One can almost envision Lt. Gen. Mattis as Lt. Col. Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) in Apocalypse Now delivering that famous line: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." But the napalm line was a screenwriter's creation--in an antiwar film, no less. Mattis, on the other hand, spoke his lines in a public forum and in an age when news travels fast. Based on a check of English-language sources only, the remarks have already been published in Australia, China, India, and Bulgaria, not to mention on the CNN International site. The comments have no doubt made it into the news (and into anti-American propaganda) in the Middle East as well.

Weapons sold to Iraq and to the mujahideen in Afghanistan by the United States have already been used against Americans (and may be yet again). Mattis's words are no different. They are ammunition delivered on a silver platter to those who want to attack the United States. For this reason, if for no other, the response of Lt. Gen. Mattis's superiors should have been much harsher than it has been thus far. (Defense Secretary Rumsfeld declined to comment on the remarks at a Pentagon briefing yesterday. Gen. Peter Pace, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Hagee, has "counseled" Mattis.)

No doubt Lt. Gen. Mattis can believe that "it's fun to shoot some people" and still understand that it is wrong, even in war, to shoot prisoners, soldiers who are hors de combat, and others who are not taking part in hostilities. Perhaps Gen. Pace was correct when he said that Lt. Gen. Mattis's conduct in war proves him to be a commander who "understands . . . the value of human life." Mattis's comments will inevitably raise questions about that. But, more importantly, it is a sad fact of warfare that innocents are often killed. To those who subscribe to the war convention (that is, the traditional just war theory and the laws of war that have been constructed on that moral framework), the intent of those who kill noncombatants (or those who order attacks that result in the killing of noncombatants) is morally and legally significant. One must never intend the deaths of noncombatants even where those deaths are foreseeable.

It would be easier for the whole world to believe that the thousands of deaths of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan due to American action were unintended if Mattis had said, as many soldiers before him have said, that although killing is sometimes necessary, it is always to be lamented.