War Can No Longer Be Homeric, Just Deadly

February 18, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington.

For many centuries, the West derived its martial ethic from a book. Homer's ''Iliad'' celebrated combat in close quarters, between symmetrically armed adult male warriors, on neutral ground, far from women and children. Individuals' virtues, such as strength and bravery, not differences of weapons, were decisive. Hence the Homer's disdain for the bow: ''My way is not to fight my battles standing far away from my enemies.''

But long-range killing -- by gun, bomb, missile -- became approved almost as quickly as it became possible. It was conducive to a kind of social callousness. The consequences of military action were unclear to the actors. Then came the graphic revolution in journalism.

That revolution -- pictures supplementing, and sometimes supplanting, print -- produces this paradox: Journalism supplies information to nourish reason, but some pictures, such as those of Wednesday's carnage in Baghdad, stir passions that paralyze reason.

A second paradox is that the pictures of the bombing of what was, in part, an air-raid shelter, had an impact in America that underscores this fact: America is waging this war in a way superior to the tendency of modern war, the tendency of wars against populations to replace wars between armies.

On Wednesday, U.S. fighter-bombers hit the target they sought, using munitions that minimize collateral damage. But the target was more than -- not other than -- what U.S. targeters thought. And Americans' anguish in the aftermath speaks well of them.

However, moral responsibility also involves facing this fact: When Americans voted for war, as they did through Congress, and when they did so while defining the enemy regime as Hitlerian, they embarked on a course of action that had to include civilian casualties.

Substantial civilian casualties, in spite of discriminating weaponry and targeting, is implicit in U.S. strategy. That strategy was implicit in the tactics used in the war's first hours. Formally, -- the war is being waged to drive Iraqi forces north from Kuwait. Actually, the war is being waged from north to south because this war is not territorial. Its aim is not to displace an occupier, but rather to damage, perhaps to the point of destruction, a regime.

Until Wednesday's pictures from Baghdad, this war had been for most Americans a bit bland, too entertaining, the stuff of souvenir sales. There is something unattractive about airport concession stands selling various Desert Storm T-shirts, among those with NFL and NBA logos. America may need to be dealing death, but almost no Iraqi, civilian or conscript, ''deserves'' to die.

This war, like all wars, is full of tragedy. America, enlisting technology in the service of a civilized sensibility, has sought to minimize the tragedy by maximizing precision in the application of force. But although America is resisting the desensitizing effects of this century's wars -- long-distance wars of air power -- we have not been immune from those effects.

Today's vocabulary speaks volumes about the callousness war has wrought on the world. A frequently asked question is whether Iraq will use weapons of ''mass destruction,'' meaning gas. But the two laser-guided bombs that struck the Baghdad bomb shelter accomplished what once was called ''mass destruction.''

Observers of the battle of Ravenna in 1512, the first battle decided by an artillery barrage, considered it mass destruction when one ball claimed 33 casualties. A year later, at Novara, also in Italy, cannon killed 700 in three minutes. When in 1784 Gen. Henry Shrapnel developed the first exploding artillery shell containing subprojectiles, that routinized ''mass destruction." At least it was massive compared to the killing of Homeric warfare, killing with edged weapons and muscle power, before war was dominated by chemical energy (explosives).

Indiscriminate force causing vast collateral damage existed before World War II, when air power delivered huge tonnages of free-falling bombs from great heights, often at night. What happened Wednesday in Baghdad was a particular tragedy in a context of general tragedy, but it also was part of America's attempt to edge back from the 20th century's moral abyss. That abyss beckons when long-range killing gives rise to abstractness about its consequences.

George Will is a syndicated writer.

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