Yellow ribbons and mass murder

Joe Morton

March 22, 1991|By Joe Morton

ON THE CAMPUS of Goucher College, the large trees in the built-up area of the campus are still ringed by yellow ribbons. The students have fled for spring break; the campus is almost deserted -- just as it was on Jan. 17, a few days before courses began.

The "mother of battles" never happened; it wasn't another Vietnam. Why, the whole thing didn't last half a semester! Despite all the talk of Armageddon, it turned out to be scarcely a blip in our lives.

I have no idea who tied the bows on those trees. I doubt if anyone would feel right to remove them, so they will probably stay 'til wind and rain wear them away. I think it is important to have those sober reminders. The suffering of most Americans -- whether they shed blood or opposed the shedding of blood -- is over. But for a few of "us" and far more of "them," the war will not be over soon, or ever. It would not be right for those of us who got off lightly to forget too quickly.

I did earnestly hope that every man and woman in our armed forces would return home, not only alive but emotionally and physically uninjured. I hoped just as much that no member of the Iraqi armed forces would be killed or injured. Iraqi soldiers were every bit as innocent -- or guilty -- as ours; indeed, they must have had much less choice about entering the service.

If both sides had succeeded in destroying all of those tanks, guns and planes without producing a single casualty, the world would have been much better for it -- unless of course (as is all too likely) the fools on both sides rush in to rearm, now that hostilities have ended.

Yes, the ideal would be to annihilate the arsenals on both sides, but leave no single human being dead, maimed or traumatized. Preposterous? Why so? If we are able to devise neutron bombs which can kill all the humans but leave buildings and equipment intact, couldn't we work just as hard to achieve the opposite?

Unfortunately, that wouldn't be enough. For what we need even more than to destroy all the weapons is some way to destroy all the hatred. To achieve that, we would need to reduce all the fear -- and its major causes: poverty, disease, lack of education, inequality. Some people work hard at that, some have for generations and for centuries, but they are far too few and grievously underfunded. You can get the government to pay $700 for a wrench or a toilet seat for "defense," but I don't think you could get 70 cents for a workshop helping people get along with relatives or neighbors. Renegotiable deals and enormous cost overruns are OK for weapons contractors but not for school counselors. So the bulk of federal taxes continues to be used for sophisticated instruments of destruction, while we have practically given up on finding means of conciliation.

Since even the smartest of the weapons kill, the goal of destroying arsenals without injuring people is sheer fantasy. It is precisely that inevitability of countless casualties that makes warfare not a sport, not a refined version of Pac-Man, not the "extension of politics," but mass murder.

The logic is fairly simple: Murder is the killing of innocent people. If the troops are innocent, then deliberately killing them is murder. If they aren't innocent, the reason is that they're involved in the mass murder of those on the other side. Is there a way to avoid this predicament? I don't see one. Note that the decision-makers -- those truly responsible -- are the ones least likely to be injured; and the victims are more likely to be noncombatants than members of the armed forces.

That is why I could not support our troops in their murderous venture, much as I did earnestly support them as people, hoping for them, their relatives, and all their counterparts on the Iraqi side, a return safe in soul and body.

Forty years ago, before our class learned even the rudiments of Latin grammar, we were given the sentence to memorize: Dulce et decorum est pro patria more -- "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." To condemn those who have risked all and given all for loved ones and countries through the ages would be spiteful and hypocritical. I condemn the instigators and beneficiaries and "legitimators" of wars: the dictator so ready to commit any atrocity and sacrifice any number of soldiers for his vainglory, the president who lacks the courage and patience to let peaceful means take effect, the "leaders" of nations all over the world who choose age after age to ride the crest of war hysteria because they are so incompetent to deal with the real needs of their societies.

Guilt is not theirs alone. Most of us share in it: all of us who benefit in some way, but close our eyes to injustices and do far less than we could to promote human understanding. Our peaceful intentions are far too tame -- rarely as intense as the zeal for armed conflict.

Presidents and prime ministers, sheiks and kings give few signs of altering their age-old customs. Change will come only when ordinary citizens -- much nobler than their "superiors" -- slowly learn the ways of harmonious cooperation, so they can stop practicing the ways of violence. There is no time to lose: education for peace is desperately needed to counter the atrocities of "leaders."

Joe Morton is a professor of philosophy at Goucher College.

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