Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Depersonalizing "The Enemy"


A few years ago, Richard Cohen personified the mindset that Bob Herbert finds so troubling. After explaining how he supported the Vietnam war until he was drafted, "no longer felt it was winnable" and he "did not want to lose my life so that somehow defeat could be managed more elegantly", Cohen drew a parallel to Iraq:
[O]riginally had no moral qualms about the war. Saddam Hussein was a beast who had twice invaded his neighbors, had killed his own people with abandon and posed a threat - and not just a theoretical one - to Israel. If anything, I was encouraged in my belief by the offensive opposition to the war - silly arguments about oil or empire or, at bottom, the ineradicable and perpetual rottenness of America.

On the contrary, I thought. We are a good country, attempting to do a good thing. In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic. The United States had the power to change things for the better, and those who would do the changing- the fighting - were, after all, volunteers. This mattered to me.
"Therapeutic" presumably meaning, "I thought it would make me feel better."

It was only when Cohen decided that the Iraq war could be lost that the numbers of U.S. soldiers dying for that cause started to concern him. The number of Iraqis (or Vietnamese) dying, before or after Cohen's change of heart on the war - either war? Apparently not a consideration. Continuing his theme from the earlier column, Cohen writes:
There are so few [war dead] - so few that in total for Iraq and Afghanistan we cannot even approach some individual battles of the Civil War or World War II, during which more than 19,000 Americans died at the Battle of the Bulge alone. In eight years, about 5,300 American service members have died in the two wars we now are fighting, the vast majority of them in Iraq. In that period, more than 250,000 Americans died in traffic accidents.
Cohen contrasts the changes in our society, the ability to see each war fatality as an individual and movement away from religious faith, to the experiences of "our enemies":
The ability to individualize -- no more Unknowns -- has undoubtedly changed America. We remain a religious nation but not as we were in the Civil War, when the dying tried to take comfort from the certainty -- it's true, isn't it? -- that a better life awaited them. Religion has lost that sort of mystery. Ministers have less authority. Dying has become harder.

In contrast, our enemies take religious solace in their own deaths. It is not that they don't value life; it's just that they don't value this life.
Here, Cohen is speaking of people valuing their own lives. Cohen only values the lives of our soldiers when he has given up on the cause for which they are dying, and there's no sign that he cares at all about the lives of casualties on the other side - soldier, civilian, man, woman, child. Despite that, I expect he's at least as confused as Thomas Friedman on why the people of Afghanistan and Iraq (and, historically, Vietnam) aren't sufficiently grateful for our efforts.
In Iraq, no one knows the number of suicide bombings - thousands of them, certainly.
If we're going for the "us and them" theme, it's fair to ask, how many suicide bombings occurred in Iraq before the U.S. invasion? In the nation's entire pre-invasion history, the number is zero.

Cohen is either ignorant of, or willfully ignoring, the history of modern asymmetric war in which suicide bombing is not exclusively an Islamic or Arab phenomenon. (For all I know, Cohen thinks the Tamil Tigers were Arabic.) The Vietnamese used suicide attacks against French tanks. The Japanese used suicide attacks against our ships during WWII. But as I'm sure some part of Cohen knowns, it's so much easier to ignore facts and history, and to instead demonize and depersonalize "the enemy":
There is really no such thing as an American suicide bomber. We don't extol the bomber and parade his or her children before the TV cameras so that other children will envy them for the death of a parent. This is odd to us. This is chilling to us. This is downright repugnant.
See how awful "they" are? All of "them"? How different "they" are from "us"? The entire Arabic and Persian world reduced to a uniform, ugly stereotype that conveniently coincides both with the regions Cohen wishes to militarily attack and with his his complete disdain for their casualties?

1 comment:

  1. 1. . . and posed a threat - and not just a theoretical one - to Israel.

    2. . . . and those who would do the changing- the fighting - were, after all, volunteers. This mattered to me.

    I'm not sure which I find more repugnant, the idea that US military members should die "for the good of Israel" or that our lives should matter less because we volunteered to serve rather than were drafted . . .

    CWD

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