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CNN recently showed a Marine chaplain admonishing the platoon assembled before him: Pray not only for yourself, he told them, but for your enemies as well. After all, they are just soldiers, like you, doing what they are ordered to do.
What a refreshing departure these words were from what I've been hearing from the civilian sector, where the talk is mainly of minimizing coalition casualties or, in more generous moments, innocent Iraqi civilian casualties as well. I wince every time I hear that kind of talk, especially the reference to innocence. Should not the proper minimum in any war be loss of human life, period ? which in this case includes Iraqi soldiers, too?
My earliest childhood memories were forged by war ? real war. My family lived near one of the most ferocious battle grounds of the European war theater ? the notorious H?rtgen forest, where American and German soldiers fought one another in hand-to-hand combat for more than four months in the fall of 1944. A plaque at one of the military cemeteries in the area notes that more American soldiers died there than in Vietnam, and surely as many or more German soldiers were killed there too.
My family lived opposite a convent that had been converted into a field hospital for the nearby front. I was a small boy then, and watching the ambulances come and go (sometimes peeking curiously into them), I could not help but become witness daily to the horrors of war. Millions of Europeans of my generation, whom many Americans now disparage so contemptuously as pacifists, had a similar experience.
Because we lived so near the Battle of the Bulge and the advancing allied forces, our village was strafed and bombed routinely. One such attack came as my friends and I were playing outside. We ran as the planes approached, taking shelter in the cavernous basement of the convent. There we spied a row of stretchers. On each was a body covered entirely by a blanket. Possibly to overcome our own terror, we dared one another to pull back a blanket on one of the stretchers, to see what a dead man looked like. Someone did. We fell silent instantly as we beheld the serene, waxen face of a very young soldier who could not have been older than 16 or 17.
More than 50 years later, I can still see his face clearly. The shock of it recurs whenever I hear the chirpy anchors on the morning programs (not to mention the hawkish talking heads) prattle on about innocent civilians, as if the number of fallen enemy soldiers did not count. What does "innocent" mean in the context of war?
I am almost certain that the young German soldier my friends and I saw so many years ago in that convent basement was as innocent as those of us who weren't in uniform. For all we know, he had grown up on a farm somewhere and, while fighting in the trenches, dreamed of his girlfriend and of life as an adult in peaceful times. For all we know, he would have happily quit fighting and joined the allies. (He didn't have much of a choice: some German generals strung up on trees the bodies of young soldiers who had deserted, a powerful warning to their peers.)
Perhaps many of the Iraqi soldiers, too, find themselves where they are because they have no other choice. After all, is not Saddam Hussein a ruthless dictator, and are not some of his generals likely to be as cruel as their Wehrmacht counterparts?
My hope is that Americans can muster the proper decorum that an enterprise as horrible as war demands. There is nothing neat about maiming and killing people with precision bombs from the air or gunfire on the ground ? even if they're wearing enemy uniforms. Young lives are snuffed out; parents, siblings and lovers weep, and so should we. We want our troops to win a quick victory, to be sure. As the father of a young Marine officer on the front lines in Iraq, I certainly do. But let us heed that Marine chaplain who, like anyone who has ever witnessed war, knows whereof he speaks. Let us hope and pray for a minimum loss of human life ? period.
Uwe E. Reinhardt is a professor of political economy at Princeton University.
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