Sunday, August 26, 2007

Hearts and minds

Winning hearts and minds in the war against Muslim extremism ought to be a slam dunk. After all, few people, even in the Muslim world, can possibly find that kind of puritan totalitarianism very attractive. I’ve lived in the Arab world—and give or take the usual cultural gaps, people there are pretty much like we are. Nobody likes being bossed around by fanatics. Mainstream Muslim culture is more socially conservative than ours, to be sure—but it’s not insane, and it’s prey to the same secularizing, modernizing pressures that Christian culture has undergone. It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to keep several hundred million Muslims at the very least neutral toward the West, if not actively sympathizing with us in opposition to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Muslims aren’t stupid, and they can see as well as we can who’s perpetrating the bulk of the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan and who wants to outlaw music, cinema and fun in general.
So why aren’t they rallying to us wholeheartedly? Well, for one thing, we keep killing a lot of them in airstrikes. Afghanistan’s president Karzai has been complaining about the high rate of civilian casualties in coalition airstrikes for some time. Now that three British soldiers have been killed by American bombs, maybe someone over here will listen.
Now, every war has friendly fire incidents, and I understand as well as you do the difference between collateral damage in a strike on a legitimate military target and the deliberate targeting of non-combatants. But from the point of view of the victim, lying in the hospital with bandaged stumps where his legs used to be, the effects are indistinguishable. When your house is taken out by a laser-guided bomb from an A-10 Warthog, your loved ones obliterated or crushed under the rubble, it’s not much of a consolation to be told that the pilots were trying for the mujahideen next door. The horror is the same for you as it is for the victim of a Hamas suicide bombing in Israel. When mistakes like that are repeated time and time again, the apologies start to wear thin. You start to wonder at what point carelessness becomes callousness, and the line between callousness and hostility can be hard to trace.
Now, I understand that if you’re a U.S. Army or Marine squad leader taking fire from a house across the valley, what’s foremost on your mind is going to be how to take out that hostile fire with the least risk to your men. The lives of your men are a lot more important to you than the lives of whoever is in that house, and if you can call in an airstrike on that building, you’re going to do it. And I’m going to try hard not to second-guess you. I want your men to make it home as much as you do. But here’s what our military leaders have to understand: in a conflict like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, if you’re killing a lot of civilians, you’re losing the war. Period. You are not going to win the populace over, no matter how much reason and enlightenment you have on your side, if you keep blowing them up, especially if at the same time you are asking them to condemn their cousins for blowing up their hereditary enemies. That’s asking a lot of intellectual sophistication and emotional detachment.
I don’t know what the acceptable ratio of civilian to combatant casualties is supposed to be. And I sure as hell don’t have a good suggestion for that squad leader out there taking fire. But somebody in Kabul or Baghdad or Washington has to look at things and figure out how to kill the bad guys without taking out the whole neighborhood. Otherwise, we’re going to lose. Period.

Sam Reaves

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