I’ve been deeply troubled by the reaction of some fellow conservative leaders and commentators to the evidence of abusive behavior by a group of U.S. troops toward prisoners of war in Iraq. Some have said that they do not understand why President Bush apologized for this behavior. One, quoted in the Washington Post, “called the prisoners ‘murderers, terrorists and insurgents,’ many of whom have ‘American blood on their hands.’ And yet, he said incredulously, some people are troubled by how they were treated?” Such sentiments have apparently been applauded by some conservative leaders and echoed by some conservative talk-show hosts and commentators.
I do not share their views. I believe that they forget, or perhaps have never understood, the nature of the war on terror, and the special challenges that it presents for our nation. No doubt they all applauded when, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, President Bush issued to the world the stirring call to arms, not just against the individuals responsible for the attacks, but against all the forces of global terrorism. He made it clear that all people of decent conscience around the world should join in revulsion against the attacks, and in the effort to defeat and eliminate the scourge of terrorist warfare. The global nature of the war on terror was an important element of our justification for moving against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Because our war is against terrorism (and not just against a particular group of terrorists) it cannot be understood and conducted apart from an understanding of what constitutes the special evil of terrorism; it is that distinct understanding which allows us to demand justifiably that every people and nation join in the effort to eradicate it.
The terrorist kills people and destroys things. But the same is true of war in general. What makes terrorism different is that terrorist warfare aims at the destruction of innocent life. It attacks those who are not armed, and who form no part of the infrastructure that directly supports their enemies’ war-making capability. Indeed, terrorism has as its peculiar strategic purpose the cold-blooded, ruthless destruction of innocent life, by means of which the terrorist aims to generate the general fear and confusion that attacks the will not only of his enemies’ armed forces but of their whole society.
At its heart, therefore, the war against terror is a war in defense of the claims of innocent human life, and of the principle that even in war those claims must be respected to the extent humanly possible. Now, it is readily apparent that the term innocent life comprehends those who have done or are in a position to do no harm–including, under most circumstances, unarmed civilians, children and so forth. What many people forget, however, is that enemy combatants, once they have been disarmed and confined so as to pose no immediate threat, also fall into this category. They are innocent in the literal sense of the term (which comes from the Latin in-nocere, meaning harmless, or bereft of the ability to do harm). In any war we fight, enemy combatants are likely to have American blood on their hands. It was after all their mission to fight against our forces. Once they have been disarmed and imprisoned, however, it is their objective condition, not their past actions, that commands the respect that is due to their humanity, and to that of any human beings in a like condition of relative powerlessness.
Sometimes passions inflamed by the heat and horrors of combat impel soldiers to violate the principles that ought to govern their conduct. Even so, we Americans have traditionally reacted against battlefield atrocities, and we have held those responsible accountable for their actions. The cold-blooded, and even gleeful, abuse of confined and naked prisoners of war understandably sparks great public indignation. In the context of the war on terror, however, this reaction is not just sentimental. It reflects the fact that respect for the claims of innocent life is the principle at stake in the war, the principle that in fact distinguishes us from our enemy. If we blur or disregard this principle, then the moral distinction that allows us to identify and target the enemy will be lost. So will the credibility of our claim to act in a just cause that ought to command the respect and cooperation of all decent people and nations.
Where a moral distinction is essential to the integrity of our war effort, the moral confidence of the nation becomes a crucial strategic asset. Our sense of our own character and integrity, and that of our armed forces, becomes as much a part of our strategic reserve as our stockpiles of weapons and ammunition. The abuse of prisoners has caused rage throughout the Muslim world, doubtless recruiting new thousands to the ranks of those intent on killing our people. It provides new fodder to those seeking to undermine the allegiance and support of our international allies and supporters. It provides new opportunities for the voices of confusion and capitulation here at home. The greatest damage, however, lies in the shadow it casts over our own conscience, our own conviction, our own resolve. Americans need to believe that we are the good guys; that our sons and daughters risk and give their lives in a cause that can be justified in God’s eyes, even as war, all war, must bring grief to His heart. Some may see this as naïve. I see it as evidence that we remain a people of conscience, despite all that our intellectual elites have done to corrupt our morals and our character.
The president was right to apologize to the victims of this abuse. It was not an apology offered in a spirit of guilty complicity, but from the spirit of those who are the defenders of innocent humanity to those whose helpless humanity was abused. We failed them and through the degraded antics of the troops responsible, we were ourselves humiliated. We must identify and punish the guilty, regardless of their rank. But more importantly we must take from this episode a new resolve to match deeds to words in the war against terror, defeating its evil manifestations both in the world at large and where necessary, in our own actions. In this war more perhaps than in any other we have known, victory begins at home.