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Is This Really War?


In 1985, Wilson Goode became the first U.S. mayor to bomb his own city. In an effort to rid a West Philadelphia neighborhood of a ragtag, violent, back-to-nature organization called Move, which had engaged in a shootout with police, Goode ordered explosives dropped on the Move house from a helicopter. The whole block of row houses burned, 61 homes in all. Eleven people were killed, five of them children. Some 250 people lost their homes.

Goode came in for universal condemnation and ridicule. Too bad for him he didn’t drop his bomb in a foreign country and call it war. At least in Goode’s case he could claim he was the mayor of the city using the police to suppress a dangerous group that not only engaged in violence but also lived in an unsanitary way that affected its neighbors.

President George W. Bush cannot make the same kind of claims in Iraq, where things far worse than what Wilson Goode did happen regularly. President Bush invaded Iraq, a country that represented no threat to the American people or the territory of the United States. In other words, the U.S. forces that bomb and shoot Iraqis don’t have to be there. They are not responding to impending danger to Americans. They are in someone else’s country with 500-pound or heavier bombs and other powerful weapons. How would we feel if things were the other way around?

When innocent civilians are killed, as they were in November in Haditha, people will often say that such is war. But is this war? One could argue that American forces were at war, albeit unnecessarily and illegally, when they first invaded Iraq and sought to unseat the regime of Saddam Hussein. But after the government fell, was it still war? Or was it simply an occupation in which foreign troops sought to maintain order and suppress any resistance to the invaders and the government it helped to establish? This latter description seems closer to the mark. The troops are fighting, but the countries are not actually at war as we normally think of that term.

But in that case, much of its work is similar to that of a police force. And here is where problems begin. The American military is not trained for police work. Troops are trained to kill, not ask questions or carry out investigations. Yet if they are placed in a densely populated setting, where it is hard to tell who is a resister and who is not, innocents are sure to die. And of course they have died.

An attorney for one of the Marines under investigation for the killings at Haditha has said that the rules of engagement determined by the Bush administration were followed rigidly and that nothing illegal occurred. Eyewitness accounts say American Marines shot men, women, and children execution-style in their houses. But the attorney relayed a different story: that the Marines, responding to gunfire from a house after a roadside explosion killed one of their men, threw a fragmentation grenade into the house, then entered with guns blazing, killing everyone inside. When they didn’t find the shooter, they proceeded to the next house and did the same thing. Apparently, 24 civilians were murdered.

This, the attorney says, is consistent with the U.S. military’s rules.

We’ve heard no response from the Bush administration on this claim. But it makes sense. If you are going to engage in urban warfare in someone else’s country, what would you expect a fighting force to do?

The crime is not the rules of engagement but the mission itself: the invasion and policing by a foreign occupying army. The culprits are those who ordered these things and those who carried them out.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.