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Iraqi Death by Political Abstraction

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Try as they might, apologists for the war in Iraq wont be convincing when they insist that, at worst, the Haditha incident (or was it a mishap?) was the unfortunate work of a few bad Marines. It was something much worse.

When men trained to kill on a battlefield this wasnt the Salvation Army, after all are ordered into civilian areas where many residents see the troops as an occupying force rather than as liberators, what would you expect to happen? We hear war defenders complain that the enemy doesnt identify itself. Why should it? In the eyes of the insurgents they are resisting an army of occupation. That Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didnt foresee this resistance doesnt mean it was unforeseeable.

So who is ultimately responsible for the massacre of the 24 unarmed Iraqis at Haditha? The one who put the Marines there: President George W. Bush. Many things about war are uncertain, but one thing we know for sure: men of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, would not be under investigation for cold-blooded murder had they never left Camp Pendleton in southern California. Why did they leave? Because President Bush decreed a policy that led to their being ordered to Iraq. Should anyone be reassured by the facile claim that innocents are killed in every war? That all wars are indictable hardly amounts to grounds for dismissing the indictment in this one.

Realization that responsibility rises to the very top does not, of course, exonerate anyone below. The Marines at Haditha didnt have to pull the triggers, killing women, children, and infants. They didnt have to be in Iraq at all. Some of them may have joined the Corps after the invasion occurred. As for those already in uniform, they too had choices. They could have refused to go. That surely would have had unpleasant consequences, but thats life. What they cant do is deny responsibility on the grounds that they bought the Bush administrations line that they were serving their country. Any thinking person could see through that. There is no obligation to obey an immoral order.

In 1951, during the Korean War, the libertarian Leonard E. Read, a veteran of World War I and founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, looked at this issue in a particularly moving way. In his essay Conscience on the Battlefield, Read imagined a dialogue between himself as an American soldier dying on the battlefield and his own conscience. His conscience asks, Did you kill these people as an act of self-defense? Were they threatening your life or your family? Were they on your shores, about to enslave you?

No, they were not, says the soldier. But you dont understand our foreign policy…. It sought to thwart aggression by going to war against others before they could use aggression against us in our own homeland….

Conscience replies: In the first place, please understand that I dont care to discuss what you call your foreign policy. It is too late for that. The judgment which now concerns you must be rendered on you as an individual not on parties or mobs or armies or policies or processes or governments…. You imply that you feel no personal responsibility for having killed these people.

But, my Conscience, I had no choice. I had to do what others called my duty. Otherwise, my friends and fellow-citizens would have dubbed me a traitor. I would have been put in jail, disgraced before man, borne the name of a coward…. But I was not acting as a member of a mob. I acted in response to my government.

Government, also, is a collective. It differs from the mob in that it is organized, legalized, formal force, presumably founded on deliberation rather than on impulse…. [But it,] also, is but a name given to an arrangement which consists only of individuals. They and they alone are responsible for what they do collectively as government. They and they alone are subject to Judgment.

For too long we have sought escape from responsibility in political clichs. For too long innocents have died at the hands of phantom political abstractions. Enough is enough.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of 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.