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Charges of Manslaughter

War Isn't That Civilized.

by Barnabas
January 8, 2003

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They insist the Air Force is second-guessing the split-second decisions of battle and believe the Bush administration is sacrificing the pilots to diplomatic efforts to enlist Canadian support for a war against Iraq. If the pilots are court-martialed, Joan Schmidt declared, the Air Force will "look like a petty, two-bit outfit and it is a label the Air Force will deserve."
–-The Washington Post, January 4, 2003. Joan Schmidt is the mother of one of the pilots.

Espionage and war are the work of honorable and brave men and women, but that doesn’t keep them from being stinky enterprises made necessary by even stinkier situations.
--Barnabas, May 29, 2002

Prior to last weekend, the two-week hunting period was one of the safest on record with only one hunter killed.
--The Detroit News, December 2, 1998
I don’t live in Michigan, but I live on the edge of a wildwood in which there are deer and bear. During hunting season, gunfire is a fact of life. Since a round travels faster than sound, if I can hear the report of a rifle I know I have survived. But it makes me wonder if I should wear blaze orange when I walk in my own yard, considering that “only” one shooting death in two weeks qualifies a season as “one of the safest on record.” We seem to accept unintended death as part of the sport, and are actually encouraged when there are fewer deaths than expected.

Why we would expect fewer unintended deaths in combat than we do in recreation is a puzzle, yet charges of manslaughter against two American pilots are being considered by the Air Force. The pilots believed they were being fired upon in Afghanistan, and dropped a bomb on ground troops who turned out to be Canadians.

Manslaughter is a civilized concept. It recognizes the moral distinction between death as an intention (murder one and two) and death as an unintended result. That is nice, even necessary, in civil society, but it has nothing to do with war. War is not a civilized concept. In warfare, death is always the intended outcome.

In this case, combat error is being treated like a civilian crime, though the situations could not be more dissimilar. In a hunting misadventure, the hunter singles out an unarmed animal as a target, and shoots a human being instead. The hunter is certainly investigated, and may be charged, with manslaughter. In combat, armed human beings are poised to attack each other with massive rapid-fire weapons and bombs. Tragic errors of judgment—based on multiple factors like misunderstanding, fatigue, and ambiguity—are inevitable. Both Audie Murphy and Chuck Yeager, two of the most honored veterans of World War II, tell in their autobiographies of killing people by mistake: Murphy whirled about upon hearing a noise behind him, and shot a civilian woman to death. Yeager bombed a civilian building by mistake.

So to lay criminal charges against these pilots is a moral outrage, and makes me wonder whether this American generation is mature enough, ethically and politically, to bear the sacrifices and agonies of war. If we attack Iraq, hundreds, if not thousands, of wrongful deaths will follow and most will go unacknowledged. There is nothing proportional about it. “I am going to shoot you before you shoot me. I am also not going to fight fair. If I have more and bigger guns than you, I am going to use them.” If we apply the concepts of criminal law to such uncivilized thinking, we are too morally confused to go to war at all.

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JWilson from Chicago writes:
January 8, 2003
Dear Editor, As usual the lucidity of Barnabas is to be greatly commended. I hope some FBI monitor or White House aide in charge of internet opinions is able to read the Partial Observer and filter the wisdom back to the Bush's spin doctors. The Bible says there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors, but it also tells the story of the son of one king forsaking the wisdom of his elders who helped his father and going with the brash counsel of his own peers. Moral confusion is indeed rampant - thank you for running this and other columns where moral clarity shines. Sincerely, Pastor Jonathan Wilson

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