Desert Shields

Is it wrong for Saddam to put civilians in the crosshairs?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Saddam Hussein, it seems, is not just a dictator and mass murderer. He is a bounder as well. While we amass hundreds of thousands of troops and billions of dollars of military equipment near his borders, with the frank intention of removing him from power and probably from life, he is welcoming a few dozen scraggly Western war protesters to act as “human shields” by planting themselves next to potential bombing targets such as power plants. It’s just not cricket, complains Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Using civilians as human shields “is not a military strategy.” It is “a violation of the laws of armed conflict.”

Rumsfeld’s indignation is fey. Since the premise and justification for our imminent invasion of Iraq is that Saddam is evil and ruthless, which is certainly true, it would be remarkable if he played the game of war according to Hoyle. Why should he? It’s not going to improve his reputation and will do nothing for his life expectancy either. Indeed one of the big surprises of the build-up to Gulf War I was Saddam’s sudden decision to release the Western civilians he had initially forced to live near military targets. That certainly made America’s job easier. And as a practical matter, it may have cost more civilian lives than it saved, by giving us more freedom to bomb.

Like “terrorism” and like “weapons of mass destruction,” the anathema on the use of human shields is an attempt to define certain methods of war as inherently illegitimate, whether the cause for which they are used is legitimate or not. It’s a noble effort, but difficult to sustain and may require more intellectual consistency than the current American administration, at least, is capable of. There have been well-documented reports during the past year, for example, that the Israeli army has used Palestinian civilians as human shields. The U.S. reaction has been muted and generalized mumblings of disapproval and calls for all parties to resolve their differences by negotiation in good faith. No high horse to be seen.

Then, too, it is a bit problematic to be invoking international law and insisting on your right to ignore it at the same time, in the same cause, and with the same righteous indignation. International law says, “Thou shalt not use human shields.” It also says, “Thou shalt not use military force without the approval of the Security Council—even if thou art the United States of America and some idiot long ago gave veto power to the French.” The test of a country’s commitment to international law—and the measure of its credibility when it accuses other countries of flouting international law—is whether that country obeys laws even when it has good reasons to prefer not to.

Just like specific instances such as the rule against using human shields, the general regime of international law depends on a willingness to sacrifice short-term goals that may even be admirable for the long-term goal of establishing some civilized norms of global behavior. It sounds naive, and maybe it is. But you’re either in the game or you’re not. You can’t pick and choose which rules to take seriously.

Supporters of the coming war find it maddening that so many people say, “I’m for it if we have U.N. approval, but not if we act unilaterally.” This is an awfully convenient resting point for bet-hedging politicians. It also seems to be the most popular position in opinion polls. (And it was the conclusion of a thunderously ambivalent full-page editorial in last Sunday’s New York Times.) For heaven’s sake, this is war we’re talking about. And even if we do get international approval, this is overwhelmingly an American show: our initiative, our insistence, our leadership, mostly our money and our blood. Surely, these irritated hawks say, making the right decision is more important than how that decision is made. Putting procedure aside, are you for this war or against it?

But “only if it’s multilateral” is not the copout it may seem. Not just because of concern about an anti-American backlash. And not just because obeying international law has an independent value in its own right. In the specific circumstances of this particular war, multilateral procedures can alleviate our substantive doubts.

Like generals, anti-war protesters are always fighting the last war. Or in this case, depending on how you count, the war-before-last. The methods, the style, the arguments, the very language of objecting to war are still stuck in Vietnam. That’s why the protests of the past couple of weeks have seemed so lame and retro. The Vietnam debate was primarily a moral one. Although the cost of victory became an important factor as the years went on, it was not the main factor turning people against that war. Americans ultimately decided it was a victory we shouldn’t even want. In the case of Iraq, by contrast, few people think the goal of overturning Saddam Hussein is immoral. If we knew for sure it would be as easy and cheap as the administration hopes, few folks would object.

It is often thought that moral questions are inherently fuzzy and uncertain while factual questions are concrete and sharp-edged. But there is always at least the possibility that your strongly held moral view is the right one even when most other folks disagree. Factual predictions about the future, by contrast, will ultimately turn out right or wrong, but meanwhile they are fogged by a more fundamental unknowability. The case for democracy among nations, like the case for democracy within nations, depends in part on this particular human failing. Even if Saddam Hussein were well-meaning, he still wouldn’t be all-knowing. The United States actually is well-meaning, but we’re not all-knowing either.