Worse than Hitler! (or, The Banality of Evil)

In the late winter of 1990-91, I watched my country go mad.

It really began in December 1989, with the invasion of Panama. I watched it unfold on British TV: the almost literal saber-rattling of Noriega (I believe it was actually a machete he waved in that press conference), followed by the lightning strike of American forces. The message was clear: don't mess with American interests. Apparently Iraq wasn't listening, as just eight months later Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, once again putting the American economy at risk. Of course there would be another strike, but this time it would have to be an international coalition. Unilaterally deposing Noriega could be explained as the U.S. acting in the world's behalf, policing its own backyard to protect global commerce. Going into a Middle Eastern country to liberate oil wells would be a much tougher act of aggression to spin.

President George H.W. Bush went to work on American allies, building a case against Saddam Hussein, a dictator who, like Noriega, had been created and propped up by American Cold War policies, but who now had become an inconvenient drag on American interests. Hussein was painted as the Hitler of the Persian Gulf, a megalomaniacal dictator whose troops were committing war crimes against Kuwait, pulling infants from incubators and dashing their heads against the floor. He had missiles, too, Scud missiles that could rain down death upon Israel. And who knew what sort of weapons he was cooking up in his secret laboratories?

I was finishing seminary in Dallas as it all came to a head. The first week of January, 1991, I went on a tour with the Seminary Singers. On the bus, I found myself arguing again and again with fellow students who were almost rabidly pro-invasion. I was confronted with the stories of atrocities as justification for a massive assault on Iraq. The hoary old theory of just war was promulgated, and I was accused of being an appeaser, a coward, a starry-eyed optimist with no understanding of how the world actually works.

The tour ended, and I began keeping a journal of my thoughts and feelings about the impending conflict. I heard the President now say that Saddam Hussein was "worse than Hitler." His last name was dropped, and he became simply "Saddam," a world leader no longer worthy of a surname, especially not one that could easily be confused with the King of Jordan, and could more easily be demonized with a single name, a la Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Noriega, Capone.

On January 17, 1991, Operation Desert Storm began, a near carpet-bombing of Iraqi strategic targets. American generals proudly displayed videos of the accuracy of their "smart bombs," carefully holding back information about bombs that killed civilians, now referred to, as in the Panamanian invasion, as "collateral damage." On February 24, the ground invasion began. Within days, Kuwait was "liberated." Over the course of the entire assault, 479 American and other coalition troops perished, less than half of them at the hands of Iraqis, mostly in accidents or friendly fire incidents. More than 100,000 Iraqis, both soldiers and civilians, died in the war; hundreds of thousands more perished in the years following as Iraq's infrastructure began to collapse, and as Iraqis who had supported the coalition invasion were abandoned by their Western allies to be subjected to government-sponsored genocide.

In the weeks after the president declared victory, I found myself surrounded by gung ho patriots exulting in what they considered a clean moral victory. My classmates were among them. Everywhere I looked, yellow ribbons were tied around trees, signposts, the ubiquitous Greek columns of the SMU campus, including those in front of the chapel where I had been married four years earlier. Every lapel bore a similar ribbon. I refused to wear one, isolating myself even further. Yes, it was important for the young Americans sent to Iraq to come home in one piece; but what about the tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers whose children had been rendered fatherless? The civilians unlucky enough to live within the blast radius of an Iraqi missile installation? The children killed by errant "smart" bombs? The many who would die from lack of medical attention because their hospitals lacked power? I read a piece in Time about a general who was touring schools, talking up the war, being asked about pacifists, whether they should be imprisoned or even hanged as traitors. No, he said, they've got a right to their opinion, however wrong it is, and our soldiers are fighting to protect that right.

Really? By capturing some oil wells, Saddam Hussein was assaulting my Constitutional rights?

You've probably figured out by now that I was no supporter of either American invasion of Iraq. More to the point, I find any propagandized demonization of a leader or a people to be itself demonic. Branding Saddam Hussein a "Hitler," one can justify slaughtering Iraqis to save them from their own leader, then standing idly by as they perish in the aftermath of the conflict because they're just not smart enough to depose him themselves. It's all his fault, and theirs for tolerating him. Don't blame us. All our actions were just. This flies in the face of actual just war theory, by the way, one of the tenets of which is that casualty counts should be roughly equal, and that civilian casualties can never be considered "collateral damage." A 200:1 difference in casualties renders this, by definition, unjust.

And yet the American people swallowed it, and still do. Even as majority opinion has turned against the second invasion of Iraq, the Persian Gulf War is still held up as an example of how wars should be fought in the modern era. There is no sense of collective shame about the outcome: not about the almost cosmic scale of Iraqi casualties, not about the abandonment of coalition sympathizers in Iraq, not about wrecking the nation's infrastructure and economy, not about generating an environmental catastrophe of burning wells and massive oil spills. It was all Saddam's fault--and his people's fault, for letting him stay in office.

Of course, if that was true, then his eventual death by hanging should have provided the catharsis needed to set Iraq back on its feet. But that didn't happen. Ten years after its re-invasion by American troops, Iraq is still an international pariah, a failed "democracy" with little chance of ever putting itself back together.

The problem with demonizing any leader is the way it takes responsibility out of the hands of the many, and places it in the hands of the one. Without the cooperation of the many, the one will never be anything but an irritant. Hitler did what he did with the cooperation of millions. And as much as we'd like to shift the blame for the mess in Iraq to the demon named Saddam, the American invasions came about because Americans approved of them.

It's not at all unusual to turn a single bad actor into a demon, and to use that demonization to justify massacre. It's a practice as old as warfare. Despots are living, breathing symbols for the nations they rule, and their people are at least partially complicit in all that they do. Even so, by naming them demons, by ascribing demonic power to them, by elevating them to the level of an earthly Satan, and conflict with them to the level of apocalypse, we practice a kind of reverse idolatry. Instead of revering an earthly thing, we are anathematizing it, transforming it into the dualistic polar opposite to that which we claim to worship. Thus King George, Jefferson Davis, Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein--along all their lesser fellow despots--become dark gods against which eschatological conflict must be waged. They are unadulteratedly evil, and anything we do to oppose them is utterly good and justified by the fact that this is a dualistic struggle.

What if we took the wind out of the demon-despots' sails? What if we saw them for what they are, misguided adult children who have access to their parents' gun cabinets? And what if we saw their people for who they are, fathers, mothers, children caught up in their leaders' madness, often against their will, often impressed into combat by a totalitarian state? What if we saw all the young men and women on the enemy line as victims of an oppressive system, just as so many of our own soldiers are wearing uniforms because it is their only way out of poverty?

Please don't get me wrong: despots do abominable things. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Suharto, the Shah, Castro, Assad, Idi Amin, Gaddafi--all have committed crimes against humanity against their own people, some rising to the level of genocide. But I want to be absolutely clear about this: none of them could have accomplished anything without the complicity of everyday citizens, many of whom knew what was going on, but looked the other way; just as Americans have repeatedly looked the other way as our own bombs killed millions in Southeast Asia and, more recently, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan.

Violence committed against a distant foe is the most banal of deadly sins. As long as it's not our sons and daughters in the line of fire, or if they are, if they're able to do it remotely, we just don't care about the death toll on the other side. Those who do care, who raise conscientious objections to military incursions, are often labeled traitors, mostly for upsetting the status quo of all those who'd rather not be disturbed, but would rather go on with their everyday lives, patriotically shopping at the mall, grumbling about the few extra cents a gallon justified by conflict in the Persian Gulf, hoping American deaths can be kept to a minimum, and not caring one whit about the innocent lives being sacrificed thousands of miles away.

So answer me this question: Who is really worse than Hitler? The one man in the president's chair? Or the millions averting their eyes as his people are decimated by our bombs?


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