Saturday, October 24, 2015

Standing by their Graves; or, the Morality of Rescue

On Thursday, the first American was killed in Iraq since our withdrawal in 2011. This was Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, 39, of Oklahoma, one of the special forces "operators" we sent to help the Kurds fight the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Ash Carter held a press conference yesterday to explain what happened:
Wheeler was killed in a raid by U.S. and Kurdish commandos on an Islamic State base in Hawijah, Kirkuk province, following a request from the Kurdistan Regional Government. About 70 hostages, including dozens of civilians, were freed. The Pentagon said they faced imminent execution.

Carter added he made the decision to aid the Kurdish troops after receiving actionable intelligence the hostages faced imminent execution. He said the hostages, who have since been debriefed, had told them that their graves had been dug.

“We had seen the graves beforehand,” Carter said.

Here’s how the Pentagon described the U.S. role on Thursday: “The U.S. provided helicopter lift and accompanied Iraqi Peshmerga forces to the compound.” The Peshmerga came under fire, Wheeler was injured, and died later, the Defense Department said.

On Friday, Carter provided more details about Wheeler’s actions: “He ran toward the gunfire,” he said.

He said he was proud of Wheeler’s actions and called them courageous. “It wasn’t part of the plan, but it’s something that he did,” he said.
Since I am on principle opposed to the U.S. charging around the world trying to right wrongs with bombs and bullets, this obviously presents a problem for me. I think we can all understand what Wheeler did, and even admire it. He saw 70 civilian hostages slated for execution by one of the world's most evil regimes, their graves already dug, and rushed to help. The army generally disapproves of soldiers freelancing around the battlefield outside the rules of engagement, but even the Defense Secretary offered no criticism of Wheeler's conduct. Nor is anyone likely to criticize the Secretary for ordering his men to assist the Kurds in this operation. Presented with an aerial photograph of the 70 open graves, how could he not?

But. The Islamic State only exists because we overthrew Saddam Hussein, a truly monstrous man, with the blood of tens of thousands on his hands. I admit that removing him was a gain for the world, but that has to be balanced against the 120,000 Iraqis and more than 4,000 Americans killed in the war that followed, the trillion dollars spent, the million refugees. And the rise of the Islamic State, the bastard child of Islamic fundamentalism and American shock and awe.

Take a look at Libya, where the U.S., France and Britain intervened to prevent what they thought was an inevitable massacre of people we admired, civilian protesters in the vanguard of the Arab Spring. It strikes me as an almost exact parallel to the choice faced by Sergeant Wheeler; seeing an atrocity about to unfold, he charged in, and so did Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary. And then once we had defended the virtuous protesters, we decided to help them rid themselves of the wicked regime that threatened them, a government guilty of manifold crimes including bombing at least one airliner. And now Libya is a ruin. Thousands have been killed in the civil war that followed Qaddafi's fall, and hundreds of thousands have been made into refugees. Was it worth it?

What about the world's most evil government, in North Korea? Nobody seriously doubts that we could overthrow that regime if we decided to, and its disappearance would be a greater boon even than the fall of Saddam. But how many would be killed? How many lives ruined? What would the cost be of putting Korea back together?

I feel like a cad, but I have to say: sometimes it is better to let few innocent people be murdered than to charge to the rescue without having any idea what the eventual consequences might be.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

We've rebuilt nations before. The Marshall Plan in Europe, Operation Blacklist in Japan... we took utterly devastated nations and rebuilt them from the ground up with modern economies, infrastructure, and governments.

If we had really wanted to, we could have toppled the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and ensured they would have been replaced by stable, competant, mutually beneficial local governments.

But that would have taken time, and money, and lots of hard work. It also would have required us to bring in experts, and to devise a detailed plan for reconstruction, and to keep the military active overseas not just defending a handful of "Green Zones", but actually digging in and rooting out insurgents.

We needed to either not get involved at all, or to get utterly involved. But we did neither - we went off half cocked, our heads full of half baked ideas, fought two separate wars entirely by half measures, and in both cases left the job half finished. We were ever so eager to rush in like fools, but once the going got tough, we decided it was time to get going for the door and abandon our mess for others to clean up.