An Ugly Tactic for an Ugly War

From the category labeled “Be Careful What You Wish For,” the Washington Post reported on Monday that some Army snipers have been baiting targets. The snipers were given such objects as AK-47 ammunition and wire that could be used in bombs by troops from the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group to place in conspicuous spots around a target area. The snipers would then hide and wait for anyone to pick up the materials. Those that did were greenlit and were engaged by the snipers. It’s not clear at this point how many Iraqis have been killed using such tactics, or if the baiting is an ongoing program. What is clear is the visceral nastiness of such an idea. But, send an army to war, and they will find creative ways to not only kill, but also identify, and perhaps create, targets.

“Anyone who runs is a VC. Anyone who stands still is a well-disciplined VC.” So said the Marine door gunner in Full Metal Jacket. That scene, based on a real-life incident, was an example of indiscriminate killing. Baiting sniping targets is not the same, but it does reside in the same realm. In fact, the baiting program came to light because three snipers have been charged with murder, accused of placing the bait on dead Iraqis to justify the killings after the fact. The outcome of the case notwithstanding, it has brought to the fore yet another instance of unsavory tactics in pursuit of victory in Iraq.

Like dropping bombs on suspected insurgent hideouts from 30,000 feet, or door-to-door indiscriminate weapons searches, fishing for targets using weapons as bait will produce results, but not necessarily favorable ones. Intelligence can be faulty, leading to the unloading of ordinance on the occasional wedding party or other family gathering. Random home searches are a particularly virulent insult, and can turn the innocent against the American presence, creating questions about whether the searches are worth the trouble. And baiting can easily target a person who just happened to stumble upon a spool of wire, a rather innocuous object to those of us in the world who know little about explosives.

What has happened, though, is that we have saddled our troops with a great contradiction. In building the greatest fighting force the world has ever known, we have spared no expense, in monies, materiel, education, training, etc., to produce men whose trade is death. True master craftsmen in the arts of killing. From above, from below, behind and, indeed, head on. When our nation wants or needs something to die, ready satisfaction is not far behind.

Yet, we are a civilized society. While developing such proficiency in blood, we recoil at its gruesome aspects. We like to pretend that just wars (and all the wars we fight must be just) have no unjust death. We design and build bombs and missiles that can be aimed almost at will where we want them, but still pack enough ordinance to place the next door neighbors or the family down the street in danger. We apply terms like “collateral damage” in the hope that any mistake we make in war will be shrugged off by the other side or by the civilians caught in the middle, as easily as we seem to do. Just the costs of doing business, after all.

But if that’s all it is, then we never would try to kill with surgical precision. We would bring full weight to bear, spreading across foreign lands with the efficiency of a bulldozer. We instead have convinced ourselves that we are benevolent destructors. Nonsense.

American ingenuity and industriousness have produced an efficient machinery of death. We shouldn’t recoil at what we have built. There is no need to. It serves us well. Until the day we place ourselves in the position of no longer being the unambiguous force for good. We can’t support the troops or support the war without realizing that our military is proficient at what it does, regardless of the validity of the mission. We must accept the effects of war in all its guises, from blunt force, to dirty tricks, to collateral damage. And if all the ugliness inherent in the process appears to be too much, then war is not the solution to the problem.

No war is without its atrocities. At this point, baiting targets is still on the fence. Just remember that gut feeling you get when you delve into the details from 9,000 miles away. That will tell you all you need to know about the necessity of war. Remember it, the next time a president ascends the bully pulpit to marshal the forces of good. And remember that when we export our most fearsome product, how quickly that illusion of good is eclipsed by reality. In the future, when we choose to sink ourselves in the mud, remember that everyone comes out dirty.