American war vets from Iraq and Afghanistan were testifying before the Congressional Progressive Caucus last month when Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, wondered how the US military dehumanizes the "enemy," making it easier for soldiers to kill. Kristofer Goldsmith, a former US Army sergeant who fought in Iraq, replied that in basic training, recruits are ordered to shout "Kill" every time they stab a human-shaped dummy with a bayonet. He added that drill sergeants also require trainees to shout out a response to a question. (Goldsmith said that at first, he had trouble shouting the answer because he thought it sounded weird.) "Soldiers, what makes the green grass grow?" "Blood, blood, blood, drill sergeant!"
To me, Goldsmith's story illustrates both the barbarity and futility of war. The idea that human beings should settle their political differences by inflicting massive violence and bloodshed may be as old as the hills, but it's also pretty stupid. It was bad enough when war's main victims were soldiers killed or maimed on far-off battlefields, but now, its victims are increasingly civilians---mainly women and children. Historian Howard Zinn notes, for example, that in the First World War, there were 10 military deaths for every civilian killed; in the Second World War it was 50-50; but in Vietnam 70 percent of the dead were civilians. In the wars since, the proportion of civilian deaths has increased again to between 80 and 85 percent. That means that for every thousand who die in war, up to 850 are innocent bystanders.
The reasons why are obvious. Industrial nations like the US and Canada use sophisticated killing machines to deal death and destruction on a massive scale. Unprotected civilians are helpless against weapons that kill with such force and speed. In the current US air assault on Pakistan, for example, military pilots sitting in Nevada are flying robotic bombing machines over targets thousands of miles away. These pilotless drones can drop bombs nonstop for 24 hours. In his recent book, Wired For War, Peter Singer describes other war robots such as SWORDS which can fire an M-16 rifle and a rocket launcher. Such technological systems may be efficient killers, but they're also hellishly expensive. They're part of the reason world military spending has reached record levels. The highly respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute announced last week that military expenditures topped $1.46 trillion (US) in 2008, a four percent hike over 2007 and an astonishing 45 percent increase since 1999.
No wonder people who object to war for reasons of conscience or religion are increasingly frustrated over having their tax dollars conscripted to help pay for the slaughter of innocent people. On the same day that Kristofer Goldsmith testified before Congress about the dehumanizing effects of war, Bill Siksay of the NDP introduced a private member's bill in the Commons that would allow Canadians to divert part of their income taxes into a special conscientious objector account. The federal government could use the money for peaceful purposes, but not for military ones. It's the sixth such bill to be introduced in Parliament since 1993, but with luminaries such as Harper and Ignatieff running the show in Ottawa, there's little chance it will even get debated, let alone passed. It's got a snowball's chance in hell. For more information on the campaign against being forced to finance international slaughter, readers can surf to the Conscience Canada website at consciencecanada.ca The site also features a well-researched essay by law student Darren McLeod. It analyzes the legal arguments against military taxation under the freedom of conscience and religion provisions of the Charter of Rights.
OK, I realize there are always those who assert, as George W. Bush did, that war can be used to promote democracy, justice, security and, yes, even peace. I would urge them to ponder this persuasive aphorism from the pacifist A. J. Muste: "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way."
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