As Billy finds in Slaughterhouse V, the destruction caused by war cannot be rewound; it cannot be undone. Those who were killed stay dead. Children who lost parents stay orphans. And parents who lost children continue to mourn.
War by its very nature removes the autonomy of some as decided by others. As has been witnessed in every single war ever fought throughout human history, people die. Further, the destructive nature of war is not and cannot be isolated to those we refer to as “combatants.”
Every year, we celebrate the service and mourn the loss of members of the U.S. military. Meanwhile, the foreign victims of our wars go unnamed and unacknowledged. Such callous disregard for the lives of others simply cannot be justified when one considers the unequivocal fact that the United States is by far the most militarily active nation in the world.
In a recent article, David Vines, Associate Professor of Anthropology at American University, notes that the United States “has engaged in aggressive military action in at least 13 countries in the Greater Middle East since 1980. In that time, every American president has invaded, occupied, bombed, or gone to war in at least one country in the region. The total number of invasions, occupations, bombing operations, drone assassination campaigns, and cruise missile attacks easily runs into the dozens.”
It is almost comical—perhaps it would be if it weren’t so serious—when U.S. officials self-righteously tout the United States’ moral superiority. For example, Mary McLeod, the acting legal adviser to the State Department, recently told a UN panel, “The United States is proud of its record as a leader in respecting, promoting and defending human rights and the rule of law, both at home and around the world.”
Where do such delusions come from? How many innocent people have been killed and wounded by the United States in its wars? How many wars of aggression has the U.S. launched? How many war crimes have been committed? War, something in which the U.S. is seemingly perpetually engaged, inevitably results in the widespread and arbitrary deprivation of life—the most egregious of human rights violations and a violation of the human right from which all other human rights grow. As horrific as the consequences of war are on members of the U.S. military and their families, we have a moral obligation to recognize the disastrous consequences of our wars on the families and communities of those who suffer them.
In her book, In a Different Voice, feminist ethicist Carol Gilligan described a web of relationships. She wrote of how damage to one or more strands of this web creates greater stress on other parts of the web, as well as the web as a whole. When considering how war arbitrarily deprives individuals of their lives within the context of the web of relationships, we can more fully understand the consequences of war. For every person whose life has been arbitrarily taken, the impact reaches everyone else connected to that person’s web. It affects that person’s family and it affects the varied communities to which the person belonged.
I tell my students, many of whom aspire to jobs or careers in government, in slightly different terms than this, that I have no interest in ever working for an institution that operates as if it were a puppeteer. No one should have the power to decide whose lives are expendable. No one should get to decide that some people’s lives, theirs included of course, are of more value than the lives of others. Not a single person should be arbitrarily taken from their families and their communities. It is time we recognize those who have been killed by our wars. Perhaps if we thought about who these people are, who they left behind, and what they meant to their communities, we would demand an end to our perpetual wars. Happy Foreign Victims of America’s Wars Day.
Bachman, PhD, is professorial lecturer on human rights and the c--director of the Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs Program at the School of International Service at American University.