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I Would Prefer Commando Units to Bombing Raids 

Wednesday, Feb 18 1998
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MICHAEL WALZER is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, co-editor of Dissent and author of Just and Unjust Wars, Revolution of the Saints and other works. He spoke with HAROLD MEYERSON about the morality of military action in the Persian Gulf, particularly about the morality of a war in which one side faces far fewer casualties than the other.

The nature of our current military technology produces an extraordinary temptation which may be both morally and politically very dangerous. It's morally dangerous because the technology radically reduces the likely casualties on our side, but it doesn't reduce the likely casualties of the other side, since the smart bombs aren't in fact all that smart. We have to talk about the technology as it is, not as it pretends to be. As it is, it practically guarantees that there will be no or very few American casualties, but it doesn't guarantee that there won't be quite significant casualties on the other side.

It still seems to me that politically and perhaps even militarily, the job requires going in on the ground, and I expect that morally it would also require that to avoid killing a lot of civilians. Of course, that entails increasing the risk of casualties on your side. You'd have to have extraordinary intelligence to get to Saddam simply with air strikes, and we don't have that kind of intelligence, and we probably don't have the intelligence to even hit the military targets we would like to hit, the storage places and the manufacturing places for chemical and biological weapons. They could be anywhere. We have to wish that the U.N. inspectors were really spies the way Saddam Hussein claimed they were. I suspect they weren't.

I believe that the threat of chemical and biological weapons constitutes sufficient justification for military action, but the question then becomes by whom. It certainly would justify a U.N. enforcement, given the way in which the '91 war was stopped and settled, and given the role of the U.N. inspectors and Saddam's current effort to bar them from certain sites and to set limits on their activities. A determined U.N. would be entirely justified now in going in militarily, leaving open the question of how. But there isn't a determined U.N. So then the question is whether any member or group of members of the U.N. can act on its behalf or can do what it should be doing.

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My inclination is to take the same position in cases like this that I would take also with what we call humanitarian intervention, that is, intervention to stop horrors in progress like Pol Pot in Cambodia when the Vietnamese went in or Idi Amin in Uganda when the Tanzanians went in. The principle there was that anyone who could stop what was going on should do so. It would be better if the U.N. did it, but the U.N. isn't going to do it, and wasn't going to do it in those cases, so unilateral intervention seemed all right. It would have been all right if China had stopped Pol Pot. It would have been all right if we had, except we didn't have the moral credentials to do anything in that part of the world at that time. But the principle was that anybody who could stop it should stop it.

In this case, which isn't a horror in progress but a plausible and very strong threat of something really awful, I'm inclined to say the same thing. It would be better if the Iranians did it; it would be better if a coalition of Saudis, Jordanians and Iranians did it. But they're not, and I guess I think we should - if we can, of course.

We're at a point where we can't do much more in the way of economic sanctions than we've done. It's turned out that the real suffering apparently imposed on the people of Iraq doesn't matter at all to the government of Iraq. So I can't see any further argument for a tougher blockade. That was the argument for not launching a military strike in 1991, if you remember, but that doesn't seem to make much sense today.

In the eyes of the world, a series of bombing strikes seems to be the lowest form of warfare, but I would much prefer, say, 25 commando units going in and looking for specific targets rather than flying sorties over the country. It's curious, though. I think that would be taken to be a stronger form of engagement. International opinion seems to be much more condemnatory of any kind of incursion on the ground, even if the casualties would be much higher from air raids. There is something wrong in the way the world looks at that choice. But certainly our allies would be more opposed to commando raids than the bombing raids.

It may be a feature of democratization that the "lower orders" from which armies have done their recruiting are now capable of registering their feelings about this. Even though they haven't been very much empowered in economic terms, they can no longer be treated as cannon fodder, and therefore, we have armies that we can't use. It's a very strange phenomenon.

If our government has real intelligence about sites of storage or production, I would prefer, even with the political costs, to go in on the ground. I would try, if I were in the administration, to justify that to the country, but we have a president who I think can't do that. He's a very popular president, but he's not in a position to ask his fellow citizens for sacrifices. That's not the kind of leader he is or has been or can be. But that would be the right thing to do.

We have put ourselves in a position where doing nothing or backing off means a major victory - both political and diplomatic - for Saddam, and I think that's disastrous. They have to do something, so if they can't go in with commando units, then they have to hit what they can identify. I suspect that the effort to find and destroy from the air storage dumps of chemical weapons is going to be a token - and probably should be, if we don't know exactly where they are.

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