Thursday, March 01, 2007

Strategies for children (Part II): killing them

[Part I, "saving them," is here.]

Children are the future of any society. This makes them a double-edged sword: since most cultures are devoted to the protection and nurturance of their own children, most societies are uniquely vulnerable when those children are threatened; and therefore children can become effective weapons, tools, and hostages.

Today we see an increasing number of children used as soldiers in the traditional sense, especially in Africa. This strange phenomenon is only possible because advances in weaponry make physical strength far less necessary now than it was in the days of Achilles and Hector. But soldiering itself is by no means the only use of children in war.

Children have often been unintended victims in modern wars which (since World War II) have been fought not only on battlefields (now almost obsolete) but through aerial bombardments that have become more and more refined but still unavoidably kill many noncombatants. During World War II children were never purposely targeted (except, of course, by the Nazis when they killed disabled children and Jewish children in an effort to eliminate those groups). So, although plenty of children died during World War II, most of them were considered regrettable collateral casualties of the technique of total war that featured attacks on civilian populations.

In addition, during World War II children were never purposely placed in harm's way by their respective countries--except for Germany and Japan, who needed to recruit younger and younger soldiers as the war went on and their populations of available young men were greatly reduced. But this recruitment was done with reluctance, and was a measure of a desperate situation rather than a decision that drafting children would be a good strategic move in and of itself. The above lithograph, made by the German graphic artist Käthe Kollwitz in 1942--the last one she ever completed--was entitled "Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground," a quote from Goethe referencing the fact that children represent the future and cannot be cannibalized by the present if a society wishes to prosper.

But Islamic totalitarians and terrorists have gone beyond the use of children as conventional fighters, or the killing of the enemy's children in acts of war that have other intended targets or strategic purposes. Islamic totalitarians and terrorists have not invented the practice of purposely using their own children as perpetrators and tools, to be sure; a precedent occurred during the Vietnam War, for example, when children were pressed into service to throw grenades and to lure GIs into various traps. But they have certainly raised it to a fine art.

This fact raises a terrible and ironic paradox: this phenomenon can only arise in a war against a humane fighting force. The value of using children in this way comes solely from the fact that the soldiers involved would hesitate to kill the children deliberately, and would feel terrible guilt about doing so--and he who hesitates is often lost. So, the more humanely a fighting force operates, it seems that the more likely it will be to encounter an enemy willing to sacrifice its own children in an attempt to foil that enemy.

Golda Meir famously said: Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us. And if "love" can be measured as the desire to protect from harm, it could be argued that at this point Israeli society "loves" Palestinian children more than the Palestinians themselves do, since the Israelis kill them only reluctantly, and Palestinians send them and encourage them to purposely kill and be killed (sometimes both simultaneously). I've written about this phenomenon before, likening the Palestinians to the Pied Piper, luring their own children to seek death while promising them beautiful rewards.

It's an almost inescapable but horrifying conclusion that if US and Israeli and other fighting forces were less intent on protecting children, fewer children would be purposely sent into harm's way by the fanatics of the Moslem world. And, likewise, if the western MSM were not so intent on publicizing their deaths and criticizing those who kill them more than than they criticize the people who send those children out to be killed, the propaganda value in the West of the whole operation would be nil, and there probably would be less reason for the adults to put them in harm's way. This represents a conundrum of major proportions.

Of course, their killings would still retain propaganda value in the Arab world; the deaths of children are excellent for stirring up rage against the West in the so-called Arab street; just watch al Jazeera if you don't think so. Thus we have the strange (and, I believe, unprecedented) phenomenon of leaders who sacrifice their own society's children in order to inflame their own populace against an enemy. This could not be done without the cooperation of the mass media in those countries.

But the violent use of children by Islamist totalitarians and terrorists is hardly limited to the above. They also know that most societies--and Israel is certainly an example of this--love their own children and are especially outraged and wounded by their deaths. And so, in recent years, Israeli children have been purposely targeted more and more in suicide bombings. My own recollection of the beginning of this particular strategy was the Sbarro pizza bombing of August 2001, in the first year of the bloody second intifada (and if you follow that link and scroll down a bit you'll find some moving photos and short biographies of the victims of that bombing).

At the time, it seemed an odd and ominous--and puzzling--turn of events to target a pizza place, where families and children were likely to congregate. Now, of course, we've lost whatever innocence we had back then about the intentions of an attack such as this, or its frequency; it now seems to be business as usual, losing none of its horror but most of its surprise through frequent repetition.

What’s the point of such an act? The point, or course, is terror; there are few things more heartbreaking to a society than the loss of its children, and it can demoralize a country.

But terror of this nature—or any nature—is a double-edged sword. The London blitz during World War II, for example, probably served more to stiffen the spine of the British than to cause them to lose heart and think about giving up. The more implacable and heartless an enemy seems to be, the more hated it can become, and the more the public might become mobilized and energized to fight that enemy.

Although aerial bombardment of civilians occurred prior to World War II, it came of age during that conflict and was heavily used by both sides. Some of the bombardment was strategic and aimed at military and industrial targets, but some (on both sides--and the extent of this is on our side a hotly contested issue) was definitely aimed at weakening the will of the civilian population to fight (and see this, an interesting discussion of how the factor of civilian expectations play into this calculus). But no aerial bombardment specially targeted children. At any rate the technique of aerial bombing now has become so refined now that casualties are relatively limited compared to the bad days of World War II.

It appears that modern warfare of the insurgency/terrorist variety, particularly in the Arab world, has brought new features to the use of children's lives as pawns and consolidated some old ones. Advancements in the humaneness of warfare by the West have had the paradoxical effect of leading to a war in which that morality is turned on its head and used against those countries who attempt to practice it.

What's the answer to the dilemma? There is no good one, I'm afraid. The desire to be humane is at odds with the waging of war itself, it would seem. But even that answer --the answer given by pacifists, which is to avoid war--is no solution at all, and allows the strong and immoral to dominate the weak and moral (see this for my thoughts on the subject). Even the international rules of war are designed for a different place and a different time, and for an enemy playing a different game.

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