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FIRST-PERSON: Weighing the loss of innocent life

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Even in my undistinguished, stateside military career, I saw eight men die, and I came upon the scene of two other deaths within the hour of their occurrence. The eight were victims of colliding helicopters a half-mile to our front. The other two died in vehicle turnovers, the first a scout track at Ft. Hood, the second a jeep near Ft. Campbell. Military exercises are not performed in an OSHA environment. Big machines, exhaustion, unfamiliar settings, spur-of-the-moment decisions, unmarked hazards, fragmentary understandings, stressed equipment — these and other factors make for substantial danger.

Add to that the impact of live munitions and the fog of war, and you have a sure formula for horrendous accidents. Errant bombs kill some civilians or allied troops. Ship-launched missiles mistakenly down a commercial plane. Helicopters engage friendly but wayward armored vehicles. An outposted soldier mistakenly shoots the point man of a returning patrol.

These indeed are tragedies for the victims, their loved ones, their units and the unintentional killers. But greater the tragedy should these incidents erase our will to fight.

Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Frontiers) keep count in their passionately indignant press releases. Isolationists, pacifists and affective journalists reel at every announcement, even from the lips of fabulists. Camera crews scurry to the sites, knowing that “if it bleeds, it leads.” Hollywood and Burbank scriptwriters begin to pen tearjerkers sneering at such expressions as “friendly fire” and “collateral damage.”

Masters of agitprop (agitation and propaganda) “wave the bloody shirt” to inflame the masses. Things go all out of perspective.

But let’s keep our wits. First, as horrible as war may be, it is not as horrible as the elimination of war. In the last century, “peace” killed more civilians than combat. “Democide,” the government’s murder of its own people, claimed well over 100 million civilian lives, more than triple the civilian deaths in war.

Let’s call the roll: Jews under Hitler; Ukrainians under Stalin; Kurds under Saddam Hussein; Cambodians under Pol Pot; Serbs under Milosevic, Tutsis under Hutus; Dinkas under Khartoum; Armenians under the Ottoman Turks; Chinese under the Imperial Japanese and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It goes on and on, if no one intervenes.

Our indignation can be strangely selective. Politics come into play. Picasso immortalizes the bombing death of hundreds in the little Basque town of Guernica, but where is the Picasso of the Rape of Nanking, with hundreds of thousands of deaths? In 1971, every college student in the land knew what Lt. Calley’s platoon did to the civilians in the hamlet of My Lai. Only a fraction knew what Stalin did to millions of peasants in his nation’s breadbasket in the early 1930s.

Second, virtually every cultural phenomenon, as honorable as it may be, involves the loss of innocent life. Right now, we’re in a massive program to build our national stock of smallpox vaccine. But what happens if we vaccinate millions? We can say with statistical certainty that a number of folks will die. And we can say with equal certainty that the media will magnify and not just report these deaths.

It’s no stretch to imagine 2,000 dying while we come to terms with the death of two.

Start daycares, and some overlooked child will die from heat exhaustion in a van. Start Christian colleges, and some student will suffer a fatal fall on a campus hayride. Set up a short-term mission program and some volunteers will die overseas. (All these have happened.) Do we call off ministry? No, for we’ve counted the cost going in, and we won’t be stymied by the fulfillment of reasonable expectations, however sad they may be.

So let us be grownup in our thinking, not blown about by every wind of sorrow. We are increasingly a feeling society, with much pathos sloshing around in our consciousness. We compete to out-empathize each other — the Oprahfication of our culture. Even though we know perfectly well what causes AIDS, we shift research money from such heart-breaking ailments as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Tay-Sachs and sickle cell because Oscar winners wear red ribbons and tearful mothers spread quilts on the Capitol Mall.

We jettison biblical standards on divorce and church discipline and bury biblical teachings on hell and depravity because they irritate our bloated tenderness. We bankrupt an institution because somebody got his feelings hurt.

Yes, we must mourn the innocent dead. But we must not cheapen their sacrifice by scuttling the very causes for which they entered harm’s way. Yes, we take excruciating care to avoid friendly and civilian casualties, but we cannot forget that to err is human. And unless we presume to repeal human nature and the responsibility to defend the innocent, we shall find ourselves at war — albeit flawed war — until our Lord returns.

As we mourn and honor the fallen, let us not nurture and celebrate our sensitivity at the expense of moral clarity and strategic service.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger