Kill all the bad people

In Newsweek, we read this disturbing account of an Army chaplain's prayer:

Then the battalion's chaplain asks the men to join him in a short prayer. "Lord, there are bad guys out there," he says, bowing his head. "Just help us kill 'em."

This, in short, seems to be the Bush Plan for World Peace. All we need to do is kill all the bad people.

Glenn Tinder discusses the origins and implications of such a moral scheme in his neat little book, Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions:

… It is often assumed today that affirming the goodness of humankind, if an error, is a generous and harmless error. Hence political discussions are often punctuated with complacent expressions of trust in human nature. But this trust can have paradoxical results. If people are fundamentally good, then how does there happen to be so much evil in human affairs? It is hard to avoid concluding that this must be because some people are exceptions to the general human norm. … It is apparent how sinister a line of thought this is, for the next step is deciding that to free the world of evil it is necessary only to eradicate the few who are the sources of evil. Through so natural a logic as this, a benign and generous judgment becomes murderous.

In both the war on Iraq and the vaguely defined war on terrorism, the Bush administration's goal seems to be exactly this: "to eradicate the few who are the sources of evil." They thus divide the world into two categories: the "bad guys out there," and everybody else.

These categories are fixed and finite. Thus in this scheme there are a set number of terrorists, and better to fight them on the streets of Baghdad than the streets of Baltimore, as President Bush likes to say. In this view, every enemy combatant killed in Iraq or Afghanistan reduces the total number of terrorists and "bad guys" in the world from X to X-1.

No need, then, to fret about "root causes." No need to worry about winning the "hearts and minds" of the rest of the world. Just kill the bad guys, then everybody else — these noble savages with their childlike inherent goodness — will sing us hosannas of grateful praise.

I do not pretend to have a grand master plan for nation-building in Iraq. I would suggest, however, that we begin remembering that the 25 million people who live there are, like us, human beings and neither devils nor angels.

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  • Dan

    Sigh. It would be nice to show the chaplain … alternative ways … of handling this situation. That terrifying black/white perspective is ultimately futile.
    Here’s a direct parallel, and, I think, a marvelous response:
    “In Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood there lived some ruffians who annoyed him so much that he prayed for them to die. His wife Beruriah said to him: What are you thinking of? Are you relying on the [Biblical] verse ‘Let sinners be consumed’ [Ps.104:35]? In fact, the word in the verse is not ‘sinners’ but ‘sins.’ . . .You should pray for these sinners, that they turn in repentance and be wicked no more. So Rabbi Meir did pray for them, and they did turn in repentance” [Talmud Berachot 10a].

  • Darryl Pearce

    How is “taking the fight to the enemy” in Iraq, where they can “bring it on” with our “flypaper” troops, help support democracy and freedom in Iraq? One place cannot be two things: we will either build a nation or use it as a battleground.
    –ventura county, ca

  • Sean C.

    While the concept of a God that would answer this prayer chills me, I can understand the sentiment from the Soldiers’ perspective. There are people around them who want to kill them. I would class someone who wants to kill me as “bad”. I assume that on the ground in a war, this is usefull moral shorthand. It’s when this good/bad guy simplification is used to justify geopolitical strategy that problems (like assuming that a nation will be happy to be occupied) arise.

  • Jon H

    Sean, wouldn’t it be more appropriate – and useful – to pray for the ‘bad guys’ to change their ways and stop trying to kill the Americans?
    This would have the advantage of not involving a firefight, where innocent civilians can get killed.
    It would also ‘work’ if the soldiers don’t happen to find anyone to kill.
    Also, the last time I checked, they aren’t just trying to kill Americans. They’re killing Iraqis who help the Americans.
    The best case scenario is one where the killing stops, and not because all the ‘bad guys’ are dead, but because the ‘bad guys’ are no long ‘bad guys’. Wouldn’t that be preferable?
    It’s really a stupid, stupid prayer. I might give it some credence in a combat environment like the World War 1 trenches, but in current operations among civilians? It’s really the wrong sentiment.
    Given that the soldiers are, in fact, operating among civilians, it seems a really bad idea to send them off with a prayer like that. It would be rather better to send them off with a prayer that takes into account the need to protect the innocent, rather than treating everything as a target.

  • Darryl Pearce

    …does God answer prayers?
    Of course. More often than not that answer is: “No.”
    –ventura county, ca

  • Tim Kitchin

    However, even the alternative ‘battle’ for hearts and minds is rooted in an assumption of superiority and patronising instincts of persuasion and confrontation.
    Surely the battle for mutual learning is the relevant struggle here, and dogma is the real enemy. A transition from America the parent, to America the adult, engaging and learning.
    Of course it’s dangerous to believe in the fundamental goodness of human beings, but its not dangerous to believe in our POTENTIAL for goodness and our shared need to learn what goodness means – by acting together. Someone find me a sustainable alternative to the logic of mutualism…

  • Ron

    The use of the phrase “bad guys” for descriptions of ones enemies in the real world is kind of well disconcerting. It manages to give everything a kind of comic book point of view. A phrase that has come into use by “adults” talking about world politics only in the last few years. Something that we used to say before we turned say 10 or so. It just strikes me as a really childish phrase and a scary way for grownups to look at the world.

  • Patience

    Ron– I agree– it is rather alarming that everyone who doesn’t like us in Iraq is so neatly classified as “the enemy.” It rather glosses over our failure to find one specific enemy– Saddam– and absolves us from responsibility for our actions: “What did you expect? I was just trying to kill ‘the enemy.’
    The simplicity of X-1 logic is appealing:
    Barbara Drinkwine, 57… is a retired elementary school principal from Menasha. She fervently believes Bush did the right thing by invading Iraq. “What about 9/11 don’t some people understand?” she demands, sitting at her sunlit dining room table. “You can’t let the fight come to us, America.”
    Yet it’s ultimately useless… after all, there are more of “them” than there are of “us.” (Isn’t it ironic, then, that the Bush administration has no stronger ally than Islamic states in trying to prevent any sort of worldwide population control agreements?)

  • Brennan

    “O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle-be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it-for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”
    — Mark Twain, “The War Prayer”

  • Tiger Spot

    “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
    — Alexander Solzhenitsyn