'We're' better than 'they' are

Posted: Mar 27, 2003 12:00 AM

The images of dead American soldiers on some concrete floor had -- besides horror and gruesomeness -- a certain familiarity. They brought to mind the Somali horrors of a decade ago, memorialized in the book and film "Black Hawk Down." Again, dead American soldiers; again, gloating, glutted, sadistic, hate-filled scumbags standing around them.

It is time, clearly, to make a distinction for which not every denizen of the endlessly affirming 21st century is prepared: least of all those who, after the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night, doubt that Michael Moore ("Shame on you, Mr. Bush") is a major jerk.

The fact remains, we're better than they are -- "they" being the gloating executioners, "we" being the Americans, as represented by our armed forces and, yes, if you can believe it, by our politicians.

They -- to adopt Lord-of-the-Rings terminology -- are the Orcs. We are the elves and hobbits and dwarves and men of the West.

Doubt it? Look at the photos (which I caught on the Drudge Report). Try to imagine American soldiers gloating over dead Iraqi soldiers, exhibiting their corpses. All the pictures we've seen to date of captured Iraqis involve treatment of battle-inflicted wounds -- at worst, of searches for hidden weapons.

What divides the United States and Britain from Saddam's Iraq is a thing called civilization. We've got it. They wouldn't know it if it jumped out of the Euphrates and sat down beside them. Their disposition, in that circumstance, would be to shove the thing back into the river.

The distinction between civilization and barbarism is ancient. The Tigris-Euphrates valley cultivated it once. It is a matter of laws and customs, duties and decency. Rule by personal whim contradicts that personal restraint on which civilization depends.

A civilized nation doesn't debauch the dead, shoot helpless captives (as the Iraqis may have done in this case), humiliate live captives by filming them, position tanks and artillery in civilian areas for protection, dress soldiers in civilian outfits in order to catch enemy soldiers unawares, or fake a surrender and then start shooting at those trying to receive the surrender. All these things the Saddam regime does.

The lines of civilization and non-civilization can blur -- even disappear at times. During the Vietnam War, we became ruefully acquainted with Lt. Rusty Calley, overseer of a civilian massacre by U.S. troops. On the other hand, the massacre of civilians -- as many as possible, whenever possible -- was the established policy of the Vietnamese communists. U.S. foes of the war always contrived to look the other way when the time came to be shocked.

The ongoing argument over the war in Iraq is, in substance, the same argument that tore us apart 30 years ago. We argued then about civilization, which Americans could be said to represent, over against communist tyranny and brutality. Never mind, the anti-war left objected -- the communists had a native authenticity that we lacked; Americans had no business imposing their will on foreigners.

The good guys-bad guys argument is one that nobody wants taken to an extreme, so that the former imagine for themselves a roving commission to take out the latter. Good guys don't exist for the purpose of exterminating bad guys. Such work would never end. It is only particular bad guys who come in for special attention, on account of capacity for mass murder (e.g., Slobodan Milosevic) or for injury to neighbors (e.g., Saddam Hussein: in his own way, an accomplished murderer).

Still, the puzzle of the last 30 years -- likely to remain such -- is how today's hobbits and men can so readily invent excuses to downplay the Orcs' intentions and conduct.

The current sight, in U.S. and European streets, of grizzled baby boomers, egging on a new generation to fury against the United States, brings it all back, reminding us how some things never change, much as we might hope they would.

Much as Saddam himself must hope they won't.