Marching with Western values

Posted: Apr 04, 2003 12:00 AM

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the war in Iraq will reduce or increase terrorism, whether building a democracy there is practical or not, whether Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld forged a brilliant military plan or skimped on ground troops. What the Iraqi battlefield during the past two weeks has demonstrated beyond any possible argument is the moral superiority of Western culture.

Armies march not just on their stomachs, but with their values. The contrasting conduct of American and British troops, reflecting the best aspects of the West, and of Saddam Hussein's soldiers and guerrillas, representing an Arab political culture corrupted by tyranny, is a showcase for two differing traditions with utterly divergent styles of war-making.

It's the difference between hiding behind women and children and doing everything to avoid harming them, between random missile attacks and precision weapons, between executing prisoners and treating them humanely, between faking surrenders and accepting them, between transparent government lies and vigorous, open self-criticism, between setting oil wells on fire and putting them out.

The scrupulousness of the Allied warrior has been thousands of years in the making. As historian Victor Davis Hanson writes: "This legal and secular idea of 'Rules of War' is an original Western concept that began with the Greeks' efforts to define the way soldiers should fight. Indeed, almost all the military's present notions of moral war-making -- formal declaration and cessation of hostilities, armistices, treaties, respect for noncombatants and the prohibitions of particularly odious weapons -- derive from the Greeks and the Romans."

The West's appreciation for the rule of law can be seen in the lawyerly parsing of targets to ensure that they are valid and military in nature. Its humanity is clear in the rush to provide food and water to suffering Iraqi civilians. Its commitment to self-criticism is visible in the military briefings, at which any journalist from anywhere can ask any question. Its respect for the individual is evident in the risking of many brave souls to save just one -- a 19-year-old private from West Virginia.

Make no mistake, of course: The Allied military kills with a ferocious efficiency. But the advanced weapons that make that possible are also a function of Western values, of the freedom that is the predicate of economic growth and technological innovation. Without the great unleashing of human potential that has taken place in the West of the past 200 years, there would be no "smart" weapons.

What has been arrayed against us on the Iraqi battlefield is almost too distressing to contemplate. Iraqi tactics reflect a toxic cultural stew of Arab tribal traditions tinged with the long leftover of Ottoman despotism, wrapped in the suffocating embrace of Stalinism (a perverse import from the West). The two chief tools of Saddam's forces have been treachery and cruelty.

There is no lawful limit on the conduct of his forces ("law is two lines above my signature," Saddam has said). Any manifestation of power and strength, no matter how shamefully accomplished, is celebrated: Thus, pictures of executed enemy soldiers are gleefully broadcast on television. The individual is subsumed in a cult of death, obliterated in glorious suicide missions.

All of this is bathed in an enervating wash of lies. Saddam's regime touts its imminent triumph even as Allied forces close in on Baghdad, just as for 12 years he has claimed the first Gulf War as a famous victory.

The tragedy of the post-World War II Arab world is that strongmen like Saddam have used totalitarian politics to impose a stasis on their societies. The Allied invasion will provide a chance for ordinary Arabs to revive their politics and culture. Surely it is this possible opening that residents of the holy city of Najaf were applauding along with the arrival of Allied troops the other day.

U.S. and British soldiers, superior in firepower, superior in their moral conduct, will deliver two things in Iraq: First, victory, and then the possibility of a different, better future.