Don't 'Pray American'

When we pervasively dehumanize the enemy, we lose our moral rationale

BY: Steven Waldman

 

If we forget Iraqis are human, it will be easier to kill them. That's why military leaders talk about killing tanks and destroying artillery, without dwelling on the possibility that there may have been a human or two operating the equipment.



I don't mind if soldiers view the enemy this way. We've asked our soldiers to kill, which is hard enough. To require that they contemplate the widows and orphans they will be creating is simply too much to ask.

But we should mind when American journalists and civilian leaders dehumanize the enemy. And it's beginning to happen. The New York Post runs a regular chart labeled "The Toll of the War." Under the sections for "dead" or "missing" it mentions only U.S. or allied soldiers. Dead Iraqi soldiers or civilians are apparently not part of the "toll."

The renewed bombing of Baghdad since Wednesday has brought more attention to civilian casualties, but we're still having a hard time talking about it. Talk show host Sean Hannity Thursday night excoriated Rep. Charles Rangel for saying Americans had "bombed women and children," which prompted Rangel to roll his eyes and say, "Ok, they're bombing themselves."

American TV networks seem to show fewer images of civilian fatalities than have Al Jazeera or the BBC. We seem more afraid of dead Iraqis than living ones, apparently anxious that the sight of carnage will turn us against the war. If so, our pro-war convictions are shaky indeed. If we truly believe that we're doing all we can to avoid hurting civilians, as I do, we should be willing to grieve for lost Iraqis.

I'm not saying our extraordinarily brave American soldiers are bad for killing or injuring civilians. Civilian casualties are a fact of war and I do believe that it is mostly Saddam who has blood on his hands for the suffering of Iraqis, especially now that he's using his own people as human shields.

But it's one thing to say that the tragedy was brought about by Saddam Hussein, and another to say the tragedy doesn't exist.

We're even avoiding Iraqis in our prayers. Most national prayer efforts make no mention of Iraqis at all. Our old "Buy American" impulse has been replaced by a "Pray American" sensibility. President Bush has called on us to pray for American soldiers and their families. When Beliefnet set up its prayer circle area for the war, we reflexively decorated it with an American flag. The PresidentialPrayerteam.com, a popular prayer website, asks for prayers not only for our soldiers but not-exactly-in-the-line-of-fire men like Attorney General John Ashcroft and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. Yet they suggest nothing for even suffering Iraqi children.

Rev. Jerry Falwell has called for a national "prayer force" for 1) President Bush 2) our soldiers 3) American soldiers missing in action 4) the families of those who have been killed 5) victory over Saddam Hussein 6) safety from terrorism and 7) a "spiritual reawakening in America." No prayers, however, need be offered for the new, growing class of Iraqi widows.

I cherish, and am moved by, the outpouring of love for America's genuine heroes, and it is natural that we will direct our concern toward those we know. But the tendency to pray only for our team implies a peculiar attitude toward prayer and God. It's as if we feel that our soldiers are in a basketball game. If we pray loud enough, we'll give our boys the home court advantage. The Pray American approach also seems to assume that we have a limited prayer ration. If we use our prayers up on Iraqis, we won't have enough for Americans.

Our national prayer chauvinism assumes that God is as weak and simpleminded as we are. It assumes that He is tallying prayers mechanically, incapable of making distinctions between right and wrong, innocent and guilty. I believe we could pray for Iraqi soldiers night and day and would not make it any more likely that an "evildoer" would triumph.

If we truly believe we have gone to war to help the Iraqi people, in an action Saddam forced upon us, then let's act like it, not only in our press conferences but in our solitude. The President should be calling on Americans to pray for our soldiers and the innocent Iraqis our soldiers have killed. Praying for them--and asking for forgiveness for killing them--does not mean our actions are wrong. It means we're acknowledging the humanity of the Iraqis. Will contemplating the suffering of the enemy force us to reassess our posture in the war? Possibly. But if mere contemplation of such a thing causes us to lose our resolve - especially when we can easily call forth countervailing images of suffering from the World Trade Center-- then the whole war effort is morally vacant.

I know some would view this as profoundly cynical--kill the parents and then self-righteously pray for the orphans. But we either believe the notion that the calamity is brought on by Saddam, or we don't. And if we don't, we shouldn't be in this war.

The president should go farther and ask us to pray for Iraqi soldiers. I don't mean pray for them to be victorious, of course, nor do I mean "pray for their souls" in a patronizing "love the sinner" sort of way. I mean pray for them to behave wisely and morally. Pray for their families and the communities ravaged first by Saddam and then by this war.

Let's acknowledge, too, that the one thing Saddam has done that's almost as bad as killing his people is turning them into killers. In some cases, his henchmen have done it literally by putting a gun to the backs of soldiers and forcing them into battle. Let's pray they have the courage to put down their arms. In other cases, the men are fighting not for Saddam but their country, something we can respect. And let's acknowledge that many of those who fight eagerly do so because they've been brainwashed into a cult of depravity. They have been warped and spiritually ruined and for that they very much deserve our sympathy - and our prayers.

If this seems unpatriotic it's worth recalling Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address. Delivered in the thick of a civil war lasting longer than expected, Lincoln, astonishingly, did not pray for the Union to be victorious or claim God for the Union side. "The Almighty has His own purposes," he said, speculating that perhaps both sides were being punished for the sin of slavery. Instead, he said, "Fondly do we hope - fervently do we pray - that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."

Lincoln, despite needing to lead his side in a horribly demoralizing war, never lost sight of the humanity of the enemy. Neither should we.

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