Though more than a million Iraqis and Afghans have died under their respective occupations, the number of U.S. soldiers who have even been charged in connection with civilian deaths is scant, and the number who ultimately serve any jail time is scanter still. This is a reflection of several unfavorable factors: the oft-relaxed rules of engagement, the reticence of commanders to investigate and prosecute the murder of civilians, the ease with which drop weapons and other methods of cover-up can be undertaken, the inability of the military justice system to function due to a strictly-enforced code of silence among the enlisted, and—most problematic—a general disrespect for civilian lives and livelihood, most pointedly reflected in a 2007 poll by the Office of the Surgeon General of the US Army Medical Command. This survey found that just 40% of Marines and 55% of soldiers would report a unit member for killing an innocent noncombatant. The same poll found even lower numbers for the acts of stealing from civilians, mistreating them, and damaging their property, as well as for generally violating the rules of engagement. Worse, the poll only covers those soldiers who would admit their derelictions; the real figure is likely lower.
This startling data is corroborated by a number of veterans, notably by those in the Winter Soldier movement. Sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Winter Soldier testimonials are well-corroborated accounts of violent and unprovoked attacks in which dozens to hundreds of civilians have perished. In the wake of Wikileaks' release of Apache footage depicting one such massacre, others such as Ethan McCord (a member of the unit depicted in the footage) have come forward, claiming variously that they were told to kill any civilian nearby when an I.E.D. goes off, that civilians speaking on phones or holding shovels were valid targets, that any Iraqi thought to be associated with the insurgency could be killed, and that commanders would cover for them if they committed murder or abused prisoners. By our soldiers' own admission, it appears that the only unique aspect of the relaxed, cheered-on New Baghdad massacre is that it has since seen the light of day thanks to one conscientious whistleblower.
In this anything-goes climate, abusive soldiers can operate with impunity, and the civilians suffer. It is no surprise that violent soldiers, from Matthew McCabe (acquitted of the crime of assaulting a detainee despite eye-witness testimony) to Jose Luis Nazario, Jr. (tried as a civilian for his role in the deaths of four Iraqis yet acquitted due to lack of evidence and the refusal of his squadmates to testify) to Michael Hensley (who admits that he ordered a member of his squad to kill a civilian and then place an AK-47 on his body; this same underling later claimed to have no memory of the incident, and had earlier communicated to Hensley that he would protect him) to the Haditha butchers (of which only one of eight is still charged despite the conclusion of an official Pentagon investigation that the Marines deliberately killed a total of 24 unarmed civilians), have gotten away with it. Many more cases of this type exist, and each calls into question the ability of the military to effectively police itself. More numerous still are officially-sanctioned incidents, such as the siege of Fallujah, in which the massacre of civilians and the damaging of civilian infrastructure was undertaken deliberately as part of a strategy of pacification and subjugation, what one American advisor in Baghdad, quoted by Seymour Hersh, called "Terrorism versus terrorism." "We've got to scare the Iraqis into submission," he said.
This has been the general tenor of the occupying force for some time: the U.S. military kills civilians, offers a perfunctory apology and promise to amend its ways, and then continues killing civilians, in the process betraying its true goal of subjugation. Aerial bombardment, night raids (increased by McChrystal despite his carefully-cultivated image as a reformer), checkpoints (about which General McChrystal famously said, "We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force."), White Phosphorus and cluster munitions, and the heavy use of unaccountable contractors and glorified death squads have all been the subject of criticism for their lethality to civilians and in turn the focus of military and political crocodile tears.
If we cannot expect the military to police itself (the legal and moral reason it has been granted the privilege of doing so), and the civilian authority is unable or unwilling to do it, then the policing falls on our shoulders. And indeed, there are some encouraging signs that sabotage of U.S. military facilities with the intent of stopping a greater crime is legal as well as moral.
In 2007, for example, two English protesters were acquitted of all charges relating to a 2003 break-in of a Royal Air Force base in order to sabotage U.S. bombers. Toby Olditch and Philip Pritchard successfully argued to a crown court that the planes, which carried cluster munitions and depleted uranium rounds (both noted killers of civilians), would have been used to commit war crimes in Iraq. There is legal precedent in the U.S. as well: in 1987, a group of protestors including Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter were acquitted of trespassing and disorderly conduct, charges stemming from their attempted disruption of C.I.A. recruitment on the University of Massachusetts campus. The jury found their actions to be protected civil disobedience, undertaken to thwart the commission of greater C.I.A. crimes in Latin America and elsewhere.
In a more general philosophical sense, the case for sabotage can be found in a widely-held consensual value: that of self-defense.
Let us entertain a hypothetical: a worker at a munitions factory, now beginning to wonder about the morality of creating weapons for use in two invasive foreign wars, inquires about the proportion of civilian and military deaths caused by any particular bomb he has created. His superior reveals that in Iraq, casualties from U.S. bombing raids are roughly 44% women and 39% children; at least 85% of those killed are thus highly likely to have been uninvolved in any armed conflict. This realization would require at the very least the worker's conscientious objection and immediate refusal to continue work on the bombs. But the bomb-maker is in a unique position to go farther; his proximity to the engines of destruction affords him relatively safe access to the means of their undoing. In order to make up for his relatively greater hand in the unnecessary deaths of Iraqis and Afghans, he must decommission as much machinery as he is safely and reasonably able to destroy.
This is not, in fact, a hypothetical: U.S. bombs are overwhelmingly more lethal to women and children, according to a 2009 Iraq Body Count survey. If the victim of any single U.S. bomb is more than 85% likely to be a noncombatant, there is no moral or legal reason not to dismantle it, and then the factory which produces it. Reflecting this high probability, more than half of all child deaths in Afghanistan in 2009 were caused by N.A.T.O. forces. If the two English saboteurs were legally justified in delaying the employment of U.S. cluster munitions, then any passing Samaritan would be likewise justified in wreaking havoc in any stateside military installation.
A crucial dimension of self-defense is proportionality, the requirement to pursue the least violent method of resolving conflict before any others are attempted. It is in fact this aspect of self-defense which empowers the use of force against others who violate the rule—reactive violence loses its defensive attribute if it is not strictly necessary to preserve one's life or the life of others, and only the previous consideration of less violent means can constitute a reasonable belief that force is justified. Applying this to the U.S. military, any saboteur can note that protests against the Iraq War set a number of turnout records, but were ignored and downplayed in the U.S. media. Protests, even large scale ones, are simply not sufficient to thwart wars of aggression, let alone the routine killing of civilians in the course of waging them. In the final analysis, we must ask: who are we to stand peacefully and ineffectively in the streets holding picket signs while Iraqi, Afghan, Yemeni, and Pakistani civilians are dying at the hands of the occupying U.S. force?
Civilians make up the vast bulk of casualties in the present wars. To argue the immorality of sabotage undertaken with the goal of preventing such civilian slaughter is to place human lives below the very convenience of their U.S. killers. It is to argue that the serial killer's knife should remain long and lethal, for breaking it would constitute grave property harm.
Even the rationale of the military itself can be turned around to offer a self-sufficient case for using force against its own machinations. Look, for example, to the case for torture offered by the Bush Department of Justice. This legal rationale was transparently thin, compiled with incomplete information (and ignorant of the fact that the torture techniques were derived from training manuals which prepared soldiers for the possibility of their own 'torture' by other forces, manuals which note explicitly that these methods produce many false confessions), and relied upon naked assertions that legality is immaterial if charges are never pressed, essentially telling the torturers "you will get away with this regardless, because no one will charge you." Indeed, no one has charged the torturers or their enablers, and the Obama administration has moved to prevent any legal action against them—likely because his own administration would be caught up in any sufficiently wide-reaching legal proceeding.
When pressed to defend this sloppy reasoning, Yoo (and Assistant Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, the Justice Department official who reversed an earlier O.P.R. finding which held that Yoo's poor judgment in the memos constituted professional misconduct) cited the post-September 11th panic as an excuse to relax the rules of engagement and set aside legal prohibition of torture with careless reasoning. Legal precedent now holds that one can play fast and loose with the law if a nebulous security concern can be created (the torture of mostly-innocent detainees produced no useful information, and several torturers admitted that they were told to manufacture a confession linking Iraq to al Qaeda). Thus the one aspect of state-sponsored destruction which could conceivably distinguish it from justified sabotage—its putative legality—evaporates.
If we can torture innocent detainees delivered to us by bounty hunters in order to combat the trumped-up threat of terrorism, if we can excessively punish petty criminals in hellish jails in order maintain a nebulous crime deterrent, if we can disregard the law when panic sets in and continue to do so long after it has abated…why then can we not turn our attention to the torturers, the rape-enablers and wardens of America's brutal, overcrowded prisons, the politicians who sanctioned violence and theft and got away with it, the corporate robber-barons and bankers who held taxpayers hostage during the recent meltdown and proceeded to use bailout funds to lobby the government and overpay executives (reinforcing the cycle of poverty which has claimed untold lives), the insurance giants who are nakedly pursuing greater profits at the expense of patients (50,000 of whom die each year due to lack of health insurance), or the polluters who endanger us all?
This is to say nothing of blowback, which also provides a self-defense rationale for altering our imperialistic foreign policy. Bin Laden has cited U.S. involvement with Israel and the Muslim world as the impetus for the September 11th attacks; more recently, would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad echoed these points and added a criticism of U.S. drone attacks in which hundreds of civilians have been killed. To discount the actions of these men as the product of extremist indoctrination is to commit the grave error of forgetting that our actions have repercussions. And these repercussions, like the real outcome of our foreign policy, are felt by civilians.
In his Korematsu v. United States dissent, Justice Robert H. Jackson argued that the military was capable of making its own decisions and should not be subjected to the rulings of a civilian court (and neither should a civilian court be asked to approve its actions). Jackson later commented that he was aware of the danger of this precedent because it rendered the military unaccountable to civilian authority:
Much is said of the danger to liberty from the Army program for deporting and detaining these citizens of Japanese extraction. But a judicial construction of the due process clause that will sustain this order (323 U.S. 214, 246) is a far more subtle blow to liberty than the promulgation of the order itself. A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency. Even during that period a succeeding commander may revoke it all. But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens. The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.
Recent events in the extended military emergency known as the War on Terror (now the Overseas Contingency Operation), some legally sanctioned, have borne out his fear. Jackson felt that the court of public opinion would be sufficient to reign in any military-judicial overextensions, but although public opinion has been at times set sharply against military action, both jurisdictional and not, it has continued to torture, invade, kill with impunity, collude, remove rights, and generally behave in a similar manner to the mafia. What expression of public opinion is equal to the task of reigning in the military if even record-setting protests are to be marginalized and ignored by the corporate media? How can military justice exist as a concept if commanders and comrades are unwilling to enforce the rules (which are fluid to begin with)?
We must ask ourselves a troubling question: when a known offender begins eyeing a loaded weapon which has been carelessly left behind, what can a concerned party do?
It must finally be noted that humans, even violently immoral ones, are distinct from tanks, bombs, and guns. This remains true, despite the common excuse used to defend the participation of American soldiers in a war anyone can and should know is grossly immoral—that they know not what they do. This is admittedly true in many cases. Young Americans are subjected to an intoxicating culture of soldier-worship and jingoistic propaganda, and recruiters have been caught lying to potential enlistees. But this is a case of ignorance being used to excuse evil, and can only be remedied by better education coupled with an emphatic rejection of that propaganda, and part of this necessarily entails the rejection of the soldier-as-hero myth. A mafia assassin who was brought up on gangster films which glorify the lifestyle is dangerously ignorant, and the same could be said of a soldier who has been subjected to romanticized accounts of war.
The factual humanity of U.S. soldiers, despite their arguments otherwise, is paramount—it informs the rationale of saboteurs in the first place and must thus be taken as a self-sufficient reason to forego any well-intentioned attacks upon them. Destroy their transports, their weapons, their equipment, their dignity, and their convenience, but never their bodies.