February 28, 2003


Desert Shields: Is it wrong for Saddam to put civilians in the crosshairs? (Michael Kinsley, February 27, 2003, Slate)
Saddam Hussein, it seems, is not just a dictator and mass murderer. He is a bounder as well. While we amass hundreds of thousands of troops and billions of dollars of military equipment near his borders, with the frank intention of removing him from power and probably from life, he is welcoming a few dozen
scraggly Western war protesters to act as "human shields" by planting themselves next to potential bombing targets such as power plants. It's just not cricket,
complains Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Using civilians as human shields "is not a military strategy." It is "a violation of the laws of armed conflict."

Rumsfeld's indignation is fey. Since the premise and justification for our imminent invasion of Iraq is that Saddam is evil and ruthless, which is certainly true, it would be remarkable if he played the game of war according to Hoyle. Why should he? It's not going to improve his reputation and will do nothing for his life expectancy either. Indeed one of the big surprises of the build-up to Gulf War I was Saddam's sudden decision to release the Western civilians he had initially forced to live near military targets. That certainly made America's job easier. And as a practical matter, it may have cost more civilian lives than it saved, by giving us more freedom to bomb.

Like "terrorism" and like "weapons of mass destruction," the anathema on the use of human shields is an attempt to define certain methods of war as inherently illegitimate, whether the cause for which they are used is legitimate or not. It's a noble effort, but difficult to sustain and may require more intellectual consistency than the current American administration, at least, is capable of. There have been well-documented reports during the past year, for example, that the Israeli army has used Palestinian civilians as human shields. The U.S. reaction has been muted and generalized mumblings of disapproval and calls for all parties to resolve their differences by negotiation in good faith. No high horse to be seen.

Then, too, it is a bit problematic to be invoking international law and insisting on your right to ignore it at the same time, in the same cause, and with the same righteous indignation. International law says, "Thou shalt not use human shields." It also says, "Thou shalt not use military force without the approval of the Security Council--even if thou art the United States of America and some idiot long ago gave veto power to the French." The test of a country's commitment to international law--and the measure of its credibility when it accuses other countries of flouting international law--is whether that country obeys laws even when it has good reasons to prefer not to.

If International Law really does say that only the Security Council can commit American forces that would violate the Constitution. In the words of James Madison:
The Constitution expressly and exclusively vests in the Legislature the power of declaring a state of war [and] the power of raising armies.

Meanwhile, you could hardly ask for a better illustration of where moral relativism leads than Mr. Kinsley's presumably feigned inability to determine whether it is right or wrong for Saddam Hussein to use human shields. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 28, 2003 7:56 PM

Human shields = argument for Darwinism.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at February 28, 2003 11:19 PM

Bomb human shields improve the gene pool. Send moral relativists tickets to Baghdad.

Posted by: Thomas J. Jackson at March 1, 2003 3:27 AM

Actually, his real human shields (as far as the west is concerned--or claims to be) are the citizens of Iraq. The westerners are mere icing on the cake (or is that a questionable metaphor....)

Though I do find myself wondering what will happen to Hans Blix and his merry men (who, in spite of all, I must find quite courageous).

Posted by: Barry Meislin at March 2, 2003 3:43 AM