In late February and early March 1991, during the first Gulf War, U.S. forces bombed, shelled, and otherwise set fire to thousands of young Iraqi men who were trying to flee Kuwait. There were a series of such incidents—the “Highway of Death,” “Highway 8,” the “Battle of Rumaila”—in which U.S. air power cut off columns of retreating Iraqis and engaged in what the military refers to as a “turkey shoot,” where trapped soldiers are simply slaughtered in their vehicles. Images of charred bodies trying desperately to crawl from their trucks became iconic symbols of the war.
I have never understood why this mass slaughter of Iraqi men isn’t considered a war crime. It’s clear that, at the time, the U.S. command feared it might be. President George H.W. Bush quickly announced a temporary cessation of hostilities, and the military has deployed enormous efforts since then to minimize the casualty count, obscure the circumstances, defame the victims (“a bunch of rapists, murderers, and thugs,” General Norman Schwarzkopf later insisted), and prevent the most graphic images from appearing on U.S. television. It’s rumored that there are videos from cameras mounted on helicopter gunships of panicked Iraqis, which will never be released.
It makes sense that the elites were worried. These were, after all, mostly young men who’d been drafted and who, when thrown into combat, made precisely the decision one would wish all young men in such a situation would make: saying to hell with this, packing up their things, and going home. For this, they should be burned alive? When ISIS burned a Jordanian pilot alive last winter, it was universally denounced as unspeakably barbaric—which it was, of course. Still, ISIS at least could point out that the pilot had been dropping bombs on them. The retreating Iraqis on the “Highway of Death” and other main drags of American carnage were just kids who didn’t want to fight.
But maybe it was this very refusal that’s prevented the Iraqi soldiers from garnering more sympathy, not only in elite circles, where you wouldn’t expect much, but also in the court of public opinion. On some level, let’s face it: these men were cowards. They got what they deserved.
There seems, indeed, a decided lack of sympathy for noncombatant men in war zones. Even reports by international human rights organizations speak of massacres as being directed almost exclusively against women, children, and, perhaps, the elderly. The implication, almost never stated outright, is that adult males are either combatants or have something wrong with them. (“You mean to say there were people out there slaughtering women and children and you weren’t out there defending them? What are you? Chicken?”) Those who carry out massacres have been known to cynically manipulate this tacit conscription: most famously, the Bosnian Serb commanders who calculated they could avoid charges of genocide if, instead of exterminating the entire population of conquered towns and villages, they merely exterminated all males between ages fifteen and fifty-five.
But there is something more at work in circumscribing our empathy for the fleeing Iraqi massacre victims. U.S. news consumers were bombarded with accusations that they were actually a bunch of criminals who’d been personally raping and pillaging and tossing newborn babies out of incubators (unlike that Jordanian pilot, who’d merely been dropping bombs on cities full of women and children from a safe, or so he thought, altitude). We are all taught that bullies are really cowards, so we easily accept that the reverse must naturally be true as well. For most of us, the primordial experience of bullying and being bullied lurks in the background whenever crimes and atrocities are discussed. It shapes our sensibilities and our capacities for empathy in deep and pernicious ways.
Cowardice Is a Cause Too
Most people dislike wars and feel the world would be a better place without them. Yet contempt for cowardice seems…get the rest here