An Act of Cowardice that Must Surely be Unrivalled in History: Challenging the Assumption of Valor

Gandhi argued that the coward should take to violence because non-violence requires a lot of courage. One could add that the intellectually lazy fellow chooses violence before even thinking of non-violent options.
Jan Oberg

Time and again we heard about the brave US-UK troops fighting to liberate Iraq. The way the adjective “brave” was so liberally attributed, one might be forgiven for thinking that ipso facto invocation of bravery made it so.

In the Far East, communities that host military bases would scoff at this automatic bestowal of valor in the military. There are plenty of civilian victims of criminal acts by American servicemen.

The Japanese government is loath to make public the statistics for crimes committed by US military on its soil. ((“Japan conceals rising crime rate among U.S. servicemen,” Mainichi Shinbun, 24 January 2003: The situation in Japan hit a decided sour point in 1995 when US marines raped a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa. The public outrage on the tiny southern island of Okinawa, which houses the brunt of US forces, was such that in a 1996 referendum Okinawans voted overwhelmingly to have the US military presence reduced on the island. The US and the Japanese authorities ignored this expression of democratic will. The situation is equally grim across the sea in South Korea where about 37,000 US troops are stationed in nearly 100 installations. In the summer of 2002, two Korean schoolgirls, Shim Mi-seon and Shin Hyo-sun, were killed when a US tank drove over them and crushed them underneath. Nobody was convicted in the incident, which exacerbated tepid US-South Korea relations. Angry demonstrations took place and the tragic event may even have tipped the presidential election to Roh Moo-Hyun who took a hard-line campaign stance against the US troop presence. The history of the occupations of both Japan and South Korea offers poignant parallels to present day Iraq.

Santayana’s wisdom unfortunately is relegated to the memory hole; consequently, history in its malefic forms does repeat. Otherwise how can civilized people explain the history of bloodshed and barbarity by Homo sapiens? Atrocities are nothing new to the US. Knowledge of such atrocities is, however, mangled by agitprop, the justice of the victors, chauvinism, and the subsequently skewed rendering of history. As US historian Howard Zinn lamented: “Americans have been taught that their nation is civilized and humane. But, too often, U.S. actions have been uncivilized and inhumane.”

The barbarism of Americans had its roots in European bloodletting. This sociological institution saw US war crimes begin in the “homeland” with the near annihilation of the Indigenous peoples (who in an extreme inversion of language were deemed the “savages”), followed by the extirpation of Africans, millions of who died en route to slavery in America. The Monroe Doctrine saw US hegemony envelop the Americas as its backyard. The Spanish-American War witnessed the beginnings of empire. Over a million Filipinos were slaughtered for having the temerity to oppose empire. The killing spree includes terrible massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, Nogun Ri in Korea, My Lai in Vietnam, and the infamous Turkey Shoot and Highway of Death in the 1991 phase of the Persian Gulf Slaughter. Reports of the Convoy of Death have emerged from Afghanistan detailing how US troops stood by and watched while container-bound and suffocating Taliban prisoners-of-war were shot dead. The juggernaut of US aggression continues unabated up to the latest phase of the aggression on Iraq.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear-not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward it is not a compliment to say it is brave.

— Mark Twain ((In Chapter 12 of Pudd’nhead Wilson, Chapter 12 (1894).))

In this history of violence, a not-to-be-challenged given is the bravery of the US military. President Bush made it known prior to unleashing Shock and Awe on Iraqis that US valor was axiomatic: “The enemies you confront will come to know your skill and bravery.” Mr. Bush affirmed his prognostication afterwards: “They performed with great skill and great bravery.” Whereby Mr. Bush gets off pontificating ex cathedra on bravery is a mystery. This selfsame commander-in-chief ducked service in Vietnam by serving in the National Guard from which he went AWOL. He compounded this inanity with his now infamous “bring ’em on” retort. The remark was described by one ex-soldier “for its counterfeit courage, for its puerility, for its utter hypocrisy and insensitivity.” ((Stan Goff, “Bring ‘Em on Home Now!” Counterpunch, 25 July 2003:

The Progressive Editor Matthew Rothschild trod a cautious line to avoid calling into question the unquestionable American bravery: “Not to detract at all from the bravery of U.S. soldiers today, I only want to point out that the battles of World War II were much bloodier and more dangerous than today’s, when the United States military maintains such overwhelming superiority.” ((Matthew Rothschild, “Bush’s Top Gun Speech,” The Progressive, 2 May 2003:

Politically Correct TV host Bill Maher found out first-hand the price to be paid for questioning the sacrosanctity of the American fighter’s courage:

“Cowardice” as an epithet could be disputed in its application to the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, he said. The term, in fact, was probably a more accurate description of military operations which targeted innocent civilians through cruise missiles fired from thousands of miles away. “We have been the cowards,” said he, “lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it is not cowardly.”

Maher’s reward was a prompt withdrawal of sponsorship and a temporary suspension from the airwaves. Following this, the broadcast company that hosted his programme issued a public apology. And the presenter himself was obliged to don the robes of penitence when he next appeared on TV. Bill Maher is unlikely in future to seek an objective understanding of the terms “courage” and “cowardice,” that is, not unless he is willing to give up his career as a TV personality in the US.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denounced the Maher program at a routine press briefing. Americans, he warned ominously, “had to watch what they say and watch what they do.” This menacing line was excised from the official transcript of Fleischer’s briefing, on the rather feeble ground of “transcription error.” ((SM Menon, “From ‘Infinite Justice’ to ‘Infinite War,'” People’s Democracy, 7 October 2001:

The implications are palpable: US bravery is fact and is not subject to empirical or speculative investigation. Yet by refusing to catechise this valor the media finds itself paradoxically in the role of the coward.

Media accounts, however, contain instances depicting something far less that valor.

Journalist Mark Franchetti wrote a stirring account of US troops facing fierce resistance from Iraqi fighters, who were sometimes out-of-uniform and mingled in with the civilian population. Under fire, the mettle of US soldiers took shape. Lieutenant Matt Martin was distraught over the death of an Iraqi child. Corporal Ryan Dupre was otherwise affected. Said he, “The Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy. I am starting to hate this country. Wait till I get hold of a friggin’ Iraqi. No, I won’t get hold of one. I’ll just kill him.” According to Mr. Franchetti, the battle was “the turning point when the jovial band of brothers from America lost all their assumptions about the war and became jittery aggressors who talked of wanting to ‘nuke’ the place.” ((Mark Franchetti, “US Marines turn fire on civilians at the bridge of death,” The Times [London], 30 March 2003. Available on the CounterPunch website:

Mr. Franchetti described bravery, fear, and hysteria. Without fear there is neither bravery nor cowardice. Iraqi civilians would no longer be allowed close to the US soldiers lest the now nervous fighters shoot them.

When valour preys on reason,
It eats the sword it fights with.

— William Shakespeare ((The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra (1600s), Act III, scene 13, line 199.))

Indiscriminate killing of civilians is a war crime devoid of bravery. Killing of non-combatants illustrates fear gone amok. It might also express the racism or insouciance of the killers.

Washington Post writer Lyndsey Layton described the light-hearted banter among pilots following bombing raids, the oblivion to the results of the bombing, and the refusal “to consider whether bombs have killed civilians.”

“We know we’re killing people,” said Lt. Stan Wilson, 33, who enlisted in the Navy at 18, left to attend college and then rejoined to become a pilot. “We don’t talk about it, don’t worry about it. I don’t know how this sounds, but we’re more selfish than that. I worry about my car payments; the other guys worry about their girlfriends and wives.”

“My job is to hit whatever target I’ve been assigned to hit,” Cmdr. Jeff Penfield, the commanding officer of the Super Hornet squadron, said. “I don’t think about it as human life. I aim at hard things, and if there are people around, I don’t think about it.”

Mr. Layton did acknowledge that some pilots ponder the “moral dilemma of their work.” As an example of this Mr. Layton curiously quoted Cmdr. Dale Horan, 39, the squad’s top officer who offered: “I reflect on it on a daily basis, I want to do well.”

But Cmdr. Horan added: “I get excited when I’m successful and my bomb hits the target. But we’re expending precious treasure — blood and lives as well as equipment and money.” Seemingly the killing of people has been rationalized by equating the price in human lives to the costly weapons of death. ((Lyndsey Layton, “Causing Death and Destruction, but Never Seeing It,” Washington Post, 3 April 2003:

Medical personnel on the ground have confirmed the civilian carnage. Samia Nakhoul of the Daily Mirror reported:

Doctors who treated victims of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and the 1991 Gulf War were taken aback by the injuries. Dr Duleimi, 48, said: “This is the worst I’ve seen in the number of casualties and fatal wounds.”

“This is a disaster because they’re attacking civilians.”

Dr Sadek al-Mukhtar said: “In the previous battles the weapons seemed merely disabling. Now they’re much more lethal.”

“Before the war I did not regard America as my enemy. Now I do. War should be against the military. America is killing civilians.” ((Samia Nakhoul, “Boy Bomb Victim Struggles Against Despair,” Daily Mirror, 8 April 2003:

It is easy to be brave from a safe distance.

Aesop Fables ((“The Wolf and the Kid.”))

British coalition members also cited American disdain for Iraqis. Daniel McGory wrote: “The Americans are still behaving like invaders, not liberators. They behave as if they hate these people.”

British commanders are appalled at how the Americans pulverise anything from afar before daring to set foot out of their armoured vehicles. … This was no better illustrated than in the first skirmish of the land war, where the American 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit was handed what should have been the easy capture of the port of Umm Qasr.

Royal Marine officers watched incredulously as their US compatriots bombed and shelled the town for five days. The experience of nearly 30 years policing Ulster has taught British forces that the only way to root out gunmen is to patrol on foot, searching house by house. ((Daniel McGory, “US heavy-handedness baffles British,”, 3 April 2003:,4057,6230427%5E26277,00.html))

It is unlikely British forces would ever succeed in testing the US system of eliminating gunmen in Ulster. Nevertheless, this does encapsulate the level to which US public squeamishness about own-troop casualties has influenced tactics on the battlefield. The Fabian approach to battle is a particularly inimical to supposed US valor. US troops were instead witnesses from a safe distance to an air barrage on the hapless denizens of Umm Qasr.

The status of being a long-distance gladiator doesn’t seem to have punctured the US bravado. Mr. McGory noted how, in the relative security afforded by great distance, US soldiers acted as if war were a game:

The rhetoric of US soldiers is often provocative. An American colonel, asked what the role of the Fifth Corps would be, replied: “We are going in there. We are going to root out the bad guys and kill them.” His men whooped and punched the air as if they were watching a football match. ((Daniel McGory, “US heavy-handedness baffles British,”, 3 April 2003:,4057,6230427%5E26277,00.html“))

Writer George Orwell addressed this behavioral parallel: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.” ((George Orwell, “The Sporting Spirit,” Tribune, December 1945. Available on George Orwell website: Insightful US foreign policy expert Noam Chomsky concurred on the domestic guise sports assumes in inculcating patriotic attitudes to its warriors. “Sports plays a societal role in engendering jingoist and chauvinist attitudes. They’re designed to organize a community to be committed to their gladiators.” ((David Barsamian, “Noam Chomsky,” The Progressive, 1999:

Common experience shows how much rarer is moral courage than physical bravery. A thousand men will march to the mouth of the cannon where one man will dare espouse an unpopular cause.

— Clarence Darrow ((See Clarence Darrow, Closing Arguments: Clarence Darrow on Religion, Law, and Society, Ohio University Press; 1st edition, 2005.))

Gladiators they were. No dime was spared for the Iraqi fighters. The US fighters were most willing to wipe them out. General John Kelly, assistant commander, 1st Marine Division, on Muslim fighters in Iraq was lucid.

“They stand, they fight, sometimes they run when we engage them,” Brigadier-General John Kelly said.

“But often they run into our machine guns and we shoot them down like the morons they are.”

… “They appear willing to die. We are trying our best to help them out in that endeavour,” he said. ((Lindsey Murdoch, “‘We shoot them down like the morons they are’: US general,” Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April 2003:

The killing wasn’t confined to Iraqi soldiers and civilians; the British coalition partners were angry and bitter at casualties inflicted by “friendly fire.” The violence had taken on a certain randomness. Desensitization to killing seems also to corrupt judgment or maybe it was the influence of drugs as in the case of the pilot who killed four Canadians coalition fighters in Afghanistan. British soldiers which came under “friendly fire” had criticism for their coalition partners. UK soldier Lance Corporal Steven Gerrard, wounded by a US pilot, charged: “He had absolutely no regard for human life. I believe he was a cowboy.” Chris Foss of Jane’s Defence Weekly painted the Americans as “too trigger happy.” ((Alan Freeman, “Survivors slam friendly-fire ‘cowboy,‘” Globe and Mail, 1 April 2003.))

Fear to do base, unworthy things is valour.

— Ben Jonson ((In “The New Inn,” Act 4, Scene 4, The Dramatic Works of Ben Jonson, and Beaumont and Fletcher: The First Printed from the Text, p. 589.))

Not only was the killing indiscriminate, but there seemed to be, at times, a perverse pleasure derived from it. Like an athlete hankering after his first score in the big leagues, the soldiers vied for their first kill.

During fierce street-to-street fighting in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Kerbala this weekend, two soldiers picked out two figures on a rooftop and quickly lined up their shot. Thankfully, First Sgt. Eric Engram saw them and also saw their target. “No man, that’s a kid and a woman. It’s a KID and a WOMAN,” he bellowed, and his soldiers lowered their rifles.

“These guys are young and most just want to get their first confirmed kill, so they’re too anxious to get off shots. I hate to say ‘bragging rights’ but they want that kill,” Engram said an hour later, resting in a schoolyard as U.S. army troops finally established control over the area. ((Kieran Murray, “U.S. Troops Struggle to Find Enemy Among Civilians,” Reuters, 6 April 2003:

Racking up kills is not valorous; especially, when the victims are unarmed women or children. Indeed if represents some far more sinister — a fog of killing that has obfuscated morality.

Cowards can never be moral.

— Mohandas Gandhi ((Quoted in Janardan Pandey, Gandhi and Voluntary Organizations, 1998, p. 140.))

Can courage exist in the absence of morality? Can troops that unstintingly obey morally reprehensible commands from higher-ranking officers — which essentially mimics the rejected defence of Adolf Eichmann — properly be portrayed as brave? Is not the greater fear that of disobeying an order? Is it not rather the refusal to carry out orders denigrating humanity that is brave?

Something every big moose in the schoolyard should be aware of is that fighting a small, weak opponent is a no-win situation. If he wins then he is despised as a bully; if he loses then he is humiliated. So why bother to fight? It just so happens that many bullies are not sharp enough to figure this out.

Mr. Bush is also unlikely to be accused of being the brightest cookie. The latest bully-victim mismatch has breached the boundaries of absurdity. Indian activist Arundhati Roy declared the Gulf War Slaughter to be “an act of cowardice that must surely be unrivalled in history.” ((Arundhati Roy, “Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy. Buy One, Get One Free,” Outlook India online, 15 May 2003: Even NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman was forced to admit: “With all due respect to the U.S. military, and the brave men and women who fought here, this contest was surely one of the most unequal wars in the history of warfare. In socioeconomic terms, we were at war with the Flintstones.” ((Thomas Friedman, “Postcard from Iraq,” NY times, 21 May 2003: Given the infinitesimal odds stacked against the war- and sanctions-ravaged Iraq, it is a stunning leap of casuistry for Mr. Bush to declaim that Iraq was an imminent threat to the US hyperimperion.

When the Ba’ath hierarchy and Revolutionary Guard fled, the way was clear for the US military to stride virtually unopposed into Baghdad and establish its occupation. Immediately thereafter the lack of moral clarity in the Washington leadership became most telling. There was no willingness to halt the looting. Some members of the US military even aided the looters and partook themselves. Iraqi society was pillaged to its very core. Its rich history, religious manuscripts, hospitals, schools, and institutions were plundered. For many scholars, especially disturbing was the destruction of Iraq’s irreplaceable ancient treasures and testaments to its heritage as the cradle of civilization. The US-UK occupiers shamefully abrogated their legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions to protect the citizenry and the institutions of society — with the notable exception of the oil sector. It was patently obvious to most observers that oil was the US cynosure, to the detriment of Iraqis who saw their country devolve deeper into chaos. Iraqi goodwill could hardly be expected from greed for their oil.

The occupation soldiers later vented their wrath on the defenceless media that had exposed the US ignominy and on the crowds of Iraqis urging them a quick trip back home. A number of Iraqi civilians demonstrating against the occupation in cities like Fallujah and Mosul were shot dead by US forces.

Shooting of civilians opens US forces to ridicule. Mark Steel wrote:

For example, one American soldier, interviewed after his regiment shot dead 14 demonstrating Iraqis, said his regiment was under attack, adding: “It was like the Alamo out there.” Yet not a single US soldier or US thing of any nature was dented by a bullet.

Or maybe the soldier was telling the truth, and at the Alamo the Americans came under siege from a terrifying horde of Mexicans carrying placards. And their leader cried: “Abandon the fort, amigo, or you leave us with no choice but to chant slogans. And I warn you, I have the fastest megaphone in Texas.” ((Mark Steel, “Truth, Lies and Weapons of Mass Destruction,” The Independent, 29 May 2003:

It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, — always do what you are afraid to do.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson ((In Essays, First Series 1841.))

The military has evolved and so has the military culture. The military culture has become increasingly permissive to the deliberate targeting of facilities with civilians and otherwise exposing civilians to danger.

Most people are averse to the taking of life but this aversion can be overcome. Military training seeks to deindividualize enlistees. Through psychological conditioning military norms are substituted for norms previously held by enlistees. Nonetheless each soldier brings his or her own idiosyncrasies which factor into what kind of soldier he or she will become; these idiosyncrasies are shaped by society and military training.” The actions of the soldier are further constrained by public acceptability.

Vietnam adduced that public opinion could shape the war. Public antipathy to the deaths of American youth finally rose to such a level that it led to the US defeat. US administration officials knew that Vietnam Syndrome had to be dealt with in future violence. Aggression and its resolution had to be swift. American casualties had to be minimized and this was achieved through the introduction of new high-tech weaponry that enabled long distance bombing of the enemy, reducing the need for ground troops; casualties of the enemy are neglected. Propaganda became an increasingly important tool in overcoming public resistance to war.

Assumption of Valor Challenged

There is a fundamental difference in the makeup of the US military today. Whereas the military used to be a primarily volunteer force, with some coming by way of draft, today it is professional. Recruitment is based more on financial reward and less on patriotism. Former military man Charles Carlson writes of a resulting intelligence dip in what he terms the “all-mercenary army.”

Mr. Carlson maintains that the volunteer soldiers of before would have been too clever to go along with a “war on Islam.” The paid soldiery is beholden to the administration in Washington and less able and likely to refuse.” The valor called upon is also qualitatively different. Carlson points out: “Vietnam patriots die without a price when they are convinced they are needed. Mercenaries are now deployed in safe non-combat actions so they will sign up for another tour.” ((Charles E. Carlson, “Out From Its Cocoon, the All Professional Military,” Information Clearing House, 16 May 2003: Mr. Carlson’s disparaging rendering of present day servicemen and women is a little unfair. Ms. Roy pointed out that today’s US military is a “poverty draft of poor whites, Blacks, Latinos and Asians looking for a way to earn a living and get an education.” ((Arundhati Roy, “Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy. Buy One, Get One Free,” Outlook India online, 15 May 2003: When one compares the composition of the armed services to that of the general population it becomes apparent that the never-ending War on Terrorism is being fought by a disproportionately high number of minorities to fill the coffers of the true cowards: the immoral white men ensconced in the boardrooms of America.

To sweepingly impugn the bravery of the men and the women in the armed services would be wrongheaded. The Persian Gulf Slaughter was conceived in cowardice. It was the scheme of a greedy White House cabal commonly referred to as chickenhawks because few of them had ever served in war. The troops are pawns in a grand power play just as are the Iraqi people. The real bravery was to refuse the mission on moral grounds. But unfortunately most of the troops were probably convinced of the righteousness of the mission against part of Mr. Bush’s axis of evil.

The American public is complicit by its gullibility and acquiescence. US citizens enjoy some of the best civil rights and privileges in the world. As Mr. Zinn’s A People’s History of the Unites States reveals, these rights came about through long and hard struggle. ((Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the Unites States: 1492-Present, (Perennial Classics, 1999).)) The Washington cabal is in the process of stripping these hard-won rights. The “land of the free and the home of the brave” has become a little less so. There was little outrage at the theft of the 2000 election; there was barely a whimper at the sacrifice of civil rights after 9-11; there is only background grumbling to a slew of corporate crimes and the government largess of tax cuts going preponderantly to the wealthy. The chickenhawks with supine media personalities in tow induced a fear unique in the world to Americans of an imminent Iraqi attack. Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad charged that Americans are now “afraid of their own shadows.” ((AFP, “US warning shows it is ‘afraid of its own shadow’: Mahathir,” Yahoo! News, 16 May 2003: Gore Vidal pointed out the epistemological chasm that Americans find themselves in. “Americans are not stupid — but we are ignorant.” ((“Gore Vidal on the “United States of Amnesia,” 9/11, the 2000 Election and the War in Iraq,” Democracy Now, 13 May 2003: The chickenhawks repeated a litany of lies to cower the American people and steal Iraq’s resources.

In the face of atrocities, however, true bravery can emerge. The unimaginable horror of My Lai should have lain to rest once and for all the routine bestowal of valor on American soldiers. In the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai American infantry were raping, torturing, and executing hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese women, children, and the elderly. Lt. Hugh Thompson with crewmates Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta had the courage to set their helicopter between US infantry and fleeing villagers and defy the superior officer on the ground Lt. William Calley. Up to 80 of Lt. Calley’s men participated in the horror at My Lai. Yet Lt. Calley was the only man ever convicted in the My Lai Massacre and served only days of a life sentence. President Richard Nixon later pardoned him.

There is little to suggest the lessons of My Lai have been learned. Bob Graham reporting in the Evening Standard from Baghdad writes of the occupying forces:

At first glance they appear to be the archetypal Band of Brothers of Hollywood myth, brave and honest men united in common purpose.

But a closer look at these American GIs, sweltering in the heat of an unwelcoming Iraq, reveals the glazed eyes and limp expressions of those who have witnessed a war they do not understand and have begun to resent. By their own admission these American soldiers have killed civilians without hesitation, shot wounded fighters and left others to die in agony. ((Bob Graham, “I just pulled the trigger,” Evening Standard, 19 June 2003:

Stanford University psychology professor Lee Ross cautions: “Don’t assume that people who commit atrocities are atrocious people, or people who do heroic things are heroic.” ((Quoted in Mickey Z., “Where We Are,” Dissident Voice, 9 June 2003:

In a personal communication, an American navy serviceman, who had served in the 1991 phase of the Persian Gulf Slaughter, admitted knowing beforehand that the war was about oil. He knew it was wrong and yet he served. To praise all soldiers, even who serve contrary to their conscience, as heroes reinforces a rationale for unwavering obedience to militaristic doctrine. This rationale must be refuted. To carry out immoral acts and execute wrong orders is not courageous. To reject such orders is rather bravery. This is best exemplified by the refuseniks in Israel, who refuse military service in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. These conscientious objectors are languishing in prisons for having the courage of their convictions.

The unquestioned assumption of bravery is a disservice to the men and women in uniform. The mere conferral of bravery diminishes its true manifestation. Furthermore valor cannot be considered in a vacuum. It must be contemplated with morality, for it is the sense of morality that is the fillip for courageous behavior.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.