Dying for Democracy

More people have died in the name of ideology than religion.  A contemporary truism.  Prior to the 21st century historians and statisticians would have been hard pressed to render evidence sufficient to make this case.  Then we had Hitler, Stalin and Mao.  And a growing global population that made travesty on a grand-scale relatively simple.[i]

Quite bluntly, there are just more bystanders waiting to die.

Flag of United States of America flutters in the winds in mild sunset light, independence day of America

Horrendous thought…until you do the homework.  Population centers with millions of residents are more likely to suffer mass-casualty incidents than open deserts or large tracks of farmland.  This is another truism one can take to the bank or your next cocktail party.

All of which helps explain the disaster that is modern Iraq and Syria.  The innocents Assad and his minions fail to kill almost certainly will be fodder for al-Baghdadi and his jihadi horde.

Unless the Americans get there first.

Americans like to think of themselves as a moderating force for modern society.  Please overlook the fact we are the only nation to have dropped not one, but two, nuclear devices on civilian populations—even Stalin can’t make that claim.

Certainly, then, the words and gestures of our forefathers compensate for such barbarity.

Think of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence.  Just make haste in reading through his thoughts on actions required to preserve democracy. To quote the man: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

How reassuring, unless you happen to be one of those patriots or tyrants.  Or, worse yet, your family and innocent associates get caught in the crossfire.

Perhaps we should seek solace with perceptively less volatile thinkers.  Abraham Lincoln comes to mind.  The second line of his Gettysburg Address suggests a soul tortured by the loss of human life:

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.


Great material until one realizes Lincoln served as commander in chief for a conflict that took the lives of an estimated 750,000 men—roughly 2% of the entire American population.  Civilian losses are pegged at 50,000.[ii]

Things get no better when we race forward a century.   Here is Barry Goldwater during his nomination acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention.  “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”  A sad edict apparently still taken to heart with today’s American military targeteers.

I have watched with dismay the battle for western Mosul.  Not because I fear the Islamic State will begin to collapse upon itself should the city be overrun by a coalition of US, Iraqi and militia forces, but from a dread anticpation we have yet to fully comprehend the horror of war when innocents are caught in the middle.

Two hundred women, men and children killed in a single airstrike and the best American commanders can offer is:  “we probably had a role in these casualties.”[iii]  A sad indictment of civility and society being exchanged for “democracy.”

Alas, in the Middle East this is not the first time, nor will it likely be the last American military might has brought death and devastation to civilians unlikely to ever realize that bit of ideology.  Authoritarian regimes are the historic and future normal for these people.  Ask the 400 Iraqis who died in a bomb shelter back in February 1991—when we began this now three-decade long war on dictatorship and Islamic extremism.[iv]

Dying or killing in the name of democracy is no way to make a living.  It only justifies the behavior of al-Baghdadi and his operational commanders.  We may win back the city of Mosul, but at what cost—and to the benefit of whose ideology?

Echoes of “hearts and minds”…”hearts and minds”….

Life imitates Osiris.


[i] For instance see:  Benjamin Valentino, Spring 2000, “Final solutions: The causes of mass killing and genocide,” Security Studies, Vol 9, Number 3, pp 1-59; or, Martin Shaw, 2003, War and Genocide: Organized Killing in Modern Society.


[ii] For the most current work on this problem see:  https://discovere.binghamton.edu/news/civilwar-3826.html

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/28/world/middleeast/iraq-american-airstrike-mosul.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news.   See also: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/24/world/middleeast/us-iraq-mosul-investigation-airstrike-civilian-deaths.html?action=click&contentCollection=Middle%20East&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article

[iv] Nora Boustany, 14 Feb 1991, “Bombs Killed Victims as They Slept,” Washington Post. Page A1.