The Web site WikiLeaks.org recently released a video of a 2007 U.S. Army attack in Baghdad that included among its victims two Reuters news agency employees, several would-be rescuers of the dead and dying, and two children.
The video depicts U.S. soldiers agitating for permission to shoot, then gunning down civilians and laughing as tanks run over dead bodies. To some, this suggests that prosecution of the soldiers is called for.
Josh Steiber sees it differently.
"I urge you to be slow to judge those who are trapped in these [war] machines and ask yourself if you did or didn't do anything to create this trap," he wrote on the Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site. "The high number of soldiers that I deployed with, including my friends whose voices and images are in this chilling video, wanted to improve the lives of their friends, families and their own futures."
Before Steiber became a conscientious objector, he was a member of the Bravo Company 2-16, depicted in the video. Although Steiber was not a part of the mission that day, he understands the soldiers' perspective in a way most of us cannot.
"The Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes once said, 'War should be made a crime, and those who instigate it should be punished as criminals.'"
"If you want to keep things like this from happening, stop screaming at soldiers who are fighting in a war that most Americans advocated to begin with," he wrote.
Instead, Steiber urged, we should "demand political and military leaders re-examine the system that creates the callousness displayed in this video or the huge amount of our national budget that we pay for this thriving military system."
In a telephone interview last week, Steiber brought up a portion of the video where the soldiers learned that their victims had included the two children.
"I heard the soldier say, 'Well, it's their own fault for bringing kids into battle,' and I heard a little bit of the struggle in his voice, along with the quick excuse," said Steiber, who recognized the voices of his colleagues on the tape. "There is more struggle with this among the military than people realize."
Steiber's point is that the casualties of war include not just Iraqis and Afghans, but also idealistic young American men and women. A Rand Corporation study showed that almost one in five U.S. military service members return from Iraq and Afghanistan reporting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, a finding which conjures up the sad legacy of mental health damage suffered by many Vietnam War veterans.
The Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes once said, "War should be made a crime, and those who instigate it should be punished as criminals."
Justice Hughes' challenge was rhetorical, but it lines up with Steiber's message. We should direct our judgment not toward the battlefield, where young Americans are accused of barbaric acts, but toward the halls of Washington, where politicians create battlefields designed to turn young Americans into barbarians.
"If we are shocked by this video, and I definitely think we should be, we need to look to the top to see who is responsible," Steiber says.
Fran Quigley is a Visiting Professor of Law at the Indiana University School of Law--Indianapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.