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[Published in Slate, Nov. 2, 2001]

Moral Equivalence 
By Robert Wright

How many Afghan civilians is the life of one American soldier worth? There is no official Bush administration answer to that question, but there is an unofficial one, implied by American military strategy: It's better to kill numerous Afghan civilians than to lose a single American in uniform.

This answer is reflected in various aspects of American strategy: dropping bombs from way up high, where pilots are safe but (in some cases) more likely to send bombs astray; refusing so far to give the Northern Alliance the kind of ultra-close air support—including surgically lethal but vulnerable attack helicopters—that might bring the war to a close more quickly, thus reducing the number of Afghans who die from bombing or starvation; and refusing so far to deploy even special-operations ground troops in a highly risky fashion that might hasten the war's end.

That President Bush values the life of an American soldier over that of an Afghan civilian is not surprising. He's the American president, a job description that is bound to bias his calculus. Still, there must be some moral limit on the conversion factor of Afghan civilians to American soldiers. Nuking Afghanistan to kill Osama Bin Laden, for example, wouldn't meet with the approval of most Americans.

So what is that limit? Obviously, reasonable people will disagree. Still, that no Americans have died in combat inside Afghanistan—after three weeks of war, during which taking risks could have yielded real strategic gains—signifies an extreme, almost fetishistic, aversion to American casualties. And the fact that the civilian death toll is scores and climbing suggests a quite different attitude toward the lives of Afghans. (This second fact is especially striking in light of the marginal nature of some of the bombing targets—buildings that were once used by the Taliban but are now almost certainly empty.)

Maybe President Bush is exhibiting not moral bias but a lack of political courage. Post-Vietnam presidents have shown an intense fear of American casualties. In his galvanizing speech before Congress in September, President Bush said he was going to break with that tradition. In what might be interpreted as a slap at President Clinton's manhood, Bush said the Afghanistan war would "not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat." Yet so far Bush has conducted this war with roughly the risk aversion that Clinton showed. And, unlike Clinton, he has an American public that, according to recent polls, is willing to accept thousands of American casualties. Also unlike Clinton, he has a geopolitical environment in which "collateral damage" is spreading waves of lethal hatred around the world and in which a war that lasts months rather than weeks will intensify that hatred and endanger friendly political regimes, such as Pakistan's.

When Bill Maher said that America lacks the courage to put soldiers at risk, the Bush administration essentially called him un-American and suggested it was time for a national campaign of self-censorship. But the administration has yet to prove Maher wrong.

I'm willing to accept the more charitable interpretation of our astonishingly risk-averse military strategy to date: that Bush is beset not by political fear but by moral anguish at the thought of fellow Americans perishing. But is even that interpretation very flattering? As I said, any American president would show some bias toward American lives, and there's no consensus on how much bias is morally acceptable. Still, in a sense, much of what this war is about—much of what America is fighting for—is the belief that steeply discounting the lives of foreigners is evil.

Osama Bin Laden believes in steep discounting. If you asked him why he killed thousands of people, he would almost surely say that their deaths were not his ultimate goal. He would say his goal was to get America's attention, to deliver a kind of punishment that would alter future behavior. The deaths, he might even say, were "collateral damage"—a peripheral consequence, inextricable from a strategy that is in the service of goals he deems good.

And our beef with him isn't about the goodness of his goals. We don't believe that, say, wanting U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia is inherently evil. We don't even believe that wanting every human being to be a Muslim is evil. (Millions of Americans want every human being to be a Christian.) It is Bin Laden's means that are evil—his belief that massive collateral damage is acceptable in the pursuit of one's political goals.

We supposedly disagree. But if, by the end of winter, our war has led to the deaths of thousands of Afghans—some by bombing, most by starvation—how strong will our case be? The ongoing conflict around Mazar-e-Sharif alone, U.N. officials say, could lead to massive starvation before long. The United States has throughout the war encouraged the Northern Alliance to take that city, but so far has not really put American lives on the line to help it do so.

One argument against the comparison I'm drawing is obvious: We, unlike Bin Laden, never deliver a bomb with the intention of killing a civilian. That's a valid distinction. Still, Donald Rumsfeld has said that some collateral damage is bound to happen. So, like Bin Laden, we launched a war knowing that it entailed civilian deaths; the deaths were inseparable from a strategy justified by a goal we deemed good, so we proceeded to cause them.

Another argument against my comparison is also obvious. Actually, it isn't an argument so much as a label. The claim would be that I'm positing "moral equivalence" between George Bush and Osama Bin Laden. This phrase (like the charge of "appeasement," which is also getting applied to critics of this war) is basically designed to end rational discussion.

Let me pre-emptively strike at this pre-emptive strike by mentioning just one of the various senses in which there isn't moral equivalence between George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden. The war in Afghanistan comes in retaliation for the murder of thousands of people—murder not just in the eyes of almost every thinking person on the planet, but in the eyes of international law. Osama Bin Laden can't make the same claim about the American behavior that led to his "retaliation."

Still, as we conduct a war that is in principle morally defensible (even if, as I argued before it began, it could well prove counterproductive), let's at least try to keep it defensible in practice.

Maybe the best way to make my point is by historical perspective. For most of human history, most peoples have believed in the very steep discounting of foreign lives. Aristotle, according to Plutarch, advised Alexander the Great to treat non-Greeks "as though they were plants or animals." Two thousand years after this advice was given, Europeans were still treating some foreigners—native Americans, for example—as though they were plants or animals.

In the modern world, we don't talk the way Aristotle did. America is a morally universalistic nation, believing that all people, regardless of race, creed, or nationality, are human beings and deserve respect. (This belief, embedded in the logic of global commerce, is perhaps the strongest defense of globalization.) Osama Bin Laden doesn't share this belief. He massively devalues people's lives based on their religion, or on their residing in a country whose government he dislikes. He is a relic of a primitive moral age that humanity, after scores of millenniums, has finally started to crawl out of.

This is fundamentally what we're fighting about: moral universalism, the idea that no person, by virtue of religion or race or nationality, is better than any other person; the idea that casually devaluing people's lives in the pursuit of your political goals is wrong. At least, that is the claim I'd make on our behalf. But the higher the number of dead Afghan civilians—and the higher the ratio of that number to the number of dead American soldiers—the less plausible the claim, and the closer we come to being the moral equivalent of Osama Bin Laden. That we'll never get all the way there strikes me as meager consolation. 

Robert Wright, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Moral Animal and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.