History Lesson: What Is Civilized Warfare?

September 11, 2013, 9:29 am

Louis FieserLast night’s editorial by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell was one of the most powerful and riveting indictments of American war crimes I have ever seen on television (video below the jump.) In under nine minutes, O’Donnell gave the public a history lesson about napalm that nearly made me weep with envy. He began with the invention of napalm at Harvard University by chemistry professor Louis Fieser (whose proposal to develop jellied gasoline got him off a poison gas project) during World War II, and described its deliberate and extensive deployment against German and Japanese civilians in World War II. O’Donnell ended with the banning of this horrific weapon, manufactured in the United States by Dow Chemical, following domestic and global condemnation of its extensive use by the United States in Vietnam. The United Nations passed the ban in 1980; the United States did not sign it until Barack Obama became president in 2009.

O’ Donnell described, without sensationalism, how napalm kills. It clings to the skin and burns right through to the bone, if you are wondering, but it also generates such incredible heat (up to 800 degrees fahrenheit) that to be in the vicinity of napalm is to risk being baked to death. Or, as O’Donnell pointed out, “you can be killed by suffocation. You can be killed simply by breathing in carbon monoxide poison.” If you go to the Wikipedia page, you will see that napalm works so well because it not only burns everything it touches, like gas, it flows down into fox holes — and the underground shelters where civilians will usually try to take shelter from bombing raids.

Napalm was the centerpiece of a story in which O’Donnell directly raised the question of US policymakers and journalists condemnation of the “uncivilized” weapon of sarin gas, and their claims that it kills in a peculiarly horrible way. Compared to being burned or baked alive in a napalm strike, or dying over the course of weeks from septic wounds and without pain relief (as many Syrians are), O’Donnell argued, gas kills in a matter of minutes or hours. “How do we judge the quality of death in warfare?” O’Donnell asked. “By the elapsed time from initial wound to death? By the pain level? I don’t think there’s a reasonable way to make that evaluation.”

O’Donnell was not saying that sarin gas was a legitimate weapon: only that no tactic of war is civilized, and that the American public should not be fooled that any act of war against the Assad regime will not bring terrible suffering on civilians. “The red line suggests that there are civilized and uncivilized ways of death in war,” he concluded. “But war is not civilized.  War is the breakdown of civilization.”

Coda: If you have made it down this far you get today’s bonus: complaints about MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who I saw a lot of last night as I watched coverage of the President’s speech. Reasons to like Chris? He’s very smart, and he says breathtakingly intelligent things that you can’t imagine anyone saying on television. I used to be on of the “Uppers” who times my morning workout to see his weekend show.

Reasons to want Chris off the air? He doesn’t. Stop. Talking.

It’s embarassing. Last night, with two distinguished women guests on air, he interrupted them and talked over them repeatedly. This is not Fox News, dude! And one of those women was your former boss and patron, Katrina vanden HeuvelEarlier in the evening, on a panel of five, he repeatedly hogged the stage for paragraph after paragraph of chatter. Is he doing this because he is nervous about his plummeting audience? Probably. But he has also become that kid, the one whose hand is always in the air, and whose only objective for taking your class seems to be to prove that he is smarter than the other students. And smarter than the teacher too!

Suggestion? Chris needs to watch The Newsroom and pattern himself after Jeff Daniels.


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