Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Something that seems to be a part of many conversations, but rarely explicitly so, is the question: How many Americans should die in order to achieve the fill in the blank goal? A parallel is the question: What is the value of an American life as compared to the value of a non-American life.

It's part of discussions about the movie Tears of the Sun - how many Americans should die in order to prevent death elsewhere in the world, about discussions of the potential collateral damagefrom an attack on Iraq - how many Americans should die in order to prevent death to non-arms bearing Iraqis. It even seems to be part of Bush's rationale for attacking Iraq - we're willing to cause X number of Iraqi deaths in order to prevent Y number of American deaths in a future terrorist attack.

Now, I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that most Americans feel that American lives are more valuable than those who live in other countries, and that citizens of some countries rate higher than others. I know there are those who feel all innocent life is equally valuable. But if the innocent life at risk was that of their wife, husband or child, would they feel the same way? Remember the movie Air Force One? Harrison Ford plays the US President who refuses to negotiate with terrorists - until it is his child that is held by the terrorists.

It seems logical that we would extend this feeling to that of Americans as a whole. We're family, albeit a very extended, sometimes fractious, family. I'm sure much has been written about this elsewhere, so I doubt I have anything further to add on this point.

While we feel this way, we nonetheless don't feel comfortable expressing these thoughts openly. I'm not sure why. It just doesn't seem right to do so. But is not discussing this a bit like not discussing the nutty aunt, the alcoholic brother-in-law, or the raging lunatic in the office next to you? Polite society may pretend they don't exist, but everybody knows they are there, and we all know that polite society is just deluding itself.

There's also the issue of how exactly to put values on the different factors. For me, to paraphrase the commercial, to save my kids, priceless. For others, who knows? Perhaps some Nobel-winning economist or philosopher may have already written extensively on this and come up with some very well-thought out values. Absent that, and SOLELY for the sake of discussion, let's use the following values (which may change upon further reflection):

US citizen: 50 points

US military: 47.5 points

Citizen of a 'Friend of the US' country (England, Spain, Israel, for example): 25 points

Citizen of a 'Not acting like a friend, yet not totally hostile' country : (Germany and France, for example, and for the time being): 20 points

Citizen of a country that we just don't have a lot of experience with: 8 points

US Human shields: 5 points

Non US citizen human shield: 0 points (sorry, I just don't care)

Innocent (non-arms bearing) citizen of a hostile country: 4 points

Those wishing for the US to 'get its butt kicked' (Tom Robbins, Chrissie Hynde): 1/2 point each

You can see I've decided to distinguish between US soldiers, who did all volunteer, and regular US citizens - although, there's something in my head that says that our soldiers, who have volunteered to risk their lives to protect mine, should instead receive bonus points.

Using this formula (use your own values, if you would like), battle strategists might employ an approach that would lead to the deaths of 12 Iraqis in order to save the life of 1 US soldier. Or, a field commander, in order to save the lives of 2 US tank crews (crew of 4 per tank, right?), a total of 380 points, might order an attack on an anti-tank battery that was located near the site of an apartment building surrounded by human shields that could cause the death of up to 10 shields (50 points) and 83 Iraqi citizens (332 points).

Using the above formula would argue that it's worth slightly more than 1 American combat death to save the live of 1 American citizen - seems about right. To avoid another Sept 11th, where there were over 3,000 deaths (assuming all were Americans), it would be appropriate to cause the deaths of over 37,000 Iraqis. To avoid a chemical Sept 11th, where 10,000 Americans might die, up to 125,000 Iraqis might die.

I know that I'm going with a very simple version of the model. I'm not factoring in calculations of the wounded, property damage (1 US aircraft is equal to how many Iraqi apartment units?), distinctions between kids and adults (do kids get a 10%, 20% boost?), distinctions between pro- and anti-American residents of other countries, and so on.

Looking back at Tears of the Sun, there were 7 American soldiers, a total of 332 1/2 points at risk. They had to choose between safely getting out of the country by themselves or staying and trying to save the villagers. Using the above values, they would need to save the lives of more than 42 refugees. I don't recall the actual number of villagers, but 42 seems to be around the right number referenced in the movie. Of course, since some of the villagers were able to participate in their own defense, bonus points are to be awarded. Based on the formula, it looks like the US team made the right choice.

(UPDATE) The more I think of this, the colder it seems. A friend described it as the 'playing God' board game. Yet, while putting people in categories along with a point scale does seem cold, is it really that much different from what people in policy making positions do all the time, even if only subconsciously?

(UPDATE II) After writing this, it occured to me that many people in this country would put a much lower value on the lives of Americans, whether military or not, and a much higher value on the lives of people elsewhere in the world, perhaps even to the point at which an Iraqi life was valued higher than that of an American, either civilian or soldier. Is this the point at which charges of anti-Americanism are justified?