The idea of war is an abstraction. Its justification entails an emotionally surcharged logic detached from the battlefield. The decision to go to war is not a strictly rational choice, nor is it easily rationalized when we are confronted with the horrific violence of actual warfare.
Coping with the carnage takes various forms. Looking away is one strategy. Embracing it as necessary and unavoidable is another. Valorizing it is a third. Deploring it makes war more difficult to sustain. Attributing it to the enemy dissociates it from us.
The strategy of dissociation sanitizes indirectly the brutality of our own weapons and tactics by directing attention exclusively to the enemy’s savagery. It insinuates the premise that war is not inherently horrific (regardless of who is fighting whom). We subconsciously draw a collective sigh of relief.
Apart from what Islamic State propagandists might intend, we readily interpret their graphic videos of brutal executions in a way that distances our side from war’s brutality. This seems to be the case even if the enemy propagandist attempts to draw a parallel between our violence and theirs.
Why did the Islamic State burn to death a captured Jordanian pilot? One academic who “forced himself to watch the video” observed that it featured an image of fire, including the charred corpses of children victimized by the missiles of “crusader” fighter jets. The logic of an eye for an eye, retribution by fire, was the message of the captured pilot’s execution. (Reported by Terrence McCoy and Adam Taylor, Washington Post)
The point of the pilot’s immolation—if that is the message—is lost on us. So far as we are concerned, it is just further evidence of their barbarity. They are savages and we, by implication, are civilized. Whether we peek at the video or simply go by what our news media report, we see them—not us, too—perpetrating horrific violence, as if warfare might be otherwise.