During the Vietnam War, a U.S. major justified bombing and shelling civilian areas in Bến Tre by saying “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” This statement evolved into the famous phrase “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” This quote explains a litany of state actions. Government officials and their supporters embrace a mindset of humanitarian imperialism and justify violence against innocent people, claiming that it is necessary to save those they brutalize.
This mindset is most obvious during wars of aggression euphemistically termed “humanitarian interventions.” For example, the U.S. government fired depleted uranium at Iraqi civilian areas in the name of “Iraqi Freedom.” This process of “liberating” Iraq also involved thousands of civilian casualties, as well as torture of detainees.
In order to fulfill their “responsibility to protect” Libyan civilians from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s violence, Western governments bombed civilians. This “responsibility to protect” also apparently entailed supporting forces that engaged in mass executions of political enemies and arbitrarily arrested and abused black Africans based on their race.
Similar dynamics apply to the U.S. government’s war in Afghanistan. While this invasion was largely in response to the 9/11 attacks, many commentators also supported it as a means to save Afghan women. The Feminist Majority Foundation, for example, has supported NATO interventions in Afghanistan. Feminists who actually live in Afghanistan, such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), oppose these interventions. They note that the Feminist Majority Foundation’s talk of “peacekeeping forces” is a euphemism, and in reality “coalition troops are combat forces and are there to fight a war, not to preserve peace. Not even the Pentagon uses that language to describe U.S. forces there.” Furthermore, they argue that “Waging war does not lead to the liberation of women anywhere. Women always disproportionately suffer the effects of war, and to think that women’s rights can be won with bullets and bloodshed is a position dangerous in its naïveté.”
This desire to save people by using force against them is particularly pernicious in foreign policy, but it also poisons domestic policy. Many vice laws are examples of this phenomenon. To save people from getting addicted to dangerous drugs, governments wage a wildly disproportionate War on Drugs. Peaceful people languish in prison for decades. People of color are stopped and frisked on the streets of New York. Militarized police invade people’s homes in the middle of the night. All for what? To prevent individuals from making unhealthy choices? To protect people from getting addicted to drugs? That’s destroying the village in order to save it.
Or take prostitution. Prostitution is prohibited largely in the name of protecting women from being exploited, sexually abused, and trafficked. But the reality is that criminalization enables violence against women. Police have been known to sexually harass, assault, and even rape sex workers. According to INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, “Extortion of sexual acts in exchange for avoiding arrest or further violence, public strip searches, physical violence, as well as overtly sexist homophobic, racist and transphobic verbal abuse of sex workers by police officers is an all too common experience for indoor and street-based sex workers.” Criminalization also deters sex workers from reporting acts of violence to the police. In some jurisdictions, sexual health is put at risk as police use possession of condoms as evidence against suspected sex workers.
All of these destructive and violent policies are examples of paternalism. It’s time to realize that we can’t save people by coercing them. It’s time to realize that we don’t protect people by violently controlling them. It’s time to realize that we don’t have to destroy the village in order to save it.