[NOTE: This was written in 1992, so the "Gulf War" mentioned is the First Gulf War. I recently heard or read a quote by someone that made a distinction relevant to this essay: "Innocence is not necessarily the opposite of guilt. Innocence can also be the opposite of wisdom."]
A letter from Lionel Abel in the New York Times Book Review, 10/18/92, comments on a review in the 9/20/92 issue of Hannah Arendt-Karl Jaspers Correspondence, 1926-1969. The writer is astounded that Jaspers could have written to Arendt about her Holocaust writing, "beware of the false inhuman innocence of the victims."
"What is false or inhuman about the victims of the Holocaust?" he asks.
I think the writer misread the meaning of the statement. It is innocence, not the victim, that is false and inhuman. If you insist that a killing is more morally repugnant because the victim is innocent, you are implying that, contrary to the fifth commandment, there is such a thing as justified killing of the guilty. But a guilt judgement requires a judge. The Germans judged that the Jews were guilty of being vermin. Insisting on the innocence of an entire people is just as false and inhuman as insisting on the guilt of an entire people.*
Last year, at the end of the Gulf War over Kuwait, I spoke with George Gelescinskyj, an electronic technician I've known and worked with for many years. George was born in the Ukraine which, in the 1940s, was invaded first by the Russians and then the Germans. He was barely a teenager when the Russians killed his father, who built churches. His mother sent George off into the woods, where he was found by a hermit, who also taught him how to tell when someone was entering or leaving the woods. He then traveled with a band of gypsies until he was captured by the Germans. He was young, strong and healthy, so they brought him to Berlin, where, along with other prisoners, he had to clean up debris in the streets even while the Allied bombs were falling. After WWII, he was put in a Displaced Persons camp, where he was somehow reunited with his mother, and they came to the U.S. He's my expert on survival under adverse conditions, and his experiences have given him an excellent sense of when people are spouting bullshit.
I talked to George about how the news media ignored the 100,000 Iraqis killed by us in the bombing campaign. I added, "and most of them were civilians -- innocent victims."
His answer broadened my view: "In war, all victims, even the soldiers, are innocent victims."
*[Note added 1/18/2009: A New Yorker article (Jan. 12, 2009, pp. 62-68) titled Beware of Pity: Hannah Arendt and the Power of the Impersonal by Adam Kirsch, quotes Arendt's response to the accusations of a critic named Gershom Scholem that Arendt lacked "love of the Jewish people":
"You are quite right -- I am not moved by any 'love' of this sort....I have never in my life 'loved' any people or collective.... I indeed love 'only' my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons."]